I am a California native, born and raised here. I’m only in my early thirties but can remember a time when my Golden State was a completely different place.
Twenty, fifteen, even ten years ago California was a bountiful land of opportunity that beckoned all — Midwesterners to foreigners – to come here and make a fresh start, to take a shot at the middle class and beyond that the Golden State exclusively offered. California was one of the few places where one would not find judgment waiting for decisions in life or how one ended up here. Multiple-pierced tattoo artist/bartender starting a disco club/tattoo parlor business? No problem. Bearded, beaded, dreadlocked, thick-accented Rastafarian looking to set up shop? That’s just fine too, we welcome you with open arms.
Most cities and neighborhoods were clean, urban, and welcoming, not unlike typical suburban areas and cities across America. The San Diego area (and much of Orange County) had an almost Midwestern feel; values passed from that area of the country to new generations that had emigrated here wove a strong fabric into the population. The Central Valley was the same.
Looking back some 60 years ago, my grandparents came here from the economically downtrodden Texas Dust Bowl in search of the American Dream. Stories of the venture were told at the dinner table, seemingly pulled straight from the pages of a Steinbeck novel. My grandfather started out here performing menial tasks and odd jobs before landing his “dream job” — a full-time custodial position with benefits. This career was only interrupted once, as he was called for duty in the ‘40s. Since he was not physically fit to serve overseas, he was enlisted to serve in another way — by performing welding work on U.S. ships being built in Long Beach harbor. Sheets of steel touched and hewn by his own hand helped win the war. He and my grandmother later went on to raise six children and retire in the High Desert.
My grandparents on the other side came here from Missouri to find a better life, They found it in Redlands, California. The family worked an orchard and every “hand” in the family had a part to play. I think back to the vivid stories that my grandfather would tell of the family farm, at least when he felt particularly chatty – which was rare and special when it happened. A particular photograph of my grandfather as a small child that he showed me once comes to mind. He was sitting in the back of a Model T, “halfway to California from Missoura on the Tin-Lizzy Express,” he said. As a young man in his teens he was shipped off to India, enlisted and stationed to the U.S. base there. He never saw combat and came back home to raise four children. The man loved California and rests in peace with military honors at March Air Force Base near Los Angeles.
As I grew up in California, there were indications of what was to come — the creeping issue of illegal immigration, for instance, that, despite the will of California residents, continued to bleed state resources and slowly morph inland neighborhoods into veritable Third World mini-nations, linguistically and culturally cut off from the America we all know. The state’s body politic was a circus act, yet political clowns mostly left to their unnoticed devices due to the amazing wealth creation of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, world-class ports, industry-leading small businesses, and large corporations that found a welcome home here. Taxes, in most cases, were much lower than what they are today but rising. The education system was in decline but we were still not at the bottom of the list.