Where is the California Dream?

The spring semester is shaping up to be busier than I expected, and it appears that I will have to revise down my initial expectations on posting frequency. In any case, after over half a year of living in Berkeley, I wanted to write a few thoughts about the state I now live in.

This semester, I’ve been taking a class at Berkeley called ‘Climate Change & the Future of California’. While I haven’t been super engaged in the scientific material, this course has, predictably given the title, put California front and centre. Take this passage from the course reader (a chapter called ‘Getting to Know the Golden State’):

Associate Professor Beverly Hogue at Marietta College in Ohio (who specializes in 20th Century literature) brought her students to California in 2011. She made it clear in an L.A Times interview published in 2012: “The popular culture’s image of California is a place where anything can happen. We still see it as a place of possibility.” Perhaps it was once best expressed in a portion of the University of California, Berkeley’s 2004 description for their course on California posted on their website, an expression that is just as relevant today: “California may be ‘a state of mind’- as bumper stickers say-  but it is also the most powerful place in the most powerful country in the world. Its wealth and diversity in both human and natural resources has contributed to its extraordinary resilience, making it a centre of technological and cultural innovation.” Their course description in 2012 included, “California has been called ‘the great exception’ and ‘America, only more so’.

I do not claim to fully understand California after a mere half year living here. I’ve also definitely seen some of the things that help make California (or at least the Bay Area) such an exciting place: its liberal and tolerant attitude, its inclination towards innovation and experimentation, and its cultural diversity. But I find cheerleading to the extent given in the passage above difficult to swallow. California is perhaps a “centre of technological and cultural innovation” and “a place of possibility”. But I would have to add a qualification: not for everyone is the Golden State such a place of possibility.

California has one of the highest levels of income disparities in the union. More of America’s richest live in California than anywhere else, but the state is home to many of the nation’s poorest. This chasm is extremely visible, and I want to illustrate this very clearly.

On Sunday, I decided to visit a friend from high school in San Francisco. Walking to downtown Berkeley, I come across a homeless person every once in a while along the way sleeping on the streets. On the Bay Area’s train (a horrendously run-down system), a clearly mentally ill man comes on the train and yells to himself for 20 minutes, apparently talking to both God and the Devil at the same time. Getting off near Union Square in San Francisco it is once again not difficult to spot homeless people wandering around. Taking the train back to Berkeley, a disabled man paces up and down, begging for spare change.

This, in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the richest places on Earth.

I’m hardly the only person who notices this. Last month, The Guardian ran a piece titled ‘San Francisco or Mumbai? UN envoy encounters homeless life in California‘. While the piece is worth reading in its entirety, the following passage is also illuminating:

““The last time I saw cooking on a sidewalk,” Farha said, “was in Mumbai.”…”The situation is unacceptable in light of the wealth of the country,” she said, adding that she was “deeply, deeply concerned” by the homelessness she saw…In 2011, a UN representative visited Sacramento. After discovering that homeless people were defecating into plastic bags, the official wrote to the city’s mayor. Such circumstances, she said, could amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Another report in the San Francisco Chronicle explains how tourists endlessly complain about “the city’s miserable street scene that’s made all the more stark against the backdrop of so much wealth and luxury”. (As the article puts it: “Tiffany’s and tents. Neiman Marcus and needles. Macy’s and mental illness.”).

It would be bad enough if income inequality was merely the difference between people who are barely able to support themselves and the top executives in Silicon Valley. It’s a different case altogether when the poorest literally live on the streets as the Silicon Valley executives walk by. Why does California allow this situation to persist? Why does America’s richest state allow wretched levels of poverty to coexist seamlessly with unimaginable wealth.  This is a question that I’ve been wrestling with ever since arriving here.

It certainly isn’t the case that efforts aren’t being made to combat the problem; the city of San Francisco, for example, spends millions every year into the homelessness issue. But this problem cannot be solved at city hall, as former San Francisco mayor (and now gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom admitted. Stringent regulations and opposition from landowners makes it impossible to build the much needed additional housing that would help reduce housing prices in dense population regions.

Take Berkeley, for example. Mayor Jesse Arreguin tweeted:

Yes, the mayor of a city with what is essentially a homelessness crisis is publicly opposing new legislation that would allow new housing to be built more quickly and with much less regulation, because of the “immense” change it would bring to Berkeley.

I personally find this astounding: that so many Bay Area progressives, so emphathetic in so many other areas, are not willing to guarantee to their fellow citizens one of the most basic of human rights: the right to housing. How are Californians comfortable with this? How can Californians continue to ignore this?

Outgoing governor Jerry Brown said in this year’s State of the State, “Simply put, California is prospering. While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and the endless opportunities bestowed on this special place.” California may indeed be one of the richest and most powerful states in the union. It may be a trendsetter and a experimental place where the newest technological and cultural innovations can happen. But does any of that matter if only a few can share in the prosperity that the state is generating? Not once in the State of the State did Brown mention the word ‘inequality’. California is a rich society, but what do we make of a rich society that fails to take care of its most vulnerable?

The California Dream is all about possibility, with the Golden State being the land of opportunity and fortune. The politicians in Sacramento, the executives in Financial District and the technologists in Silicon Valley probably agree. I’m not sure whether the people sleeping on the streets of Telegraph Avenue do, however.


Categories Berkeley

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