California Dreamers Now Long Only for Escape


Los Angeles. -- This is a place where mellow has hardened with anxiety and laid-back has acquired an edge. Southern California, the place where people came to get away from it all, now has it all. Unemployment at 9.5. An earthquake at 6.1. A riot at $785 million.

Since World War II, Americans from Iowa and New York have packed up and moved to California. If there was one place to find the American dream of a fresh start and an easier life -- a dream shaped by balmy weather and by Hollywood -- it was in this stretch of land at the edge of the continent.

Now more Americans are leaving than arriving. Sixty percent of the moving vans are taking Californians away. The people who still see this state as the dream are not looking west from Michigan but north from Mexico or east from Asia.

The belief that Southern California was as immune from economic woes as from ice storms has disappeared. The state has lost some 600,000 jobs in the last 18 months. There are more layoffs to come. Here in L.A. County, one in seven people is on food stamps or welfare or some form of aid.

The state whose unfettered conservatism gave the country tax revolts is now paying its workers in IOUs instead of checks. The place whose unfettered optimism gave the country its homeboy Ronald Reagan, has now turned on his successor.

The Orange County Register in the heart of conservative Southern California has called on President Bush to withdraw. Meanwhile the president is reduced to making pro-California videos to allay the fears of Japanese tourists.

The car culture, too, seems to have come to a dead end here. Not just because of the smog, but the human atmosphere. The automobile characterized a city that grew up and out, priding itself on independence and movement, on get up and go.

There was always something about the car that fed on and fed the notion that we were on our own, making our separate way in the world. Now that prize of independence is matched by the bumper-to-bumper burden. There are people who would rather quit the city than commute. And they do.

Even the comic image of the drive-in economy has been matched by the threatening image of a drive-by shooting gallery. The real-estate pages advertise "gated parking" and there may be fewer car phones sold here for business than for safety.

Of all the unease, it is the racial eruption from South-Central L.A. that still casts the grimiest layer over the local consciousness. The reputation for live-and-let-live tolerance and the pride in diversity, that survived Watts and gang warfare and the growing gap between rich and poor, has come up against the video-reality of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, point and counterpoint.

Last weekend, a baseball team from the South-Central community played in Simi Valley -- site of the King trial -- and the Rebuild L.A. leaders have their civic plans. But the energy to revive the community seems to have lost steam. Many in Los Angeles cannot even agree on whether to call the violent nights of April a "riot" of the lawless or an "uprising" of the oppressed.

Indeed, the most optimistic and committed of community activists have turned sober, if not depressed. In a long-ranging interview, Jane Pisano, dean of the School of Public Administration at the University of Southern California, which sits on the edge of the burned-out district, worried most that "one of the biggest problems of the post-April environment is that people have lost hope."

If so, that would be the final irony. In the American mind, California still stands for the "fresh start." It was the trend setter, the great believer in change. Until now, the state hasn't had to weather the upheavals of the Northeast or the Rust Belt. It held onto and held out hope.

Now, this land may be holding out a very different sort of message. California is no longer the national escape hatch, a monument to auto-mobility. The dream, like the buck, stops here.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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