"We have a Mediterranean paradise in the Bay area," says James S. Fay, a retired political scientist at California State University, East Bay, "and an economic drought and very hard times in other parts of the state."That Mediterranean paradise, however, isn't what it used to be.
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 herald what will happen elsewhere.
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.Put another way, it is no longer the Haight Ashbury California of Jefferson Airplane or the middle-class youth California of the Beach Boys.
"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 eight-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."
California dreamin' -- the phrase comes from The Mamas and the Papas song written in New York a half-century ago -- is a peculiar strain of the American Dream. It is rooted in a state that is both a geographical location and a cultural idea -- and a cultural ideal, expressed in the transformation from Sutter's Mill to Silicon Valley in five generations, and from Jack London's "Call of the Wild" to James Collins' "Good to Great" in three.That's just spatial arbitrage. California -- or any other desirable location -- becomes so popular that nobody goes there anymore when that popularity manifests itself in property values, gated communities, and chartered buses for the most creative computer wizards.
For decades people came here to grow rich (the 1849 Gold Rush), to fulfill their dreams (Hollywood), to find middle-class prosperity (the aviation industry that grew up around Los Angeles during and after World War II), to escape privation (the Okies), to talk dirty (the podiatrist's son Lenny Bruce), to identify new cultural icons (seeing the Kingston Trio at the Hungry i before your friends ever heard of them), to live openly without apologies (gays along Castro Street in San Francisco) or to experiment with drugs or alternative lifestyles (Haight-Ashbury).
But you had to know it was going to come apart when somebody incorporated a community as Los Altos Hills.