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Kevin Starr’s California

I’ve been reading some of Kevin Starr’s volumes on the history of California — particularly tuning into his descriptions of the Progressive movement in California in the early 1900’s which led to the various “direct democracy” abilities so unique to California. One book in particular, Inventing the Dream, has two chapters devoted to this subject.

I think the following brief description, from a Q&A at a Commonwealth Club talk given by Starr last year, captures the time very well:

David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University, wrote in November 1898 in The Atlantic Monthly an essay entitled “California and the Californians,” saying California is corrupt, I’m very depressed, what are we going to do? A group of lawyers met at Levy’s Café in Los Angeles in 1907 and formed the Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican League. Three short years later, the 37-year-old reform governor Hiram Johnson was elected governor, and within the legislative sessions between 1911 and 1919, the fundamental California that we have today was shaped. California was, in effect, re-founded during that period.

What’s interesting is the 20 year period that elapsed during which the reforms took place — hardly overnight. Much of this energy resulted from the tight control that Southern Pacific had on the state in the late 1800’s — with much of both state and local government in California being in SP’s hip-pocket. Most of this energy for reform came from the midwesterners who had migrated to southern California, not from the immigrants who were more dominant in northern California.

I also enjoyed another of Starr’s answers regarding the DotCom era in California:

Q: How will history characterize the dot-com ascendancy and demise, particularly in California?

A: Well, it was a great time to be young. The dot-commers will always have those memories, just like the gold miners in 1849 had theirs. It’s extraordinary, the great triumphing of the dot-com, and then suddenly San Francisco is filled with empty offices one morning, with still-steaming cartons of Chinese food left on the tables. The young men and women who were part of that dreamt those great dreams, felt the exhilaration of being on the cutting edge, had that sense that their life could be suddenly and dramatically transformed. So it collapsed. So what? They’ll be back with us dreaming other dreams, doing other great things.

That imagery of the “still-steaming cartons of Chinese food” certainly captures some of the flavor of that era! But I especially enjoy Starr’s upbeat conclusion from what many lament — “They’ll be back with us dreaming other dreams, doing other great things”.

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