California Dreamin' Big Opportunities Still Beckon in California, Though It's More for the Already Successful

By Shribman, David M | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

California Dreamin' Big Opportunities Still Beckon in California, Though It's More for the Already Successful


Shribman, David M, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


SAN FRANCISCO

California still produces 90 percent of the country's avocados, 91 percent of its grapes and 92 percent of its plums and prunes. Four out of five almonds produced on Earth are grown here. But the growth that made California a cultural leader as well as an agricultural leader is over.

Throughout its history, California has been a magnet for those who wanted to start over, start a business, start a trend - or just to startle the people, especially the parents back home. It was the place for big dreams and big opportunities, big riches, big ideas, big houses, big highway systems and big hits (and, sometimes, big financial busts) in the movie and recording businesses. More recently the emphasis has been on big data.

But the state that now accounts for one in eight Americans - a coastal megastate with 38 million people, about the size of the entire United States when Ulysses S. Grant was president and bigger than Canada today - is slowing down. In the last three years its growth, which customarily far exceeded the rate across the country, has settled down to about the national rate, with people pouring out of the state and into Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

This is a compelling demographic story, to be sure, but it is an even more important cultural phenomenon. And it reflects economic conditions on the ground that have created, more than ever, two Californias.

One is a wealthy coastal California, basically the footprint of Spanish California from 1769 to 1882 and Mexican California from 1822 to 1846, stretching from San Diego north through San Francisco and into suburban Marin County. The other is an inland California that is economically deprived and politically embattled.

"We have a Mediterranean paradise in the Bay area," says James S. Fay, a retired political scientist at California State East Bay, "and an economic drought and very hard times in other parts of the state."

This reflects national trends, which isn't surprising because national trends almost always start here or are starker here. A state that pioneered progressivism in the beginning of the 20th century and modern conservatism in the second third of the last century is living out the divide between rich and poor - and the crisis of the middle class - in ways that are more dramatic than elsewhere but that might be heralds of what will happen elsewhere.

This city (and Silicon Valley just south of here) stands as a graphic example, a time-lapse-photography example of how the economic divide is growing in ever-changing California.

For generations San Francisco was a bohemian magnet congenial to, in turn, socialism, labor activism, literary daring, drug abuse, cultural escape and digital innovation. Today monthly rents for small apartments here are roughly the same as the price of a serviceable used car in the Midwest.

"California is not an alternative place to live anymore," says Kevin Starr, a University of Southern California historian and former state librarian who has written a celebrated seven-volume history of the state. "You don't come to California to drop out anymore. You come here to compete in a culture that is upwardly mobile and wealthy. …

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