SAN FRANCISCO -- California still produces 90 percent of the country’s avocados, 91 percent of its grapes and 92 percent of its plums and prunes. Four out of five almonds produced on Earth are grown here. But the growth that made California a cultural leader as well as an agricultural leader is over.
Throughout its history, California has been a magnet for those who wanted to start over, start a business, start a trend — or just to startle the people, especially the parents back home. It was the place for big dreams and big opportunities, big riches, big ideas, big houses, big highway systems and big hits (and, sometimes, big financial busts) in the movie and recording businesses. More recently the emphasis has been on big data.
But the state that now accounts for one in eight Americans — a coastal megastate with 38 million people, about the size of the entire United States when Ulysses S. Grant was president and bigger than Canada today — is slowing down. In the last three years its growth, which customarily far exceeded the rate across the country, has settled down to about the national rate, with people pouring out of the state and into Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
This is a compelling demographic story, to be sure, but it is an even more important cultural phenomenon. And it reflects economic conditions on the ground that have created, more than ever, two Californias.
One is a wealthy coastal California, basically the footprint of Spanish California from 1769 to 1882 and Mexican California from 1822 to 1846, stretching from San Diego north through San Francisco and into suburban Marin County. The other is an inland California that is economically deprived and politically embattled.
“We have a Mediterranean paradise in the Bay area,’’ says James S. Fay, a retired political scientist at California State East Bay, “and an economic drought and very hard times in other parts of the state.”
This reflects national trends, which isn’t surprising because national trends almost always start here or are starker here. A state that pioneered progressivism in the beginning of the 20th century and modern conservatism in the second third of the last century is living out the divide between rich and poor — and the crisis of the middle class — in ways that are more dramatic than elsewhere but that might be heralds of what will happen elsewhere.
This city (and Silicon Valley just south of here) stands as a graphic example, a time-lapse-photography example of how the economic divide is growing in ever-changing California.
For generations San Francisco was a bohemian magnet congenial to, in turn, socialism, labor activism, literary daring, drug abuse, cultural escape and digital innovation. Today monthly rents for small apartments here are roughly the same as the price of a serviceable used car in the Midwest.
“California is not an alternative place to live anymore,” says Kevin Starr, a University of Southern California historian and former state librarian who has written a celebrated seven-volume history of the state. “You don’t come to California to drop out anymore. You come here to compete in a culture that is upwardly mobile and wealthy.”
At the heart of modern California’s population profile is who comes to California today — but, more important, who doesn’t come.
California is far less of a lodestone for immigrants than it was a generation ago; more now go elsewhere, especially to the Southeast and Mountain West. From 1990 to 2000, the growth among foreign-born in California reached beyond 37 percent. But the growth rate in the 21st century is less than half that, about 16 percent.
The new California question is whether slower growth will change the character of the state.
“California is different,” says William Frey, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and research professor with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. “Michigan was once the land of people’s dreams, the place to go after World War II. But the dream moved on.”
It moved to California.
California dreamin’ — the phrase comes from a Mamas and the Papas song written in New York a half-century ago — is a peculiar strain of the American Dream. It is rooted in a state that is both a geographical location and a cultural idea — and a cultural ideal, expressed in the transformation from Sutter’s Mill to Silicon Valley in five generations, and from Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” to Jim Collins’s “Good to Great” in three.
For decades people came here to grow rich (the 1849 Gold Rush), to fulfill their dreams (Hollywood), to find middle-class prosperity (the aviation industry that grew up around Los Angeles during and after World War II), to escape privation (the Oakies), to talk dirty (the podiatrist’s son Lenny Bruce), to identify new cultural icons (seeing the Kingston Trio at the Hungry i before your friends ever heard of them), to live openly without apologies (gays along Castro Street in San Francisco) or to experiment with drugs or alternative lifestyles (Haight-Ashbury).
Part of that grows out of California’s size, big enough for 18 New Hampshires, the state that claimed for its own a poet, Robert Frost, born in San Francisco. But the unchanging thing about California is change.
Over the years California changed the way we dress, think, talk, tax, read, sing, pray, protest, vote, drink, cook and compost. It has changed the way we make love, make war, make pizza and make right turns (on red). It spawned the student protest and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It produced a youth culture and a 76-year-old governor once known as Moonbeam.
Upton Sinclair called California “a parasite upon the great industrial centers” of America, but since 1945 the reverse is true. Even without growth, today’s California is anything but stagnant.
“The new generation and the Gold Rushers — and those from Asia and Latin America — came to California to strike it rich, or just to make their way,” says Mr. Frey, the Brookings demographer. “They couldn’t have made it in the East or in their native countries. They start businesses, they invent new things.”
That may not be happening quite as much as it once did. But it still is happening more than it is where the rest of us live.