Coast of Dreams

Coast of Dreams, a survey of California history since 1990 is full of nuggets that explain the origins of Californian artifacts.
Where did the massive demonstrations in LA against the immigration bill come from? The tactics, from flagwaving, to the student walkouts, to the massive gatherings and the slogans, are repeats of the tactics used to protest proposition 187, the 1994 law that took health care and education services from undocumented immigrants, and was later ruled unconstitutional.
Where did Trader Joe’s come from? The founder’s original target market was Pasadena PhD students who had sophisticated tastes in food and poverty-level budgets.
What’s the economic base of San Diego? It used to be defense contracting, and now is more biotech and telecom.
Why does Silicon Valley have a string of surprisingly lively main streets in its string of suburban towns? It’s actually not uncommon in California, where new urbanist ideas have revived walkable town centers all over the state.
What happened after the LA riots in 1992? High profile redevelopment efforts by Peter Ueberroth and representatives of the oligarchy flopped. Economic revitalization came from an unexpected direction; toy and textile businesses, founded by immigrants who colonized the underutilized downtown buildings.
Why are there green hills in Marin? Because land conservancies have been buying up open space when there would otherwise be expensive housing.
Coast of Dreams tells the history of things that seem too unnatural to have a history; one interesting chapter compares and contrasts the beach culture of Santa Barbara with the golf culture of Palm Springs.
Is it a good book?
If you’ve been following California news closely for the last 15 years, Coast of Dreams might come across as a non-book. It is a collection of stories that one might assemble from reading the paper and watching how the stories develop over the years. The footnotes section is full of citations from the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.
The book does have a loose theme. The economic hard times prompted by the end of the cold war, which caused some skeptics to forecast the end of the California Dream, was followed by a revival led by immigrant business, entertainment and tech. The book has nothing vaguely near the the depth of Common Ground the brilliant J. Anthony Lukas 1986 social history of the Boston busing crisis, which traced the history of the ethnic groups and social institutions in Boston through to their painful collisions in the 70s.
As a newcomer to California, I found Cost of Dreams fascinating. The author, Kevin Starr, was the state librarian and author of a series on California history, and the book contains a smattering of everything Californian, ranging from religion, to real estate development, to surfing history.
The best part of the book is the author’s sprawling knowledge of California visual art, literature, food and sports. The book contains thumbnail portraits of artist Richard Diebenkorn, landscape architect Nancy Goslee Power, novelist James Ellroy, and many other cultural figures. There’s a little gem of a section that wonders why LA’s novelists are so noir, while its poets and architects are cheerful.
Starr has a cheerful, culturally omnivorous esthetic that seems like an LA sensibility that’s different from the glossy cynicism of movie execs and plastic surgery ads. It would be really fun if the book were hypertext, with links to the people, places and pictures, and maybe an annotated google map.
Sometimes Starr’s cultural history is overinterpreted; for example, the growth of mexican-american art festivals is seen as a sign of racial detente in Los Angeles, which is surely a good thing, but not the same as a reduction in violence among Blacks, Latinos and Koreans.
This isn’t the book for a profound examination of causes. Starr writes about the disasters of fire and landslides that affect Southern California; The Control of Nature by John McPhee explains how patterns of fire suppression and building make the pattern inevitable.
Starr documents the brutal costs of the drug war in urban central Los Angeles and the rural Central Valley; but he doesn’t pause to consider alternatives. He refers to the growing economic inequality, but nothing about its causes.
Starr writes about the transformation in American food habits instigated by Alice Waters in Berkeley; Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone tells the juicy details.
In summary, Coast of Dreams is an enjoyable introduction to contemporary California, but it’s far from the last word.

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