Defining the Californias

Looking over Morro Bay, the epitome of a central Californian beach town. This is neither Laguna Beach nor Bodega Bay, and any similarities are purely physical.

Dividing California into regions is a matter of such ongoing debate and conjecture that it has become a cottage industry among geographers. As a student of geography and a native son of the Golden West, I figure I am as entitled as anyone to draw my own lines. To me, the division is as much cultural as it is physical or economic, and that sometimes those cultural divides can be intuited better than they can be rationalized.

In my time back in California after my two-decade sojourn in China, it has become clear that a very real change happens when you proceed north of the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, and the San Fernando Valley; north and west of Simi Valley; and west of the Conejo Valley. Pass those points, and suddenly a different California emerges, a more timeless place, a more relaxed pace removed from the intensity of Hollywood/tourism/technology/aerospace that is Southern California. Here the farm communities, beach towns, and megalopolis-resistant exurbs take over, dotted with Wal*Marts and Costcos, to be sure, but all in service of a life determinedly removed from the economic engines of media, commerce, and innovation.

In a sense, it is here where the state joins its singular geography of rugged coast, bucolic valleys and soaring mountains with a culture that blends midwestern sensibilities and values with a progressive spirit that seams to grow from soil, rock, and sea. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it sets the region apart.

A similar change takes place traveling north. Something changes where the coast of Monterey Bay turns to face southward; where Gilroy’s garlic fields turn into Morgan Hill’s silicon suburbs; where the waters of the Central Valley begin to drain into San Francisco Bay; and where the tufa mounds of Mono Lake stand as mute testament to the resource rivalry that has always set California’s north and south against one another. This is the point where California begins its gradual shift into a climate and culture that share essence with the Pacific Northwest,  yet remain definitively Californian.

Can any of this be quantified? Probably not. But if you look with the right kind of eyes, stopping at a pull-off on the northbound 101 at the Conejo Grade just past the weigh station to survey what is ahead, you can see it. You enter a land where towns still have Main Streets, where man remains nature’s guest, and where wealthy retirees live next door to Navy engineers, sheriff’s deputies, and the prosperous, boot-strapped children of poor braceros. These elements foster a culture pleasantly distinct from the balkanization of SoCal and the hyper-gentrification of the Bay Area and its own sprawling exurbs.

So draw your own lines, if you must, but I submit that the dividing line between Southern and Central California runs roughly Point Mugu – Conejo Grade – Moorpark – Santa Clarita – Gorman – Palmdale – Barstow – Needles; and that the split between central and northern happens along a line of Santa Cruz – Morgan Hill – Modesto – Mono Lake – the point where US Highway 6 crosses the California/Nevada border.

I love this entire state for all of its regions and subcultures, but if you are looking for me, you’ll find me here, in between the lines.

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Missing the old Pacific Electric 

A little transit nostalgia, courtesy of the Imagineers at Disney California Adventure.

Yeah, we should have spent the money on faster Red Cars operating on above- or below-grade tracks. We learned. We’re paying for the lesson now. Hindsight and all that.

Uber Un-diverse? Color me Un-Shocked

Under pressure from harassment and sexism allegations, the ride-hailing giant is rethinking its approach to hiring.

Source: As Uber Grew Hastily, Diversity Took a Backseat – Bloomberg

We can engage in long conversations about diversity in the workplace, but one thing should come as no surprise: that Uber executives behaved exactly as they saw fit, and social pressure, political correctness, and societal norms be damned.

Why are we surprised when we discover that the people who set out to make a lot of money by laying waste to entire industries are not very nice? Uber has never apologized for what it is: a bunch of guys armed with an ounce of vision, a pound of opportunism, a kilo of greed, and an algorithm that mixes all of that into an earth-scorching business proposition.

But we’re kidding ourselves when we ignore the fact that every time we take an Uber ride that we’re fucking over a cabbie, that every time we stay in an Airbnb we’re giving a little shafting to a housekeeper at the Hilton, or that every time we order a book from Amazon we’re devaluing that erudite guy earning 10.50 an hour at the local independent bookstore.

Whatever their economic value, robber barons have never been humanists. It is now, and ever will be, up to us to make sure their depredations do more good than harm.

 

The Water Opportunity

Photo: Tim J. Keegan
Photo: Tim J. Keegan

Golden State | Issue 10 | n+1.

The water problem is part of a larger demographic problem: too many people have moved to California, a place that, given its resource constraints, its seismic instability, and its tendency toward massive brush fires, should have never been settled so densely.

Nikil Saval

Saval was writing about this five years ago, and it is tempting to buy his argument. Who among us longtime denizens of this state do not occasionally look out the window and wonder “from whence came these masses who cover our natural beauty with concrete and stucco?”

But laying the water problem at the feet of California’s outsized population does not lead us to a solution: if a quarter, or even a third of the state’s current headcount decamped for greener pastures, we would still have crippling droughts.

The water problem is one of global proportions, and the fact that a confluence of climactic conditions is foisting the drought on a fairly wet state should be seen as a wake up call. For a large and growing cohort of the world’s population – even in the developed world – water is no longer a virtually-free and unlimited resource.

The answer is not to line up the Greyhounds and the U-Hauls and depopulating Suburbia Californicus. It is, rather, to put our imagination and our capital to work finding ways to cut waste and to make water use more efficient in every sector.

If we can do that, the water problem becomes an opportunity for our innovative, optimistic state to make the world a better place and get rich in the process. If the great minds of Silicon Valley and the moneyed mandarins of Sand Hill Road want to find a place to bet on the next boom, maybe our drought is the G-d or the Universe or whoever sending us a not-too-subtle signal on where to look.

Forget biotech. Forget social media. Let’s focus on WaterTech.

 

Harbinger of the Vigilantes

Attacks on Asians Highlight New Racial Tensions – The New York Times.

The history of San Francisco is a standing testament to an important fact: when the police stop protecting the citizenry, the citizenry will take their protection into their own hands.

Nobody wants the Tongs back, least of all the families and the businesspeople of Chinatown. But if the police do not protect the people of the Asian community from predators like Eminike, Bolmer, and Blunt, something is going to fill the vacuum, and it won’t be Batman. It will be vigilantes.

The rallies must be wake-up for a slumbering city.

Seattle and a Sense of Place

I can’t do Seattle. Seattle is just L.A. with bad facial hair and a bad attitude left over from the 1990s.

A little shot from my Texan expatriate friend Mark E.

I like Seattle, so much that I even tried to buy a house in Shoreline some years back, only to wake up in a cold sweat the day after submitting the offer to realize that I had made a horrible mistake, and could not think of why. (The sellers let the offer expire, not even humoring us with a counter, essentially telling us to go jump in Lake Union.)

I now know why I broke out in that sweat, and it has nothing to do with whether Seattle is a nice place or not. It was the wrong place for me, and for my family, and somehow my subconscious knew it, in spite of the page-long single-spaced list we had composed of rational reasons why it was the right place for us to be. We stayed for weeks, loved every minute, but never felt at homecoming.

Those of us who are blessed with the wherewithal to choose from among two or more places to live are often tempted to try to rationalize the choice. But such choices should not be born of reason. They should be born of a voice that speaks to something more elemental in us, that calls to us and tells us that this is the place to be.

I live in California not because it is the wisest choice. It is certainly not the cheapest, least crowded, or least dangerous place to live in America. It does not have the best job prospects, the best transportation options, or the most stable economic foundations.

I live in California because no matter where I am in the state, from Chula Vista to Eureka to Tahoe to Death Valley, I feel at home. I am, as my wife would say, centered here like I am no place else in America or on Earth. Not everyone will feel that way, and I suspect that more than a few of the state’s  38.8 million inhabitants feel horribly out of place here and spend their days trying to convince themselves otherwise. But that is what keeps me here, droughts, economy, earthquakes, and brush fires be damned.

Next time I am in Seattle, I’ll stay a few extra days. I’ll spend a morning at Elliot Bay Books, I’ll linger long afternoons in independent coffee shops, listen to struggling poets and earnest bands, and I’ll take extended walks along the Puget Sound, savoring every minute. And then I’ll fly home to California, grateful for the gifts of the Pacific Northwest, but ever more convinced that the Golden State is home.

Realistic Drought-Busting

Sod the sod: xeriscape!

5 Ways to Bust California’s Drought | TIME.

Bryan Walsh at TIME is probably getting as tired as we are of all of the finger-pointing taking place around California about water wasting. Enough of the mutually vilifying PR battles between almond growers, city water districts, and the oil industry. Finger pointing and calls for draconian measures (uprooting the state’s avocado trees, shutting down hydrofracking, and rationing drinking water) will not solve the water shortage.

Walsh suggests five sensible, intelligent, and sustainable ways to cut back water without turning the state into a lousy place for people to live. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize xeriscaping as a step very dear to the hearts of GWR editors.

SoCal’s wettest July on record and rumors of a Monster El Niño notwithstanding, we’re going to be in a drought for a while to come, and when we’re out, we need to give the State’s water resources a chance to recover. Each of these steps should be on your radar.