On our journey through the American West, it’s about time to mosey into California, America’s most populous state by far.
To give you an idea of just how popular this “land of milk and honey” became, California is only 1½ times bigger than another western state — Wyoming — but it has 74 times more people. Of course Pacific Ocean beaches, gorgeous fruit groves, a mostly snowstorm-free climate, 14 major-league sports teams (Wyoming has none), six PGA golf-tour events (none, again, in Wyoming), enough vineyards to qualify as “wine country,” more world-class universities than you can count, several theme parks and gorgeous zoos, and the workplace and playground of movie stars make California awfully enticing.
I didn’t even mention the entire forest of awe-inspiring redwoods — the world’s tallest trees.
So why is everybody leaving?
That’s a rank exaggeration, of course. But alluring California, where easterners were once assured “the streets are paved in gold,” is barely holding steady in population. Many of its moderately wealthy elite are leaving or are gone.
Here are some reasons why:
In the 1980s, California accounted for more than one-quarter of the growth of the entire U.S. population, in part because of a massive influx of legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America and Asia. But since 1991, caught in the crash in home values and the loss of millions of jobs in two severe economic downturns; daunted by increasing gang lawlessness in some of California’s biggest cities; and fed up with earthquakes, killer fires, and mudslides, an estimated seven million people have left the state.
In the early ’90s, a Bekins Company executive reported that the moving company was loading three times as many trucks heading out of the state as it was unloading in California. The exodus has slowed, but even last year, according to the American Movers Conference, the percentage was still 60-40 in favor of departures.
Californians have relocated in droves to the brainy, beautiful Pacific Northwest and in the sparsely settled mountain states. States like Colorado and Utah encouraged the rush by actively luring high-tech firms away from California. Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming enjoyed population spurts of about 2 percent — at least twice the growth rate of most other states — from July 2008 to July 2009, the last period reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. So, to quote the New York Times and reversing a popular phrase of the 18th Century, the new rallying cry is “Eastward, Ho!” out of California.
Out With the Rich, in With the Poor
Thomas Cargill, an economics professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, has observed the California exodus with interest. “The people who are leaving the state are the more highly educated, the upper-income groups,” Cargill told me. “People who are entering California, especially from outside the United States, are what economists call the “low-wage category.” They are not all poor people, but people who because of their educational and skill levels can’t command very high wages in the marketplace. And that has a very serious long-term impact on the state budget.”
Cargill told me this long before the current economic recession made things even worse. Just ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger, who today is battling a $20-billion budget deficit and 12 percent unemployment.
Not the kind of rosy circumstances that keep people in-state.
Experts say some of the departures are due to “white flight” from California’s ever-growing racial diversity, or disgust at the state’s regulation of everything from tent specifications to CO2 emissions. As a grocery company executive told me after he left California for a more quiet life in little Scottsbluff, Nebraska, “There’s too much social nonsense out there.”
Another transplant, Bill Beck, took his family of four from fashionable Newport Beach in 1991 and moved to Idaho’s bland capital city, Boise, where he got a good job as president of a development company. He told me — and this was years ago — that his family’s cost of living had exceeded $100,000 a year in Southern California. A lot of the money, he said, went just to keep up with his neighbors. At parties, he told me, a favorite topic of conversation was getting out of the California “rat race.”
“They used to call them ‘ABC’ conversations,” he said. “It meant, ‘Anywhere but California.’”
Perhaps a Bad Match
I can relate. My family and I lived in a beach suburb of Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and we found lots of annoyances that made it, shall I say, bearable to leave California after one year.
At the first cocktail party that I attended, a fellow came up to me, shook my hand, offered his name, then asked, “What do you do, man?” I started to tell him about my new job at an L.A. radio station. “No, no, man,” he interrupted. “You do grass, coke, what?”
He wasn’t asking about my lawn or my preference in soft drinks. Such encounters, and rising drug problems in our kids’ new schools, left us to wonder where “laid-back” L.A. ended and “stoned” began.
My neighborhood was lovely — full of flowers. But it seemed that everyone, including me, was from somewhere else. On our first day in town, a chipper older man who lived across the street stopped by with a plateful of cookies, welcomed us heartily, and invited us to stop over any time to borrow a rake, a cup of sugar, anything. I thought this was quite neighborly.
But he was back the next day, and the next, and the next, asking if there was anything he could do for us. Pretty soon it was evident what he wanted in return. “By the way,” he finally told me, “I’m an Amway distributor, and if you need any soap suds, shoe polish, lipstick for the Missus, I’m your man.” (Amway products are sold from people’s homes rather than big-box stores.) Before long, he was pestering me to come over and watch a video about becoming an Amway products salesman myself, with him as my supplier. Finally, I had to tell him to leave us alone.
The very next day, a note in delicate calligraphy appeared in our mailbox. It read something like, “Hi!! We saw the moving van and knew you must have come quite a ways. We live just down the street, and we’d like to help make you feel at home in Manhattan Beach. Please stop by!!! We’ll tell you all about the community.” The note was signed with the couple’s name and their address a few houses away.
Then came this postscript: “By the way, we represent Amway products, and if you ever need something, we’ve got it for you!”
The town was crawling with Amway salesmen!! An anomaly, no doubt, but the experience was the first of many that gave us the idea that, to get ahead in fast-moving, competitive California, you had to have an “angle.”
On the Road to Nowhere
Our home was 40 kilometers (25 miles) from my workplace in Hollywood, north of Los Angeles. L.A. is ginormous — gigantic and enormous —as you can see if you fly in from the east at night. After hours of virtual darkness, you cross the San Bernardino Mountains and behold a dazzling spectacle of lights below, clear to the Pacific Ocean.
A 40-kilometer commute to a really good job would have been tolerable if the spaghetti tangle of freeways between south and north L.A. had been passable. But even five or six lanes on each side of the road — it’s seven now in some spots — were not sufficient to keep traffic moving. So I took what Los Angelenos call “surface streets,” as if freeways don’t have surfaces. Each day was a cat-and-mouse game, trying to beat this light, get the edge at that intersection, find new shortcuts through somebody else’s quiet streets.
No wonder people at the radio station were cranky before their work even started. Only when they talked about their avocations — their skateboarding or surfing or wine sampling — did their countenances brighten. They had daydreams if not dreams, none of which made the job of motivating them any easier.
One day, a Manhattan Beach patrol car followed me for three blocks as I strolled down to the beach. I wasn’t a menacing figure, I didn’t think, but the patrol officer pulled alongside, buzzed down his window, and asked me what I was doing and where I was going. When I told him, he replied, “OK, no problem. Most people drive around here.”
Californians even have their own lingo about it. They speak of the 5, the 99, the 405, the Santa Monica, the Pomona, and so forth. Freeways all — the “free” being a misnomer when it comes to open lanes or making good time.
“They used to call them ‘ABC’ conversations,” he said. “It meant, ‘Anywhere but California.’”
My Kingdom for a Maple
I also longed for eastern greenery and even humidity. And for seasons. Los Angeles has three of them:
•A perpetual spring from March through December, when daytime temperatures are moderate, nights are ideal for barbecuing, but the air is often afoul with automobile exhaust. • A quick, cool winter in January and February, when storms off the Pacific prompt mudslides that can send fine homes sliding down the bluffs above Laurel Canyon and Malibu. • And a week or two of summer sometime in July or August, when broiling “Santa Ana” winds off the desert blow westward, blocking ocean breezes and turning the L.A. basin into a terrarium of smog.
For decades, most Californians had gladly put up with it all in return for the state’s amenities — not to mention the astronomic increase in their savings and home values. Yes, the cost of living was high, but ordinary people grew extraordinarily rich. At least on paper.
Kelly Peterson, a commercial banker who left for a better job in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the mid-1990s, described Southern California as “a love affair gone bad.” “Growing up elsewhere,” he told me, “I always thought California was the perfect place to live. For [our family], I guess the dream was broken. It let us down. In the end, it had gotten to the point where I don’t think the California that most people think of in their minds really exists anymore.”
Others told me they left because they feared gang violence, the spread of drugs into suburban neighborhoods, and what some described as a “valley girls” mentality. “Valley Girl” was a 1983 movie that depicted a bored, spoiled, hedonistic California lifestyle and gave us phrases such as “totally, dude” that, like, you know, made the whole nation, like, seem like slackers.
For two decades now, Californians have taken what, in many cases, was considerable money that they accumulated in California and moved to cleaner, safer, less crowded, more scenic mid-sized towns elsewhere. There, they easily qualified for good jobs and bought magnificent homes dirt cheap, by California standards. That left enough money to open trendy boutiques, gift shops, art galleries, and fresh-fish markets that seemed an odd fit in the dusty towns of the Old West.
Their free spending drove up the cost of housing for everyone else and turned many of their new neighbors against them. “If they want to come to our rural states and tell us how to live our lives,” a Pocatello, Idaho, electrician told me, “then they’re not welcome.”
Emmett Watson, a Seattle, Washington, newspaper columnist, groused to me that “Californians come up here, and what they’re like, they’re like a cat that adopts you, you know. He comes to your doorstep. Well, that cat comes in and just takes over. And it never occurs to the cat, or the Californian, that we can do without them very easily.”
On the other hand, even Kelly Peterson, whose disillusionment with California led him to leave for Nevada, got his back up about California stereotypes. “I have every right to move to a place just the same as anyone else does,” he says. “I’m sorry if I’m from California and been exposed to whatever culture I’ve been exposed to. Wherever I’m from, if I choose a new place and try to make a lifestyle that’s comfortable for myself and for my family, I would say to those people, ‘Deal with it.’”
There’s a Catch-22 at work here. The influx of Californians raises the sophistication, cultural and educational levels, home values, and product options in what had been rather ordinary western towns. But the newcomers’ very presence destroys the beauty and solitude that drew them there. Wildlife habitats have been disrupted by the intrusion of housing tracts. And pristine valleys fill with traffic and pollution, just like the smog clouds that Californians left behind.
“It’s not a good idea to say you’re from California,” Bill Beck in Boise told me. “Californians tend to tell the people in Idaho, ‘You’re a country bumpkin, you’re a hick. I’m going to show you what a nice house is like, how to run a company, what makes a good restaurant.’ Pretty soon, people resent you.”
Despite all these troubling vibes about California, I look forward to sharing stories of some memorable — though not all beautiful — places in the “Golden State.”
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