California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963: An Interview With Kevin Starr

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University of Southern California Professor Kevin Starr has just released the eighth book in his “Americans and the California Dream” series. The latest entry takes on the pivotal period when California, emerging from World War 2, became the quintessential symbol of the American Dream. In this detailed tapestry Starr chronicles California’s economy, infrastructure, culture, along with the professors, politicians and benefactors who shaped the state. Along the way he introduces the elements in contrast to all this; the poets, writers and protestors who would soon transform the face of California along with the larger Untied States as the relative calm of the 50s and early 60s gave way to the volatility of the mid-1960s.

I was struck at the degree that California in the Post World War II period came to embody the United States as the world’s pre-eminent empire. It is something that seems to course throughout your book. From the mega-defense industry, right down to gardens and patios that have their design roots in imperial Rome. How do you see this and what did you have in mind when you set down to write?

I was born in San Francisco in 1940, having come of age during this time, and having lived subsequent to it, I was very aware as a Californian that this was the period in which the infrastructure of modern California--post war California--was laid down. And basically that infrastructure has lasted until this day. The physical infrastructure like the freeways, but also the social infrastructure -- like the higher education plan -- and the psychological infrastructure. This was a developing commonwealth en route to nation-state status--you use the word imperial--but I would say nation-state status. Certainly that has come true even with all its troubles, politically California is the eighth largest economy on the planet.

I was aware of all those things in vague terms. As I went through the material--I spent five years with the book--I had the opportunity to corroborate and expand my own defined memories, selective memories of California during this time.

Everywhere I looked I saw this state in one way or another, responding to population growth, and in one way or another laying down this infrastructure, physical, social, and psychological.

I live in Brooklyn and have been trained to see the Dodgers move to Los Angeles from the stand of decline. What I never quite got was the element of ascent and the larger cultural metaphor you bring out. You write “Dodger Stadium, like Disneyland, constituted an idealization of what was being presented in this case, baseball: not as enjoyed by the boisterous fans of Ebbets Field, yelling and screaming for their beloved Bums from seats with obstructed sight-lines, but an entertainment being appreciated by well-behaved middle-class Los Angelenos.” Why was this move such a big deal culturally?

If I were to do that chapter over again, I would put more time into what a violative thing it was to take that from Brooklyn. I’m not a big sports fan--though I do love the 49ers in professional football--but certainly the relationship between cities and their teams is very important. It goes back, look at the Blues and the Greens in ancient Constantinople, the chariot races, the gladiators, etc. The whole intensity of civic symbology of athletics. Taking that from such a developed community as Brooklyn, so articulated, that meant so much to them...I actually had a little bit more about that but it didn’t make it into the book.

In reverse, everything that it meant to be lost by Brooklyn it also meant, with the same intensity, to be gained by Los Angeles. Which is to say the illusion of it, at least the symbols of coherence, civic status, and achieved urban identity. As I emphasize in the book it was deeply politically complex and indeed had to go for a referendum before the voters and did not pass with an overwhelming majority. There were a lot of people at that time who thought that Los Angeles did not need that. That Walter O’Malley was demanding too much.

Now notice to this day, Los Angeles does not have a professional football team. I also chronicle in the book the intensity of the Los Angeles Rams after World War 2 and the relationship they played to Los Angeles, playing in the Coliseum and how successful they were. Well the Rams have left Los Angeles, the Raiders have left Los Angeles. There is something about Los Angeles today that doesn’t collapse if it doesn’t have a football team.

I thought I was going to be bored reading the chapter on freeways; instead it was among my favorites. For example you say “Place--where one lived and worked--began increasingly to be perceived in terms of the attached motion, automotive and solipsistic of the commute involved.” How integral was the development of this particular type of roadway to what we know as modern-day California?

The parkway movement actually began in New York in the 1920s. Then it went over to Detroit, and rather disquietingly had significant development in Nazi Germany with the autobahn movement. I don’t claim that California invented that.

On the other hand you have a question now of millions of people coming into a, for all practical purposes, undeveloped region. This is especially true in southern California. Not only do you have to domesticate, build and develop and create an infrastructure, you have to create a mental map. You have to know where you are. You have to define to yourself where you are. For someone living in say Brooklyn, that’s defined for you all the time. Part of the greatness of New York, not just Manhattan but Brooklyn and the other boroughs is telling you all the time where you are, what the implied narrative is. I remember at the end of the last episode of Sex and the City, some of the people leave New York and go somewhere else and one of the women characters says, “I wonder where people go when they leave New York?” Because New York is constantly providing you that mental map of narrative of where you are, the story of where you are, the architecture tells you.

In Southern California you didn’t have that. You had that in some of the older places. And most of the suburbs incidentally were built up around previously existing agricultural towns, so you were wedded to the center of that. But as far as these new places were concerned, freeways defined that. The transportation grid defined that. Because the place was so new, as I suggested, people had to make their own definition of where they were and they tended to define it in terms of how you got there, in terms of how you go out of there. How you entered and how you egressed it daily.

The freeways became more than just corridors, they became deep aspects of identification--psychological and spatial identification. I think I quote one of Joan Didion’s novels where the heroine rides on the freeway when she’s in a condition of stress.

I’m not making a unique claim for that. Route 128 played a comparable role in the development of suburban Boston. In any of my books I don’t try to see California as unique, I see it as in many cases a working out American type solutions.

In your chapter, “Cold War University” you say, “The strength of California was that of a garrison state.” You then describe the role of defense spending in the overall California economy and the interplay of that, with the university system as well as its various think tanks.

There’s this one chilling passage where a professor warns of a ‘peace scare,’ “as might come about following the forthcoming visit of Nikita Krushchev to the United States, it would throw the region into an economic panic.” Was he being ironic? How do you see this conflict between an ascendant California resting on an economy fueling technology of the most absolute destruction?

He was being ironic, but he was also saying that if you make this Faustian bargain with defense and peace breaks out you're going to be in big trouble. Part of the DNA code of California is military right from the beginning. One of the reasons we, meaning the United States, wanted to get to California and to seize it from Mexico was its strategic importance on the Pacific.

Later on as we developed under people like Admiral Mahan -- who had a tremendous influence on Theodore Roosevelt -- we developed to use your earlier phrase, as an imperial power. We began to realize that the United States had a 360 degree defense obligation which put even more emphasis on the Asia Pacific, specifically naval power in the Asia Pacific.

So California which was seized by the military, governed by the military between 1846 and 1850, then became the headquarters for the Pacific Fleet etc, experiences in World War 2 this tremendous presence -- as a training ground. 1.2 Million soldiers come through the Bay Area for shipment into the South Pacific in the Pacific Theater. You have an enormous amount of the United States air core training in Southern California. And you have the most money spent -- along with Michigan, Texas, New York, California -- in airplane manufacturing and ship manufacturing.

That’s all from the previous period.

The relationship to the rise of the nuclear era is not exclusive to California, far from it, it's international. On the other hand with the Livermore Lab, with Orlando Lawrence getting the Nobel Prize in the late 30 early 40s, with the cyclotron, Oppenheimer from Berkeley and Cal-Tech being the chief executive officer of the atomic project there is a relationship of California to the rise of atomic power.

Then you have the flowering of this -- if you can use that term -- in the Cold War period; like the Rand Corporation, Stanford Research, Howard Hughes, the various think tanks that I chronicle there, rising up doing defense work. Then there is the actual defense manufacturing, especially in aerospace in Southern California, but also in the Sacramento area and Sunnyvale area as well.

All that is tied up, as I suggest, with the University of California and with Stanford University. And I try and suggest what I call the rise of a Cold War campus oriented toward defense. And the culmination of this thinking, trying to domesticate it.

At the end of that chapter I describe what occurred in the early the 60s and Clark Kerr’s [Chancellor of University of California] lectures on the multiversity, where he tries to domesticate this concept. Of course he’s successful in as much as the voters, the taxpayers of California, have been reasonably happy to support the rise of the nine campus University of California system.

There is also the Higher Education Act of 1960, the Donahoe Act. This established a total system of two year community colleges. So there is a multi-campus university of California system, and a multi-campus state universities system. You have the implicit evolution of the state of California as a higher education utopia. This is a plan that was taken very dramatically by New York, by all your campuses, the State University of New York idea. Even today you look at Pennsylvania, New Jersey, a lot of states have highly coordinated their public educational offerings into one comprehensive system.

When you discuss the major cities of California; San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angles you unfold the power structures as essentially oligarchies. On one level this seems counter-intuitive, the U.S. is technically a republic, yet you make a convincing portrait of powerful individuals constituting oligarchs who actually wield a significant amount of political power. Could you talk about that?

Well the United States is certainly a republic constitutionally in terms of its federal government. Nowhere, and correct me if I’m wrong, in the constitution is the word “city” used. In other words, the city as a political entity, the polis, is an ancient political institution. If you go beyond kinship and tribe the city is the oldest institution. After all that’s, at least in our Western tradition, the Athenian/Greek governmental system. Look at the wars between Carthage and Rome for the control of the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire was city-centric long before the rise of the nation-state. And indeed certain cities like Venice were republics. Cities have a relationship to authority, not mentioned in our constitution. As American cities grew up in the pre-Civil War period they were not sovereign. Sovereignty belonged to the state.

Cities also grew up, and the cities tended to be governed by their oligarchical elites. You take a look at your own New York, take a look at the names of the early mayors there and the early councilmen before the Civil War period and you have Van Rensellear and Clinton all these old Anglo-Dutch elite names, who ran the city. It was as if the chamber of commerce ran the city. Well after the Civil War, starting in the 1870s, 80s, 90s, cities began to get more and more power from their states, the states had the power, and began to share more power with the cities and could issue bonds and do other things and they became much more complicated civic entities. On the other hand those oligarchies did not vanish.

The role that oligarchical elites play in cities, not just in the United States obviously, but across the world is a pretty recurrent pattern in urban history. So in this case by looking at oligarchical elites, and what they fashion for themselves in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles in this period I was able to approach urban history from that perspective. To say we have elites is not to say we didn’t have elective government at that time or that broad social movements were not there too. But it was the elites who brought in the ball teams, who built the museums and the art centers etc. Same as in New York, who built the Metropolitan? Who built the Guggenheim? Who built the Museum of Modern Art? They were mainly initiated out of the private sector.

At one point you quote LA Police Chief William Parker as saying, “The Federal Civil Rights act of 1964 had promised blacks too much.” You also describe the Watts riots as “a civil insurrection of historic magnitude.” Could you talk about the connection of these two things?

You have an implicit covenant between the Los Angeles Police Department and the City of Los Angeles, because it was growing so rapidly. Here’s a city that in the 1910s-1920s took in over a million people. That’s a big growth--and a percentage of those coming in were unstable or outright criminals etc. So Parker modernizes the police department, which had a kind of a civil service status, it became an institutional power in Los Angeles. But as Los Angeles began to fill up during the 1930s and World War 2 with African Americans, he lost connection with that community altogether -- the police department did -- in a very dramatic way. I remember talking about the statistics about just the year before the Watts riots, of shootings of African Americans, violent encounters with the police. So you have a complete dysfunctional relationship between this praetorian guard police department and this particular community and it's bound to blow and it does.

There is this dialectic running throughout the book -- the tension between the established order erected in California after World War 2, and elements simmering just below the surface, “prophetic suggestions of things to come” as you say. This comes through from the controversy over Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, the demonstrations against hearings of the House un-American Activities Committee, the death penalty execution of Caryl Chessman. In one sense your book ends at the precipice, when it all comes undone. How do you see this tension?

I try to suggest that during all this time there were other voices, other points of view. I got at them through artists and bohemians and others. I try and suggest in the chapter on minorities that during this time, there was the whole experience of the [interned] Japanese, the Bracero Program, the organization of Mexican farm workers into a union with Ceasar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Movement.

Then in the chapter on the silent generation I tend to emphasize the conformity -- and this is not just a California issue it obviously an American issue -- the conformity of that smaller generation to which I belong between the World War 2 generation and the boomers.

So you have all throughout the book -- as you suggest -- an implied dialectic.

I end in 1963 because in so many ways 1963 feels closer to 1957 than it does to 1965, 1966, 1967. Certainly by the late 60s you’re in another mood entirely. Certainly on the Coast, in New York, the Chicago area, etc. I just wanted to link up the dissent and just suggest that it was there. All things considered I think I spent a good part of the book, suggesting the dissent, without pushing it too far.

This is a huge undertaking. How do you go about compiling all this?

You make your decisions and they harden behind you. There’s two ways to do it. You could write a book of theoretical formulation, if I were a theorist, but I am not. I’m not anti-theory, I’m going to tell you what happened. I’m going to give you the metaphysics of what happened.

Or you could say I’m going to do a realist mural in which I outline events which I think best exemplify the underlying historical processes in that particular period. In this case from 1950-63.

Someone else might decide to focus more on things I looked at but I didn’t go into. So you make a decision, it is arbitrary. On the other hand I suspect there are certain things that anyone writing such a work would cover, i.e. the cold war campus, the freeways, the water plan -- because those are such massive public infrastructure statements about what was going on. So it's a question of taste and selection that has an element of personal arbitrariness

What are you currently working on?

I’m going to take a break from the series now. I’m just finishing a very short book on the Golden Gate Bridge as an American icon. I also have a fine press book, Clio on the Coast: the Writing of California History 1848-1948 coming out by the Book Club of California.


Kevin Starr is University Professor and Professor of History, University of Southern California, and State Librarian of California Emeritus. His Americans and the California Dream series has earned him the National Medal for the Humanities, the Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University, the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California, a Guggenheim fellowship, and election to the Society of American Historians.


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