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 in 1994.
Where did Trader Joe’s come from? The founder’s origininal target market was Pasadena PhD students who had sophisticated tastes in food and poverty budgets.
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 supported walkable town centers all over the state. (this trend has recently been dubbed The New Suburbanism
What happened after the LA riots? 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.
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 book has a loose theme; the economic hard times prompted by the end of the cold war, and subsequent revival led by immigrant business, entertainment and tech. But the freeway-speed survey has nothing near the the depth of, say, Common Ground, the brilliant social history of the then-recent busing crisis by J. Anthony Lukas.
Many topics require the reader to turn to other sources for depth and analysis. Starr writes about the disasters of fire and landslides that affect neighborhoods in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains near Los Angeles; John McPhee explains how patterns of fire suppression and building make the pattern inevitable, in a superb section of The Control of Nature.
The Coast of Dreams documents the brutal costs of the drug war in central Los Angeles and the rural central valley; but doesn’t pause to consider any alternatives to the policies that create the drug war. Start talks about increasing income stratification, with wealthy entertertainment and tech professionals served by service workers; and agribusiness executives making profits from the labor of migrant farmers; but nothing about cause says little about the macroeconomic and policy causes of the widening gap and decreasing mobility between powerty and wealth.
For a newcomer to California, though, Coast of Dreams is a fine drive through the landscape of recent California history, covering territory from gangs to beach volleyball. The best part of the tour is the author’s meanders through California visual art and literature, with thumbnail portraits of various artists, architects, landscape designers, novelists and poets. There’s a little gem of a section that wonders why LA’s novelists are so noir, while its poets and architects are cheerful. Sometimes the cultural history is overinterpreted; for example, the growth of Mexican-American art festivals is seen as a sign of racial detente in Los Angeles; surely a good thing; but not the same as reducing violence between black, latino, and korean city residents.
It would be really fun if the book were hypertext, with links to the people, places and pictures, and maybe a tour guide.