End of the California Dream?

The land of optimism is coming apart. Has the luck run out?

By Crawford Kilian 22 Jan 2009 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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A produce label from fertile times.

In the spring of 1958, Life Magazine warned America of a crisis in education.

I was then about to graduate from Santa Monica High School. Life thought my classmates and I were fatally unready to fight the Cold War. Six months before, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite. Now, the magazine claimed, Soviet kids were learning serious stuff, while we teenage airheads were partying ourselves into oblivion.

Half a century later, the Soviets were ancient history. In September 2008, a triumphant airhead, I travelled from my home in North Vancouver back to Santa Monica for the 50th reunion of my high school class.

On my first night back in L.A., I went to a reunion dinner at a restaurant on Santa Monica Pier. A lot of my old friends were there, and they've done very well. One is a prominent artist, living in Arizona. Another, in Iowa, runs a thriving online business for birdwatchers. A retired physicist has started a company providing services for particle accelerators.

A former broadcaster is compiling a book of his extraordinary photographs taken around the world. Other friends include two psychologists and an anthropologist. A retired lawyer came from Athens; she had been a foreign-exchange student in 1957-58.

Our successes have been more a matter of luck than innate talent. My classmates and I were born at the right time, in the right place, in the right class.

Our parents had survived the Depression and World War II, and saw education as the best way for us to escape what had happened to them. For us, dropping out was not an option.

Thank God for the Soviet threat

Even Sputnik had been a stroke of good luck for us. The Eisenhower administration had pumped millions into American education, especially post-secondary. Tax dollars created seats in universities, and scholarships to pay for them. We war babies were the first to benefit from Ike's generosity. Our baby-boomer kid brothers and sisters would have to compete for jobs. We just walked into ours.

Leaving the restaurant, I strolled back down the pier with my friends. Santa Monica Pier was crowded with young blacks, Hispanics and Asians, all having a good time on a lovely September evening.

Such multicultural crowds were everywhere in L.A., and they gave off the kind of energy I see in the Iranian markets on Lonsdale and the Asian malls in Richmond. You could ignore the "Bank Repo" for-sale signs on nice houses off Wilshire Boulevard, because Angelenos were still hustling to make a buck and a place for themselves.

The multicultural new LA

That came through most strongly the next day, when we went to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I recalled it as a dull commercial street where we went to watch Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. Now it was closed off to traffic, and reminded me of Commercial Drive on a car-free day.

Eating lunch at a sidewalk table, I watched the new Los Angeles going by. It was like the evening paseo in a Mexican town, where the girls walk one way and the boys walk the other, sizing each other up until they start pairing off. But here they were as diverse as the kids on Commercial.

In the middle of the street, Amnesty International had set up a big tent, and people in orange jumpsuits and black hoods prowled up and down the sidewalks, silent critics of the war on terror.

A communist, expressing the triumph of hope over experience, was selling his faction's newspaper. A candidate for the Santa Monica City Council urged pedestrians to register to vote, and to vote for Barack Obama. Two tables were available for the purpose. McCain had just one.

The teenagers on the promenade were clearly and noisily Obama girls, though they wouldn't be old enough to vote for him until 2012.

A synthetic Utopia

It was tempting to imagine the promenade as an American microcosm: prosperous retail businesses framing political arguments while buskers and contortionists entertained us all. To a member of the class of '58, it could make you think you'd not only beaten the Soviets, you'd won at home as well.

But the promenade was as artificial as Disneyland's Main Street. To enjoy it, you had to drive to it from somewhere else in the sprawl. Fourth Street, one block away, was a chain of parking arcades. Once you'd enjoyed the paseo or had lunch, you got back in your car and returned to the sprawl.

On Sunday morning I caught a shuttle bus back to LAX. The airport is as bilingual as Vancouver's, but not because the U.S. is an officially bilingual nation. Without Spanish signage, many travellers wouldn't know where to go.

The Homeland Security personnel were as multicultural as the crowds on the promenade: mostly black, but with a lot of Latinos as well. The women in particular looked as comfortable in their dark-blue uniforms as the girls on the promenade had looked in their tank tops.

They reminded me of the U.S. Army I served in on the eve of Vietnam -- full of minorities who'd found a home in an institution that was close to colour-blind.

We white kids in the class of '58 owed our success to Ike and Sputnik. The minorities could thank Harry Truman's 1948 integration of the armed forces, and Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act. LBJ gave the white South to the Republicans, but he also gave a chance to the blacks and Latinos.

The last happy summer

Yet, their beautiful children and grandchildren on the promenade were strolling out of their generation's last happy summer -- a summer like those of 1929 and 1939, when the world was about to fall apart.

On Sept. 15, five days before that lovely Saturday, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. In the weeks after, America's financial system staggered from one disaster to the next.

Less than two months after my reunion, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted that he hadn't been overspending. He'd been under-taxing. Just before Christmas, he announced that a quarter of a million state workers would start taking unpaid "furloughs" to help save California from a disastrous budget shortfall.

Daily, the state's leading newspapers, themselves shrunken vestiges of once proud and robust institutions, report on the unraveling of the infrastructure of California civil society. Yesterday, for example, the L.A. Times noted that all the state's environmental projects had ground to a halt, and frozen spending was endangering the existence of 1,100 non-profits.

Schwarzenegger is now given to dark public musings. "People are asking if California is governable."

Schwarzenegger began his career as an immigrant, pumping iron on Muscle Beach, south of Santa Monica Pier. I began my career a kilometre north of the pier, typing stories and poems while the air-raid sirens wailed on the last Friday of every month: just a test, to make sure they worked when the Russians came.

Fear of nuclear war had helped to subsidize us white kids. Conventional wars had advanced the minorities -- at least those who survived Korea and Vietnam. Now fear of terrorism, and still more wars, advance a new generation of minorities.

The present financial collapse, however, is no bogeyman. This is not like the air-raid drills we went through in 1950s classrooms. This is the real thing coming at us, a depression like the one that shaped and scarred our parents.

Half a century from now, the beautiful kids in the class of 2008 may meet to look back at their lives. They will have many memories to share, and like us they'll marvel at how quickly the years went by. But they will not be as lucky as the class of 1958.

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