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Another Place To Die


From our archives 2001

When the lights go out in paradise
• Sam North

'In the last seventy years millions of people arrived in California all intent on living the good life - finally it just hit the limits of growth. Let the pain begin.


For some, California’s history begins with the gold rush of 1849, suddenly bringing this region to the attention of the whole world. At one stroke stigmatising the region as a ‘get rich quick’ place that has stuck with it for all time. There have been set-backs, but California with much justification has never shaken off this image. Yet, it has been the leader of social and industrial change which has influenced the entire world with its ideas and ideals. California developed modern banking and credit for instance and it gave us urban sprawl, all well before1900, I might add. Above all, it was the state that took chances and let people experiment.

The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo named the state in 1542. In the 18th century, California fell under the rule of Mexican/Spanish missionaries. who governed from a series of fortified missions. They would bring God and the Christian faith, also massive, unspeakable cruelty to the native Americans. It was a different place, an arcadian El Dorado. The native population were resistant to being civilised or collectivised and often showed a healthy disrespect for these often fanatical missionaries and soldiers by killing as many as they could. Had they realised that these missionaries were but a pimple on the head of a giant wave of people to come from Europe, I think they would have redoubled their efforts to prevent it. Sadly, the future discovery of gold meant that a rural, hunting and shooting nomadic life was doomed forever.

Then we had the great Internet boom, something that began and was nourished out of Silicon Valley and San Jose. It seemed if business logic was turned on its head. Companies that would never make a profit were valued more than companies that actually made and sold thing at a profit. It was absurd, but the whole world fell for it and still falling for it as Bitcoin and Tesla valuations would testify in 2021. This is nothing new in California. Something like it happenened with inflated Gold and Silver shares in the 1860s and kept happening as the region grew. Indeed it was what California was famous for.

In the 1870’s California’s population grew 54 percent. Boosterism was a way of life. Californian real estate was to be sold to the world. By the 1880's California was at the centre of another speculatative bubble promoted by the railway companies. Fare wars began. In 1884 it cost $125 to go from the mid-west by Southern Pacific to Los Angeles, even then with practically no population it was touted as ‘City of the Future’. When the Santa Fe railroad arrived in Los Angeles in 1885 they reduced the fare to a bankrupting $5, much to Southern Pacific’s disgust. The crowds came in their thousands however and bought the ‘free’ land the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific had acquired when building the lines.

Property was flipped for big profits in Orange County almost on a daily basis. In 1885, at the height of the boom, Los Angeles lots rose from $500 to $5000 in a year. Vineyards were divided into lots and sold off at $300 an acre. They built sidewalks right out into the bush and elaborate hotels were built in proposed city sites, but never used again after all the lots were sold (usually in one day). New retirement lots were sold to gullible people in Chicago or the mid-west who perhaps genuinely felt that a city would rise here. The customers would find they had bought orange groves in a desert or homes with no chance of water, or just bare lots, or nothing at all. Still the scam went on. People unfamilar with the state or the lack of development in the south paid up to $50,000 for waterfront lots in places that were totally empty. Redondo Beach was a prime example. Some promoters with scrubland to sell even stuck oranges on Joshua trees to make them look more like the brochure. There were millionaires everywhere, but by 1887 it all fell flat on its face, banks crashed and real-estate proved often to be totally valueless; the endless slump of the 1890’s was ahead. Most sold for what they could get. No one foresaw that LA’s real future was just one short decade away.

In 1903 Hollywood itself was still pretty small. By a vote of the 177 male inhabitants, it was made a misdemeanor to drive flocks of more than 2,000 sheep through the street at any one time. In 1910 Hollywood had a population of 4000. A year later the first ‘Made in Hollywood’ movie was made ‘The Law of the Range’. Later on Cecil B. De Mille arrived and Hollywood sort of ‘caught on.’ Popular Cinema filmaking may have begun in New York, but Southern California perfected it in their ‘ good light’ by 1912 and the public’s taste for ‘Westerns’, consolidating Hollywood as the key place for film and fantasy in the world. This has remarkably held true for almost a hundred years. It has also given California a chance to mould and construct the rest of the world in its image.

California has always been at the forefront of innovations. For example that frozen chicken in your freezer is owed to a development called ‘chicken incubancy’ which was invented in Petulama, something that you might want to store in your memory in case they ask in ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’.

By 1930 California had over five and half million people, It was then considered by some to be ‘full’.

If you could have visited San Francisco in that decade you would see that the hills above Daly City would be covered by fields of lettuce, artichokes, pansies and violets. The region’s wealth was founded on gold but now industry was the main employer and they were building vast new constructions that would impress the world. The Golden Gate Bridge was one, the Bay Bridge another. The new masses had to be fed. Fisherman’s Wharf was no tourist trap, but filled with genuine Italian fisherman famed for their large gold earrings and boiling crabs in huge cauldrons on the curb. Cannery Row in Monterey was a real working fishery, not a place for retirees to eat at six before they totter off to bed before eight. Eat and Die earlybird specials were not yet a feature.

The1930’s were a bad time for the USA, the dust bowl had sent waves of penniless incomers into the state, the depression thousands more. So many came and so few found work, social and political instability was fostering ideas that California should experiment with socialism, some even flirted with Communism, after all, it seemed to work in Stalin’s Russia.

Still there were distractions. In Los Angeles people really did take the tours to look at the ‘stars’ homes. Come see Harold Lloyd’s estate Green Acres, 1225 Benedict Canyon, or Ginger Roger’s home,1605 Gilcrest Drive at the highest point of Beverly Hills. The new wealth absorbed the new cultures. Frank Lloyd Wright found his wealthiest clients in California. In 1935 the movie industry was generating $20 million dollars a week from attendance figures.

When the war came suddenly every skilled man and woman was needed for the new aircraft and shipbuilding industries at Long Beach, and indeed at the defence industries all over the State. The development and technological innovations in all these areas laid the foundation for the long prosperous curve that was to come post-war. Between 1942 and 1946 three extra million people had arrived to live in California. The post-war building boom would shape ideas and create the urban sprawl that has since infected the rest of the world. Prosperity was almost guaranteed and the world wanted in. Asian farmers, Mexican labourers and their wives poured over the borders, Europeans fleeing the ruins of their countries. All brought their skills, their problems and needs, but California seemed to be able to absorb them all.

California takes education seriously. Stanford was first, founded with the railroad magnate Leland Stanford’s money. During the1930’s, the University of California at Berkeley had become the largest in the USA. California would, from that moment on, lead the world in science and technology. The State has since followed up with an extraordinary development of public and private higher education institutions that are the envy of the world.

Since 1950, California developed the freeway to new heights. Who, having sat in stationary traffic twelves lanes wide on either side isn’t awed by the sheer enormity and futility of this. (You can thank Ronald Reagan for this, whilst Govenor he had all the railroads ripped up that could have transported future millions to the suburbs). California has a single and relatively new urban transport link, but is, for the most part rail free. It is an environmental folly on a fantastic scale. Los Angeles is the traffic congestion capital of the world. Not for them urban transportation that everyday successfully delivers millions to cities in Europe and Japan. For some, the level of smog is considered to be a measure of economic progress. A possible hangover from the last century when every city was judged by the amount of smokestacks spewing out poisons over the local populations. This will change as electric cars assume ascendancy of course.

By 1960, California was at the forefront of all the key technological and sociological elements of the century. Biochemistry, computer hardware and software, aircraft development, rocketry, plastics, nuclear science, everyone came to California to be part of the future. Yet, even then, in the sixties, you could still see mile after mile of orange groves and farms in the south. California was the place where the food grew, everyone knew that. Sometime in the seventies, real estate, not food, became a better crop and urban sprawl accelerated.

There is, even now, quite a distinct difference between North and South California. The North,which developed first, and always sees itself as the senior partner, the one with class compared to the crass, moneyed nouveau-riche south. San Francisco, survivor of trial by earthquakes and fire (1906) is more traditional. North of the city lies Napa valley, home to some of finest wines of the world. Visit Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard to find one the first and most historic vineyard, founded sometime around 1880 by a retired whaling Captain. The past is important in northern California, more expendable in the South. Between the two lies the capital, Sacremento - worth a visit in the cooler months and best approached by river.

Los Angeles, sprawling, unfocused, surrounded by poorly planned suburban cities is more extreme. The populations, unable to gather around a city where you’d stroll and meet people you’d know (a constant nostalgic theme of Hollywood movies) feel alienated, distant from their neighbours. The beauty that was once California has been buried under tarmac and concrete, the air is brown. The vast distances between urban conurbations has been infilled with nebulous, orphaned communities. Now it is hard to believe or convince young people that once their home stood where orange groves grew. Farming, once a respected profession, is now something poor people do, or great conglomerates with huge machines and little interest or respect for the ‘land’.

Thirty-nine million live there now (2019) figures. 13 percent of the USA’s population. It doesn’t sound so much if you compare it to say the UK’s sixty-seven million or the similar number in France or the even the eight-three million of Germany. The population of California does, however, probably consume more energy, use more petrol, discard more trash, eat more food, enjoy a higher murder rate, boast more serial and teen killers, more lawsuits against individuals and companies - especially those who pollute or manufacture anything at all, boast more doctors and specialists and have higher incidents of cancer, stress and suicides than ALL three of the aforementioned countries. It consumes more energy than the rest of the USA - which consumes fully 27 percent of all world’s available energy in any one year. They may also produce more goods than most other countries. California, the tenth largest economy in the world, is the State that keeps BMW and Mercedes-Benz in business. It is the State that accepts Scotch Whisky and Coventry’s Jaguars. Without their conspicuous consumption we would be lost, well and truly lost. (These figures are now dwarfed by China's consumption of power and manufactured goods).

California is all about aspiration. The movies might show a relaxed lifestyle by Venice Beach, but tends not to dwell upon the risk of hospitalisation you’d run if you swam off the coast, or used your lungs too often when driving along the highways. The aspirants live in instant traditional, well guarded communities where the likelihood of you knowing your neighbour is low. People do not walk, there is nowhere to go and the police may arrest you, people don’t ‘walk’ in California- although they do set aside spaces to 'jog'. So kids and everyone else gravitate to the Mall (if there is one left) , like good consumers, exercising and buying to keep the economy going. Permanence is an anathema. Real Estate people will show you ‘tear downs’ houses no more than 25 years old, considered expendable. A society that demolishes its past has no stable future.

A society that moves to a new neighbourhood because the old one looks, well...old, has a problem. (Californians move on average every three to five years). Stress is common, some have said the whole state is psychotic and this manifests itself in the phenonemal divorce rates. Of course some Californians are wonderful, completely normal well adjusted folk who have also produce some of the world's best architecture, magazines and newspapers, put together by some of the best writers and artists and designers the world can gather in one place. However, it also has a dark side - the diversions suitable for those who cannot cope with this utopian vision and need distractions.

Free love, wife swapping, acid trips, single mothers, talking mice, psychotherapy, UFO’s, fast food, organic food (yes they were first), diet fads, exercise fads, addictive video games, gun culture, rap, alternative lifestyles, eco warriors and voodoo economics. The problem is, we bought the lot, unquestioningly. California has defined our culture in the UK for the last fifty years and shows no sign of letting up.

And now, finally, the brakes are on, the reliance on cheap power has hit the buffers. Electricity is in the very bloodstream of California and suddenly they are faced with paying the market price for it. Californians won’t switch off their air-conditioners, they wouldn’t even switch off their Christmas lights, they won’t impose energy taxes. Californians gripe if gas costs more than a dollar a gallon because they drive SUVs that only get 11mpg. They squander everything they have. Right now the red light is flashing (when the power is on), super-urban sprawl, super-conspicuous consumption has a price after all. California must either reverse direction and become energy conscious with the zealotry they applied to anti-smoking laws or face a century long decline. Already industrialists like Musk have left the State, rats know when to leap. Californians must learn to walk again, literally.

Yesterday I heard someone in a bar singing ‘When the lights go out in paradise can the four horsemen be far behind?’

We shall see, then we will no doubt follow. If you visit - wear a mask - take a flashlight - you might need it.

© Sam North 2001

Author of DIAMONDS

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