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When California was the Land of Possibilities


Golden Dreams: California, in an age of abundance 1950-1963 is the 8th volume in Kevin Starr's monumental history of California, Americans and the California Dream. This volume covers the time when the California we know today first rose into prominence. Starr talks about how San Diego reluctantly grew into one of the largest cities in the nation and the people who influenced its growth.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

— MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. 'The California Dream' is a phrase that is ridiculed now. We hear about the dream destroyed, the dream decimated or even the California nightmare. But there was a time when that dream was real and powerful, affecting not only people outside the state, but inside California, people who had a vision to create a truly Golden State. Historian Kevin Starr has been exploring the California Dream in a series of books and now he's out with the eighth in that series. It's about the post-war boom years in California, the time when the state laid the groundwork to become today's global commonweath, the time when California's university system, its freeway system and its state water project were developed. It's also the time California became cool, with the Hollywood Rat Pack, west coast jazz and Beatniks. And it's the time that, as Kevin Starr puts it, San Diego reluctantly became one of the America's major cities. My guest is Kevin Starr, author of "Golden Dreams: California in the Age of Abundance, 1950-1963. (sic)" He is professor of history at the University of Southern California and Emeritus State Librarian of California. And, Kevin, welcome to These Days.

STARR: Maureen, thank you, and what a beautiful précis of my book you gave.


STARR: Don't do it too well, people won't read the book.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know, who's listening, that if you remember California in the fifties, tell us about living the California dream. Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Well, you know, Kevin, in your book you describe really how little it took for families to grab a piece of the California dream in the fifties. You describe firefighters and defense industry workers who could provide what appears almost like a lavish lifestyle to us. Tell us about the middle class California dream.

STARR: Well, in that chapter 'San Fernando,' I go through the various income levels…


STARR: …in terms of suburban development in the 1950s. And, obviously, we expect a Hollywood producer to be able to live well and I deal with his family, and we obviously expect a professional engineer to live a little less but rather significantly and I go through that level and – and then we start looking at working people, blue collar people, who could afford a house. Now maybe not a swimming pool, but they had a nice car to get to the beach and the beach was available. And they had a beautiful school nearby and they had a barbecue in their backyard, etcetera, and this is a huge suggestion. I go into the – an expense. They could acquire a home for $20,000.00. The payments, next to nothing with the CalVet loans, etcetera. They could upgrade their personal skills with – on the GI Bill in terms of going to education, etcetera, and that's another theme I take up. So you really have a triumph of – Montgomery Schuler, the great Boston architect – architectural critic, Boston-New York architectural critic, came out to California in 1907 and he said, California – I'm paraphrasing now but, in effect, California represents a triumph for what ordinary Americans can achieve, a better life for ordinary Americans. And you certainly saw in the 1950s and into the early '60s—I stop my book in '63—you see that triumph for ordinary, hardworking Americans.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, reading that and hearing you talk about it now, it's little wonder that California became the most populous state in the nation during that time. What did the rest of the country think about California during this age of abundance?

STARR: Well, if you remember from the book, Maureen, I go through these incredible profiles. As California in 1962 approached being the largest state in the union, it had full book coverage in Holiday, Life, Look, major magazines, Harper's, etcetera. And everybody was looking at the phenomena, announcing to itself that California is now the largest state. Of course, Governor Pat Brown made a big deal out of this, however, I also give another chapter over to the dissenters who warned that the state is growing perhaps too fast and that too much is being lost and that the environment is not being totally respected. So I don't want you or your listeners to think that it's – my book is just a booster book. It also deals with the problems of that era. After all, if you're moving your population up from nine to seventeen million in a very short period of time, that's a lot of problems, social problems, environmental problems.


STARR: That's why, for instance, Maureen, I pay very close attention to churches and synagogues because people coming from elsewhere, coming into California, looking to reaffiliate, to resocialize themselves, well, obviously, their church or synagogue's a very powerful point of affiliation.

CAVANAUGH: I was going to say, one of the ways that California dealt with this massive increase in population during these years of 1950 to 1963 is to start to initiate a lot of the infrastructure that defines California now. Remind us about what projects got started back then.

STARR: Oh, Maureen, it is an amazing period. First of all, notice that in the book that I pay attention to the reports. I repay – Senator Collier does the report an we have the gasoline tax in '47-'48. I'll have to go back and look it up because there's so much in the book, I forget…


STARR: …some it myself. And that gives us the freeway system. However, in 1957 the Division of Highways produces a whole freeway plan for the state. In 1958-59, the Department of Water produces a whole plan for water distribution in the state. In 1960, the Donahue Act is passed, building upon a report filed to make California a higher educational utopia combining the UC, CSU and community college system. So during this period, you have really great projections forward. You have the rapid expansion of the State Parks Service. In fact, it's almost—not almost—it is a mirror image, a reverse mirror image of what's happening today as we talk about what we're going to shut down in California. In those days, they were talking about what are we going to open up and how are we going to design it and how we're going to pay for it, and they agreed. Now, there was politics involved. People had to trade off things. There was tremendous tension between northern California and southern California on the water issue. It was – the society lagged behind by today's standards in terms of equal rights for minorities or equal rights for women, so I'm not saying it was perfect and I have a chapter that deals with the problem of inequality in this society. But in the long run, the political process served the needs of the people, and this infrastructure was assembled to create this global commonwealth which, for all its problems today, remains the eighth largest GNP on the planet.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Kevin Starr. He is author of "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963". And you've spent a lot of time in this book talking about San Diego because after World War II, San Diego was on the cusp of a major transformation.

STARR: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about…

STARR: Well, Maureen, every book I've done in the eight-volume series, I have a chapter on San Diego on every chap – in every book. One of these days, I'm going to pull them all together maybe into a separate book on San Diego because people from San Diego say how come you never write about San Diego? I say, well, I've written about San Diego as part of California, as part of – I always had a chapter. But in any event, San Diego has always had this tension between itself as, you know, it's not Los Angeles. That's its identity. It's smokestacks versus geraniums, it prefers the geraniums to the smokestacks. At the same time, Los Angeles provided a counter-model also of the sort of inevitability of urban growth and in early 1944, before the war was over, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce really jumpstarts the whole process by commissioning their urban research firm of Day & Zimmermann of Philadelphia to do this extraordinary report. It's more than a thousand pages of double-spaced typescript and I've read every word of it, so going in there you see San Diego envisioning the possibilities of post-World War II growth. Now, I admit, it's going to be a tumultuous history over the next 15, 20 years and, in fact, in the '60s and '70s, becomes very tumultuous because there was always this other side to San Diego, saying, yes, we're a great city, we have a destiny as a great city, but we also don't want to lose quality of life.

CAVANAUGH: Is that what you mean when you say smokestack versus geraniums?

STARR: Yes, that was a campaign for mayor in the early 1900s. One of the mayors – one of the candidates for mayor said we need more smokestacks in San Diego and the other candidate said we need geraniums.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say San Diego, you know, like most big cities, was run by an oligarchy. What do you mean by that?

STARR: Well, the chamber of commerce. You know, Maureen, in American history, it really wasn't until after the Civil War period that cities were given the right to issue bonds, to go – to have credit, and really were regularized politically. That's a movement of mostly post-Civil War America. Most American cities on the east coast in the pre-Civil War period were run by highly coherent orthodox oligarchies. We might consider – use the shorthand term the chamber of commerce type of people, the business community. If you look, for instance, at the list of mayors of New York City before the Civil War, it's all the great names of the old Anglo-Dutch establishment. Now in the case of San Diego, you had an open-ended establishment. You could get into it. It wasn't – You didn't have to be a—although San Diego had very distinguished 19th century people, George Marston, for instance, and many others. You could get into this oligarchy and this oligarchy played an enormous role in helping San Diego State University, for instance, become a very considerable force in higher education, later on establishing the University of California at San Diego. It exercised an enormous amount of influence in the statewide development – in statewide development of the San Diego establishment partly because it was very tied up with an emergent and continuous force, the Republican force in California, the Republican party. Now, Republicans, during this time, were one million less – fewer voters than registered Democrats. Registered Republicans were one million. But, Maureen, until 1959, we had cross filing. A Republican could enter a Democratic primary and a Democrat could enter a Republican primary. So the Republicans have a way of getting the solid, middle-class Democratic vote enough to stay in power. Later on, they were called the Reagan Democrats. And so you basically had a southern California-based Republican party that was growing an enormous authority during this period.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book "Golden Dreams", Kevin, you name some of the people who ran and shaped San Diego in the '50s. Who are some of those people?

STARR: Well, I – I juxtaposed two people, Roger Revelle and C. Arnholt Smith because they represent two sides of the American coin, it seems to me. Roger Revelle from a very patrician background, highly educated, married into a leading family of La Jolla, in fact, one of the leading families of the country. C. Arnholt Smith, poor boy makes good, working his way up through the banking profession, etcetera, and ultimately running a little bit afoul of the law in his later years but, you know, you have to judge a life according to the total arc of a life and so I pick these two and look at the things they were developing. C. Arnholt Smith in terms of hotels, highrises, etcetera, and Roger Revelle in terms of San Diego as an epicenter, which it is today. In fact, I think today San Diego has more Ph.D.s per population than any other city in the United States. An epicenter of research and scientific research, biomedical research, etcetera, all that gets its start during this period.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Kevin, you say in the 1950s San Diego was a, quote, privileged, provincial place…


CAVANAUGH: …with a lot of the amenities of a big city but without a lot of the problems. Do you think we still see ourselves that way?

STARR: I think – I think that's what you – your haunt – not you, but San Diego has a temptation to be fixated on that particular thing. Now I didn't say that there weren't the problems. Certainly my good friend Mike Davis is, in his book on San Diego…


STARR: …has documented the problems of – San Diego had poverty, it had the problems – but they were not of the magnitude, say, for instance, of an east coast city. They just weren't of the magnitude. And you have a sort of day dream in San Diego that things could always stay that way, always – that we could—we, I say we because I identify with the city very strongly—that we could avoid the big city problems. Don't forget, the city itself, during the '50s, is undergoing a crisis. On the one hand, it's a golden age for cities, it's the last of the great decade of the downtown, etcetera, and on the other hand suburbanization is emptying out the city simultaneously.

CAVANAUGH: Now you touched on this before and in a couple of your answers but what about minorities in San Diego and elsewhere in the state during this boom economy. Were they participating in that?

STARR: Oh, yes. Well, you have a really powerful Mexican-American community, really coming together. And so much of modern American – modern Mexican-American history in California is San Diego and Los Angeles driven. You have a much smaller black community but like every – and it doesn't grow at the rate that the black community of Los Angeles grows during World War II, but it does grow and it's small and coherent and it discovers, in many ways, the San Diego heritage. San Diego was considered by the Spanish to be a fulcrum city – or, a fulcrum settlement because it wasn't a city then, that would integrate Latin America, the Spanish southwest, Alta California and the Asian Pacific basin. It's superbly located. The Spanish – and decided on it and, of course, on the great harbor, too. And so consequently, all those elements are there. And I go through the San Diego novels. I don't know if you've had a chance to look at that chapter.


STARR: I look at novels of San Diego and etecetera, and see what the story is about the immigrant San Diegans, minority San Diegans, etcetera, as representative novels about San Diego from that period.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Kevin Starr, author of "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963," I read that part of your research for this book was going through hundreds of yearbooks and…


CAVANAUGH: …you said an overlooked class of people were the women who came of age in California in the fifties.

STARR: Well, you know, I'm born in 1940, Maureen…


STARR: …so I was defending the young women whom I was awestruck by in the 1950s when I was a teenager because of their leadership in high school, their incredible grades and board scores, and their getting into great colleges, etcetera. And then suddenly, as I got into my thirties and forties, everybody was talking about the repressed females of the 1950s. And I said to myself, well, I don't remember any repressed females, I remember high achievers. So I went back and went through hundreds and hundreds of yearbooks. Now yearbooks are very interesting things because all yearbooks are alike. They almost represent a folkloric genre of high school experience. On the other hand, they differ from place to place and you can decode a lot from the photographs because the photographs are informal and spontaneous. And I looked at the way the young women dressed, and you saw that generation, which was my generation of women, American women, on a cusp, a cusp of the careers that were opening up, education opening up, and then the effort to combine that with traditional marriage and the family. And you could see that in the high school yearbooks of the women members of the Engineers Club but also same women would be in the Future Mothers of America club or if you see what I mean.


STARR: The '50s had an interesting tension between orthodoxy and innovation, not like the '60s – or the mid-to-late '60s when everything blew up. This generation is mine, it's silent. We're not the boomers. We were born before. We were born during the late Depression and World War II. And I talk about things that – I looked for pictures of minority kids that kept their block letter. Minority kids that get their– my daughters tell me don't use the word 'kids'–minority students who get their block letter who get elected student body president, etcetera, etcetera. And you see that the pattern is beginning to change dramatically, although it's not aware of itself the way it did become in the late '60s and '70s.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Kevin, you have written eight books on California history, how – and basically describes how the state developed into the sixth largest economy in the world. So I'm wondering, what is your take on what's going on now in California politics?

STARR: Well, we have a collapse of politics. As I described previously, each of these accomplishments, whether it was the Higher Education Act, whether it was the state water plan, whether it was the freeway system, each of these achievements were fraught with controversy and had to be negotiated, and they were negotiated by the men and women the voters sent up to Sacramento, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They said to themselves, we got to hammer out a deal here, we got to make this work. And they didn't demonize the opposition; the opposition was not evil. And they realized that to get something, they had to give something. You talk about this one Assemblywoman from up northern California who was crucial to the Water Act, etcetera, she wanted reservoirs in her district, she got them in her district. In other words, that's old fashioned politics. A long time ago, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle defined politics as the art of the possible. Well, these men and women up in Sacramento and the civil servants who worked for them, fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, saw possibilities and negotiated not perfect solutions but negotiated ongoing processes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, will we ever see the like of these politicians again, do you think?

STARR: Yes, because we're bringing – these days, we're bringing California to the brink and we're also renegotiating the private sector and the public sector. How much public sector, ultimately, do we want in California and can we negotiate the political support for that between those who want an expanded public sector and those who are very cautious about taxation in the public sector. Fifty, sixty years ago, they negotiated a compromise. Ronald Reagan negotiated a compromise. If you look at the arc of governors, Governor Earl Warren, Governor Goodwin J. Knight, Governor Pat Brown and Governor Ronald Reagan, yes, Ronald Reagan, who's sometimes later treated as a poster boy of the far right. He wasn't. He had a Democratic majority in both houses and he was an astute politician in terms of managing the state during his time.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I wonder, you are a lifelong Californian and I'm wondering – and, of course, a historian of California, I wonder if you find it embarrassing that the state is now thought of as ungovernable, in need of…

STARR: Oh, everybody's on it. I was on a national PBS program the other day based on the current cover of the Economist, last week's Economist, showing California as an aging surfer coming out of the water with a crab biting his swimsuit and a Texan going into the water all enthusiastic and buff. And the idea was that the Texas economy was moving rapidly ahead while California – or the Texas culture. On the other hand, as I pointed out, Texas has a very minimal public sector and has got a lot of work to do in its public sector which even conservative Texans admit that. And so, in the long run, the nation is once again, I think, learning from California although it's learning a negative lesson.

CAVANAUGH: Negative, right.

STARR: Do not expand the public sector beyond the political – do your political negotiation first before you just automatically expand the public sector.

CAVANAUGH: And your book is called "Golden Dreams". I'm wondering, in conclusion, is it passé to talk about the California dream? Or does it still hold magic?

STARR: I think we're coming to a better state actually. A long time ago the great California-born philosopher Josiah Royce, who taught at Harvard, wrote one of the first histories of California, he said that it's the struggle for California, where we really find out what California is. So inasmuch as the golden dream would mean that there's a free lunch, that you get this and you get that, and you don't have to worry about it, you just come out here and drop out, those days are over. But I say hooray for that. What California is now moving towards is a more mature and even tragic sense of things. And by tragic I don't mean that you're defeated forever, but that you realize that the struggle for the great society, the struggle for the good society, the struggle for political negotiation and compromise between liberals and conservatives, that's hard work. That's hard work. So I think we're – the dream is deepening. I don't think it's disappearing, it's deepening and you just ask the immigrants coming into California, etcetera, and the new generation coming up. On the other hand, we could—we could—throw it away in our time if we think that we can conduct this huge global culture with such a political dysfunctionalism.

CAVANAUGH: Kevin Starr's latest book is "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963." And, Kevin, you'll be speaking tonight at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla at 7:30. Is that correct?

STARR: Yes, I will.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific. Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

STARR: Thank you, Maureen. It was a pleasure to be on your program.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that our conversation can – our discussion at least can continue online. We want to encourage you to post your comments at Stay with us. These Days continues in just a few moments.

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