A New California Dream

California doesn't need more lofty rhetoric about what a Dream place this state is. Our government is in crisis. The impartial Legislative Analyst's Office projects $20+ billion deficits until at least 2015.

Cynics say that Californians are too polarized, too diverse, and too burdened with a byzantine bureaucracy to come together to face this mountain. Yet this deficit is only roughly one percent of California's nearly two trillion dollar economy.

And these cynics don't offer reasons s

My Heritage

“Before I can say I am, I was.”

        –Wallace Stegner,Angle of Repose

Put in a word, I’m Californian.  My maternal great-grandmother was a trailblazer, running for the State Assembly as one of this state’s first women candidates during the Hiram Johnson Reform Movement. On my dad’s side, my grandmother came West in the thirties with her family to escape the dustbowl and eventually help the war effort, bringing nothing more than they could fit in their blue Chevy and building a new life in Long Beach. Both my parents were raised here and went to Stanford University. My mom chose a career in public service, working as a legislative analyst and then deciding to become an elementary schoolteacher at the age of forty. My dad pursued a career in water policy, supplying Southern California with innovative new sources of local water. Tellingly, our family home in Paradise Valley has California native landscaping and uses one third as much water as the average Southern California home. In a deep way, good government is the Atwater family religion.

Today my family makes our own limoncello. We play board games with a spirit of fiercely friendly competition. Atwater family dinner involves a trip to the local farmers market, the neighborhood Korean grocery store, the Italian deli down in Glendale, the Middle Eastern market on Verdugo or the great fish market near Wilson Middle School (or more likely all of the above). Conversation would often turn to blue sky policy debates about the role of education in a democratic society, how to deal with the reality of millions more people immigrating to water challenged Southern California, or the governance implications of humanity becoming a truly spacefaring race. It’s these sorts of conversations that really get at what the Atwater family is all about. Humanity has problems. Why not solve them? Of course, the size of the question doesn’t mean you have to be stilted in answering it. Growing up, I’d often spontaneously bring friends by for dinner, still sweaty after a workout at the YMCA, because you can’t let formalism get in the way of a great meal, and, well, I’m Californian.

And really I’ve been blessed to live the California Dream. Growing up, I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, hiked the Swiss Alps, and climbed the Eiffel Tower. It was only when I was older, however, that I came to appreciate the stunning natural beauty and cultural heritage right here in California. Where else in the world does geography as varied as Yosemite, Mount Whitney, Death Valley, Big Sur and Malibu exist in a region the size of California? Who but the California people would think of putting Korean BBQ in a Mexican taco? More than just the good life, however, I have enjoyed California’s famous opportunity, getting an incredible education in the state’s public schools. 

Of course, as Joan Didion aptly put it in her eighth grade graduation speech: “We can’t stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.”2 And that’s really the question I’ve been chasing my entire life: why not go on to better and greater things? My older brother Drew was a top math student, and I was always striving to beat him. I would end up getting second place at Los Angeles County Math Field Day.  My parents ran the Los Angeles Marathon, so in sixth grade when I heard about Students Run LA, a program that gets kids to run the LA marathon, I ran home to tell my mom about it. My parents’ gave me a knowing smile. I ran and completed the Los Angeles Marathon in seventh and eighth grade. When I went to high school, I took every AP classes I could, because I thrived on intellectual rigor.  My Dad played at Stanford, so I joined the football team.  I would be an All-League linebacker and Scholar-Athlete both my junior and senior year and go on to start all four years at Claremont McKenna. I enjoyed my other major, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), for similarly competitive reasons.  Somewhat uniquely, PPE at Claremont has regular tutorials, opportunities for you to sit down with the professor and a classmate and debate the merits of your paper – essentially intellectual combat.  In the meantime, I took a steady diet of abstract math classes.  I was continually searching for something more, always looking to beat myself and go on to better and greater things.

Sometimes, of course, chasing that Dream has unforeseen consequences.  On February 5, 2010, I asked my lifelong buddy Drugan, “Why not bike into Pasadena?” It was raining, but we’d talked about doing it for a while, and I was rarely in town.  Really the timing was too perfect. So soon enough we were off and pedaling into the misty unknown, with nothing by my trusty Android phone to guide us. We went up Figueroa to Colorado, and while riding along these iconic LA streets past both rich and poor neighborhoods, I was struck by a surprising unification to these supposedly disparate Los Angeles neighborhoods. Everywhere I looked I saw the same low to medium density housing, the same autocentric culture, the same peculiarly L.A. eateries (old school cafeterias, burger joints, taco trucks, etc.), and the same love of backyard BBQ. The defining differences were of kind, not of category—the size of the houses, the niceness of the cars, the number of thousands in the gas grills. 

Once in Pasadena, we reminisced about shenanigans past and schemed about the night to come. My best friend. My favorite city. The moment seemed too perfect to last. It was: soon we had to leave the comfort of the Thirty-Fiver and head back outside into the cold rain. We shivered our way back along Colorado until we reached the onramp to the 134 and the entrance to the aptly named suicide bridge.  Deciding that trying to navigate a freeway onramp on a mountain and single-speed road bike might not be the best idea given the dark and rainy conditions, we elected to take the sidewalk to the pedestrian walkway. Narrow but navigable, the walkway put us right on top of the yawning panorama of the Arroyo Seco. I was quickly overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment. The aesthetic grandeur and rush of wind at my face fomented a sense of pure possibility, a bursting imperative asking why the California Dream couldn’t become reality. 

Distracted by these thoughts, I found myself almost crashing into the railing. I quickly adjusted and chastised myself for admiring the valley below when there was a road in front of me, and turned my sights to the matter at hand. Still the darkness, the mist, and the old-fashioned lampposts created an ethereal atmosphere, and an inescapable floating sensation emerged. Soon enough that floating became all too real, as the ground fell out from underneath me. I found myself tumbling down what felt like a set of stairs. I don’t really remember what happened next. Yet later I’d learn what happened: I had fractured two vertebrae in my back and only by a small miracle avoided paralysis.

I think something similar has happened to our collective California Dream. This idea has become so rarefied, so hyperidealized, that it cannot but crash into inconvenient realities. You see this impossibly perfect dream at work in beachfront communities, which convinces homeowners to imagine this land a sort of picturesque Camelot – perfect for raising the kids! – never mind how many times it’s slipped into the sea. You see it in California’s public employee pensions, which seem to imagine California as sort of Atlantian engine of unending economic growth.  You see it in the aspiring starlet, who imagines California a sort of Edenic home to the good life and makes the pilgrimage to Los Angeles no matter how many stories she hears about struggling actress-waitresses. Historically, we saw the dream of California as a bastion of economic opportunity for all crash into reality of narrow corporate interests at the turn of the last century, when the railroad slipped its octopus-like tentacles into every aspect of California governance for its own selfish ends. More unsettlingly, we saw the dream of California as a society in which everyone had a place crash into the reality of the Watts and Rodney King riots, exposing prejudices deeply ingrained into our most cherished social and political edifices. 

Most poignantly, we feel the crash of the dream today. Our economy is slipping, with vast swathes of the population endemically unemployed. Our K-12 schools, once exemplifying California’s commitment to equality of opportunity, now rank in the bottom of the nation. Our vaunted higher education system, formerly the envy of the world, is in crisis amidst fee hikes and an unprecedented reevaluation of the fundamental tenets of its master plan. Our prison costs are exploding. The list goes on and on. And amidst all these pressing policy challenges, our politicians can only bicker across a yawning ideological divide. Yet there is hope. After the dysfunction of the Octopus came the great Progressive Reform of the early 20th century. After the great racial earthquakes came the present day, a time when political scientists have started talking about postracial voters and when a generation is coming of age that cares less and less about the old antagonisms of the past. History is on California’s side. We have overcome our societal crashes before, and there is no reason we cannot overcome them yet again. 

Later that fateful February night, my parents left my bedside to go home, only to find a few hours later that our home had become an island, awash in a sea of mud. The Station Fire had raged just feet away from my neighborhood earlier that year, stripping the mountain of plants to hold the dirt in place. The inevitable mudflow flipped cars and tossed multi-ton K-rails like toys, crashing them into my neighbors’ homes. The dream my family built in Paradise Valley was running into the reality of living in a fire-prone chaparral. 

At a policy level, the courage and dedication of the firefighters, police officers, and other emergency workers belied that truth. The tremendous resources society spent to protect our home hid the fact that we chose to live in such a dangerous area. There is no good reason for all of society to subsidize well-off Californians like my family to live in natural disaster prone areas. Either we need to pick up more of the tab through user fees, or we shouldn’t be allowed to live there. Being a fan of freedom, I would prefer the former. That way people can still live in immediacy with California’s incredible beauty, but they are both made aware of the costs of their choices up front and society does not have to unreasonably bear their burden. The underlying point is that we can, through smart policy making and other institutional mechanisms, structure society so that the dream doesn’t crash so dramatically—or even perhaps, at all. It is these sorts of stories, of a dream made too abstract for this world, and the potential for sound governance to provide a firm reality-based structure to undergird the abstract beauty of the California Dream, that I hope to elaborate in the coming pages.

Because at the end of the day, Californians will dream. Volunteering at my mother’s classroom, I read a book about a family coming to California during the Gold Rush.  I asked the kids, who could have formed a nice mini United Nations, why their family came to California. They told touching story after touching story about how their parents immigrated here because in California there were better jobs, better weather, or really just the possibility of a better life. Those stories affect how we live our lives. The other day I met a young father over in Compton who was looking for a new job so he could move to the Inland Empire and live closer to the San Gabriel Mountains. There Charles said he would find good schools and a good community where he could raise his daughter. And I think that explains the intense look in his eyes as he explained how everyday he looked at the San Gabriels and why I will remember the way he said “My Mountains” for the rest of my life. Even in the depths of the sea of sprawl that is contemporary Los Angeles, people look up and dream of something more. So as California stands mired in an unending budget crisis and gnawing doubt about what the future holds, I have written this book to ask the California people a simple question: Why not come together as Californians to fix our government and build that better life?

The End

0 comments about this story Feed