California Dreaming

Remembering California: The Golden State at a crossroad

“Best way to live in California is to be from somewhere else.”
— Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

The beacon of hope that used to be California is now a fading memory. Once the state symbolized the American Dream and prosperity, with classic cars cruising along Muscle Beach and Hollywood glamour drawing talent and beauty from everywhere: today it is a shadow of its former self, drowning in struggle and decline. As a native Californian, it breaks my heart to see my home state in such disrepair. In Texas I feel like a refugee from a country destroyed by some unimaginable disaster. The pain that I feel when I think about California’s current condition runs deep.

I grew up in the 90s in a small farming town in California’s central valley, with an economy built on peach orchards and a state university. Like many rural inland areas, our town was heavily white and conservative and struggled to cope with high taxes designed to support a large welfare class within the big cities. Those taxes enabled service industry workers to survive on low wages that couldn’t keep up with the high cost of living, but also fostered dependency. 

In recent years, more people have been leaving California than arriving, a new trend for the Golden State, California has even lost a seat in the House of Representatives due to population decline, while Texas gained one. For my part, one reason I left the state almost a decade ago was because of the sense Californians were resigned to their fate. There was no fight left in the California Republican Party. Conservatives lacked either the influence or the will to wrest back control from the parasitic political consultant class who had captured the party and ran such unappealing candidates as Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. The party that had launched the political careers of popular candidates like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Pete Wilson suddenly ran out of charismatic candidates. Attempts at governing through popular democracy were also stymied, with Prop 187 and Prop 8 both passing by strong margins only to be struck down later by federal judges. The last GOP majority in the state assembly was in 1994. I was just a kid back then, with no idea the golden age had come and gone.

Despite California’s decline, glimpses of its former glory can still be found. Streets, schools, and buildings in the Bay Area and Sacramento bear the names of war heroes like Dan Daly, and statues of some of the greatest Americans we’ve ever produced are tucked away in parks and streets of small-town California. Take what was once McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, now a business park. The Barracks have transformed into the Lions Gate Hotel, with the former Officer’s club serving as a bar, its walls adorned with pictures of the base’s history. The Squadron buildings are now cheap, asbestos-filled office space, occupied by homelessness NGOs that seem unable to do more than help the mentally ill and addicted subsist until they perish.

But just a few miles away, slumbering California can still be found. Away from the main urban arteries, American flags hang from homes, and carefully preserved classic cars are a common sight. 

When I go back to California to visit the family I still have there, I’m moved by the memories of the best parts of my childhood. I’m lucky enough to remember the idyllic “old California.” Violent crimes were so rare that they were the talk of the town when they did happen. I remember 4th of July block parties, where we could still legally use our own fireworks. We would watch the massive fireworks show put on by the university and then produce one of our own. The whole street would assemble in front of a neighbor’s house, and everyone would take turns lighting off fountains and mortars for hours. Halloween enjoyed almost universal participation, and no one was afraid that it would be unsafe for kids to take to the streets in search of candy on their own. I walked to my elementary school, starting in first grade, with no fear of getting snatched up.

But in 2001, the old world came to an end for me, a little sooner than it did for most. My parents had been fighting and considering a trial separation for a few years, and my dad had fallen into a deep depression. He was prescribed the antidepressant Paxil, but 9/11 was the final nail in the coffin for him. The spark of optimism he still had preserved flickered out, and a month later he took his own life. Paxil would later face class action lawsuits over its role in driving depressed men like my dad to rock bottom. The California Dream ended for me that day, and ignited the rage I feel.

***

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
— Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

No stretch of California evokes memories more vividly for me than the stretch of Highway 65 and Highway 70 from the northern edge of Sacramento to the mountain town of Paradise. In the summer the vast fields of haygrass resemble yarn spun from gold. Elkins Frosty, with its proud banner proclaiming the best (and only) burgers and shakes in town since 1976 recalls simpler times. Then, after the Oroville Dam, you reach the ill-fated town of Paradise.

Like many logging towns in the Northern California mountains, Paradise was devastated by the Sierra Club’s campaign to destroy the State’s logging industry in the name of conservation. With its primary industry gone, these towns sunk into economic decline. Most of the young people moved out, while drug use and petty crime increased. Eventually the economy consisted largely of retirees and the government, a situation now common to small towns across America following deindustrialization. Then, in 2018, the devastating “Camp Fire” wildfire burned Paradise to the ground, leaving only ashes and devastation in its wake.

My aunt and cousin, who had spent most of their lives in Paradise, lost their homes. Scores upon scores of homes were reduced to nothing more than concrete pads. But my great-grandmother survived. Her home was spared, and she returned as soon as she was allowed before recently passing away at the age of 92. It was her funeral that brought me back to Paradise and gave me a chance to see how the town was doing with its rebuilding efforts.

Despite the scars left by the Camp Fire, still visible on the trees that survived, Paradise has a feeling of new life to it. Slogans of solidarity and pride are scattered throughout the town: “Paradise: Rebuilding The Ridge,” “Paradise Strong,” and “Faith & Hope In Paradise.” Many of the buildings that were destroyed have been replaced with structures made of steel. There are new businesses everywhere, funded by fire insurance money and new investments. A charred metal Burger King sign without a building to go with it is all that remains of the many big corporate franchises that have yet to return. With the overgrowth swept away by the fire, enriching the soil, Paradise is an example of the cycle of destruction and rebirth that nature destines for all its creations.

***

“And home isn’t here and home isn’t there.”
Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

It is difficult to suppress the notion that the apathy towards the issues plaguing rural communities in California may be attributed to the disconnect between the political and financial power centers of the state and these areas. Over the past decade, the population of California saw a ten percent increase, with the majority of growth concentrated in urban areas. This influx has resulted in a class of urban parasites who have displaced native residents due to the growth of housing demand and have also imposed their own values and priorities upon these areas. The stereotype of the progressive middle-class “Californian” nobody wants to move into their red state was more than likely born in Pennsylvania or Ohio. 

This new class has overrun the state, treating the residents as collateral damage in their search for upward mobility and acceptance within their adopted lifestyles. They have abandoned their roots, and in doing so, have turned a blind eye to the struggles of the folk that resembles their heartland kin. These problems, which closely mirror the struggles of their own families and hometowns, are now distant and insignificant to the political power that stems from the cities. As a result, there are no repercussions for neglecting to address them.

California today is at a crossroads. Will it be able to reclaim its former glory, or will it continue to decline? Time will tell. The once great state is now ravaged by poverty and corruption. The glamour of Hollywood and the prosperity of the gold rush and railroad seem like distant memories, preserved only in film. The pension obligations of its bureaucracy are in danger of going unfunded, while unions wield their power to prevent necessary changes. The Golden State is setting itself up for a catastrophic reckoning, but perhaps that is the only way it can be revived. Like an overgrown forest, California needs a firestorm to raze it, so that seeds of the future can be sown once again.

Aristophanes reviews books on his substack, Aristophanes Athenaeum, with a focus on kids’ books and fiction.


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