Sunday, February 20, 2005

Kevin's Starr's Coast of Dreams

Kevin Starr’s Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge 1990-2003 is the sixth in a series of books on California history, and the only one written just at the end of the decade it is about. The book gets some things very right about California in the 1990s while it completely misses other.

What’s best about the book the chapter “The Boys from Texas” where he brilliantly covers the mid-1990s deregulation of California’s energy and then the resulting energy crisis shortage of early 2000-1. Starr writes as an angry California nationalist not wanting his state to become an energy colony of “the boys from Texas” but instead energy independent. Further, he gives a good argument for an very unpopular opinion: Governor Gray Davis did as much as he could to get the state through the energy shortage.

Starr in "Zen California" has an enlightening description of the state’s multitude of religious communities including Hindus; Japanense and Tibetan Buddhists; New Age; Protestants, covering the Pentecostal revival; Catholics, focusing on the impact of Mexican Catholics; and Jews. In “Diversity” he paints good portraits of the growth of immigrant communities from Mexicans to Asians to Muslims, Armenians, and Russians. In his chapter “Immigrants to the Rescue” he powerfully argues that immigrant busnisspeople have started small businesses and new industries and also immigrant professionals have important jobs in high tech industries--both were key to the state’s economic recovery.

Starr counters the prejudiced idea that California is becoming a nightmare of impoverished immigrants by showing how many immigrants are contributing to economic life as well as becoming established by buying homes and moving into the middle and upper middle classes. His idea of the “dream” does capture these dream riven people. These immigrant success stories need to be told—Starr does a good job of telling it.

But even here Starr ignores an important story. He neglects entirely another key event: Latino trade union leaders such as Gilbert Cedillo as well as immigrant activists such as Jose Guiterrez organized a huge demonstration against Proposition 187 and then started drives to naturalize Latinos and register them as voters. These registration drives helped to elect Latino politicians. Also Miguel Contreras, the new head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, had unionists work hard to mobilize Latinos and trade unionists, contributing to the effort to elect first Latino candidates and then progressive non-Latinos. These efforts helped create the strong progressive bloc of legislators in the state assembly and senate, thus changing both Los Angeles's and California's politics and policies.

Starr has similar strengths and weaknesses in his discussion of the environment. He gives an excellent statewide panorama of California’s environmental problem from sprawl in the Central Valley to statewide drought to conflict over redwoods to corruption in building Los Angeles's subway. The only environmental group he does discuss is Earth First--their attempt to stop Pacific Lumber’s cutting of old growth redwoods in Humboldt County--but he describes them as quaint but uncivil remnants of the 1960s.

His “Going Green” chapter omits the many citizen’s groups that have reshaped the state. In Los Angles, these groups have had great impact: a coalition West L.A. group saved from the developers a remnant of Ballona Wetlands, the last wetlands in Los Angeles; Friends of the Los Angeles River and Latino politicians got the state to pass 1999 bill establishing the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy as well as established bike paths along the river; the Desert Chapter of Los Angeles Sierra Club persuaded the U.S. congress to pass legislation for a new national park made up of Joshua Tree, Death Valley and parts of Mohave; the Chinatown Yard Alliance, which is a coalition of Anglo, Chinatown and Latino groups, successfully fought Mayor Riordan to keep the old railroad land called the Cornfields from being industrialized and got itinstead turned into park with an elementary school.

This is just Los Angeles—the missing story is even Los Angeles has a powerful environmental movement. The second missing story is that throughout the state environmental citizens groups were a political power. The third missing story is Anglo environmentalists on the Los Angeles’s Westside are now working politically with Chinese, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in such groups as the Chinatown Yard Alliance. These citizens groups and coalitions are hardly 1960s remants but the new politics of the 1990s and the 2000s

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