Alive and Well in California

Despite Disasters, the Golden State Is Still a Land of Dreams

Last week, some friends and I checked out the new California Pizza Kitchen restaurant on Eliot St. If you've been there, you know that this isn't your ordinary pizza parlor. The toppings are unreal (Thai chicken? Shrimp scampi? Peking duck?). There's no tomato sauce. The dough is almost weightless, and you can get it in honey wheat. As we were eating, one of my friends, a local, uncorked a typical anti-California one-liner: "This pizza reminds me a lot of California: light and airy."

As a Golden State native, I've grown accustomed to these barbs. Of course, Harvard students aren't the first ones to come up with such zingers. Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling called San Francisco a "mad city" full of "perfectly insane people." Frank Lloyd Wright once hypothesized that all the loose nuts in America end up in Los Angeles because of the continental tilt. California is La-La Land, Shangri-La La, a place that twice elected a guy nicknamed "Moonbeam" governor. Yes, getting a good dig in at California is a bonafide American tradition.

Lately, of course, this playful disdain for California has been tempered by sympathy. Mother Nature has dealt the state a series of blows, and Americans who always looked with contempt on the flaky, arrogant attitude of Californians have paused to shake their heads slowly and feel sorry for the "spaceheads" out West.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area and interrupted the World Series in 1989, it was seen almost as a novelty. More than a few observers probably harrumphed that those fools got exactly what they deserved for building a city right over a fault line on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean.

In late 1991, fires ravaged the Oakland hills and threatened the flagship campus of the University of California in Berkeley. A few months later, the destructive hand of Mother Nature moved south, where it has stayed. As floods swept through the Los Angeles suburbs, the rest of America must have been wondering what happened to the California drought they'd been hearing so much about.

In May of 1992, Los Angeles erupted in our country's worst civil disturbance since the Civil War. With the state deep in recession, Americans began to wonder if the Golden State was down for the count. After a brief respite, the past few months have confirmed that it is not only down for the count, but in need of a paramedic. In October, spectacular wildfires swept up and down southern California. And of course, just two and a half weeks ago, Los Angeles was hit by a devastating 6.6 earthquake.

Indeed, the seemingly unthinkable has happened. California--once big and bad and strapping--has been transformed into the object of national pity. Poor Pete Wilson! As governor, he has now lived through fires, earthquakes, droughts, floods, riots, and recessions. As Wilson's press secretary Dan Schnur said, "We've had just about all of the plagues--all except frogs and boils."

So, has California gone from being the arrogant, too-big-for-his britches son to the weakling in need of care and nurturing? Not so fast. As one who has lived in California all my life, I have been somewhat amused by the recent outpouring of sympathy for my home state. And I'm inclined to be a little skeptical about both these outpourings and the prognostications of doom that are regularly raining down on California.

There is really no reason to feel sorry for California. Without belittling the suffering my fellow Golden Staters have endured over the past few years, feeling sorry for California because of a few natural disasters is like feeling sorry for the Notre Dame football team because someone wrote a few critical books about them.

Like the Fighting Irish, California will bounce back soon enough because it is just too powerful not to. It simply has too much going for it: an abundance of natural and human resources, a gigantic economic machine, breathtaking natural beauty, remarkable diversity, and the lifestyle and aura that make up the "California Dream."

Before the Northridge earthquake, California was slowly but surely recovering from its three-year recession. While economic growth has been healthy in the rest of America for about a year now, California--where the economic boom of the 1980s was fueled by the defense industry--has been reeling in the wake of the end of the Cold War. But the hard times may have been a blessing in disguise.

The California recession shrunk tax revenues and led to astronomical deficits in the state budget. Normally fractious politicians in Sacramento, embarrassed by the perennial budget debacles that have plagued the state and apprehensive about the seemingly-endless recession, have joined to make California more business-friendly. Last year, the state legislature passed comprehensive pro-business workers' compensation reform and began to loosen the noose of bureaucratic and environmental regulations that have for so long driven businesses out of the state.

The California economy--larger in size than all but six nations--should be booming before too long with the implementation of these reforms. How can it not? All of the prerequisites for economic success are still in great abudance. The state university system remains the envy of the world. The highway system, though beset by congestion and obliterated in parts by the earthquake, should within a year be serviceable again. Years of drought have produced a side benefit--the improvement of the irrigation systems. Last but not least, it boasts a quality of life that, for the vast majority of its residents, remains untarnished by recent events. Indeed, the human, natural, and structural infrastructure of the state remains awesome.

Of course, the earthquakes have done nothing to diminish the appeal of the "California Dream." Residents have known for a long time that experiencing a few tremors were a sort of down payment on the tremendous advantages the state offers. The cleanup efforts in L.A. continue, but amid temperatures in the 60s and 70s while the rest of the country freezes. Eighty-five percent of Californians live an hour away from some of the world's most beautiful beaches.

Most importantly for America, California must rebound because, as it has for the better part of this century, California represents the future of our society. In no other place is visible the fantastic variety of immigrants that now populate the Golden State. Los Angeles alone has more Mexicans than anyplace outside Mexico City, more Koreans than anyplace outside Seoul, more Vietnamese than anyplace outside Ho Chi Minh City, and so on. President Clinton is fond of saying that we must make diversity our friend and not our enemy. California is heeding the call everyday. The success that even the newest immigrants from central America and Southeast Asia are enjoying demonstrates that California is indeed forging a friendship with its remarkable diversity.

So, California must and will recover from its recent setbacks. This is not the first time that others have counted California out. Rather, the doomsayers of today are the direct descendants of the East Coast power elite that for so long ignored, then denied, the fact that California had become the epicenter of the American--and perhaps the world--economy. East Coasters have always looked at California as a sort of dumb blonde, a land so blessed with natural beauty that it could not possibly have any other virtues.

It is a mistake to think that California's glory days are over. It is still a land of infinite possibilities--a land not bound by tradition or by guilt. A land where shrimp scampi passes as a pizza topping. It is a tragic land, to be sure. As Christopher Isherwood saw, California "is a tragic country--like Palestine, like every Promised Land."

Yes, California is tragic, but the promise of its "Dream" still beckons many toward its sunny coasts. So, stop feeling sorry for us. Hit me with your best anti-California zinger. I like it that way.