Missing the California of My Youth

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.

There were areas in Los Angeles and the Bay Area that featured neo-socialist zoning laws, mandates, urban sprawl, crime, and moral decay, but again, such was mostly off the public radar at the time and not part of the “typical” California experience, like that which I lived.

Today when I happen upon a city left unexplored since my youth, California’s incredible decline is like a splash of icy-cold water early in the morning. Save for the highly sought after and prohibitively costly coastal areas and affluent inland neighborhoods, the California transformation into a socialist, Third World underworld is breathtaking. Once brimming and shiny urban areas from the Oregon border to south San Diego are wrought with crime and decomposition, bearing no visual difference to the myriad slums of Mexico. Businesses are shuttered or replaced with marijuana dispensaries. Foreclosure signs continue to litter middle-class streets everywhere. The collective mood is near-depression and the near-depression 22% unemployment rate is left unabated.

Much of the acceleration of this decline is due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the heavy blow dealt to the state as Sacramento central planners in the past looked forward to continual prosperity and left rainy day planning for another day. The depth and severity of this economic downturn makes it much different than the dot-com blowup of the 2000s and in fact a structural crisis -- especially pertaining to the state’s pension system -- that the state may never recover from.

State parks have been shuttered or put on the auction block to stave bankruptcy. A recent San Diego example of this situation points to this -- the world famous Del Mar Fairgrounds, owned by the state of California, was under tentative discussion to be sold to the city of Del Mar for $120 million, an effort to raise cash for the bleeding state coffers. Conservative independent estimates of the land put the value at five times that and some estimates are close to a billion dollars. But California, like a homeowner in foreclosure, has no choice but to sell off this prized state land at a fire sale price.

With my own eyes in California I have witnessed the perils of socialism and top-down collectivist government, the havoc wreaked by a blind eye turned to the rule of law, and what creeping and crippling regulations and taxes do to a once-thriving middle class. Neo-Bolshevik state lawmakers beholden to radical special interests joined hands with a neutered opposition party to fleece the world’s 8th largest economy, and my state reminds us of the moral destruction that the entitlement mentality and unfettered entitlements create.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, Barack Obama promised to fundamentally transform the nation. California is what a truly progressive government transformation looks like. Thus, in a sensible America, the decline of California would be the canary call in a coal mine for the nation. How can we let the progressive nightmare continue to happen to the nation when a state of almost 40 million (nearly a nation unto itself) has already experienced the disaster first?

Atlas has shrugged and California has changed -- government has ruined this place and I will never forget it.

-- Inspiration for this piece comes from Victor Davis Hanson’s National Review article, “Two Californias.”