THE BLOG

California: Still the Golden State

05/11/2015 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

While driving around Los Angeles's vastness last week, I kept getting a déjà vu feeling, and not just because I'd been in LA before.

My trip reminded me of motoring in the '60s, even in the Northeast, with the new and still mostly uncrowded Interstates, cheap gasoline and capacious sense of freedom so that you'd think nothing of jumping into your car, be it a beat-up Chevy or a death-trap VW bug (with the gas tank over your lap), and happily drive for hours to vague destinations.

There's lots of color in my memories, but also black and white, as in those old "Perry Mason" and "Dragnet'' shows set in '50's L.A. They and the many films noirs shot in California (e.g., "The Big Sleep'') recall Somerset Maugham's calling the French Riviera a "sunny place for shady people.''

Southern California is preposterous: mountains covered with highly flammable brush and an earthquake-vulnerable desert made to bloom with water diverted/stolen from the Sierra. And yet, as I GPS'ed from Pasadena and the hip neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Mount Washington across Beverly Hills and out to the farthest points in Malibu, I saw few signs that people were worried.

Lots of water is still being wasted to evaporation via sprinklers and always-uncovered swimming pools - which seem to play more of an aesthetic than an exercise or cooling-off role. A few cars have stickers with which owners laud themselves for saving water by not washing their vehicles, but most seemed recently washed. You view only a few more cactus gardens and a tad fewer fantastically green lawns than two decades ago.

The state is starting to crack down on water waste with big fines, but it can only be the beginning, assuming that the statewide drought continues.

And yet, young people, many fleeing New York's frigid winters, sweltering summers and astronomical rents are pouring into Los Angeles these days, drawn by the Mediterranean climate, cheaper and more spacious housing and a very contemporary species of decentralized creativity. (Few have read Nathanael West's dystopian L.A. novel, Day of the Locusts.)

They love Californians' ingenuity, most famously in recent decades in Silicon Valley but all over the state, as well as its style, much more relaxed than the Northeast's.

The innovative spirit seems to overcome pessimism and anxiety about drought, general environmental destruction, earthquakes and undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. So California remains the Golden State, the quintessence of the American Dream.

Whether even worse drought, a big quake or a surge in gasoline prices would end car-dependent Los Angeles's latest boom is unknowable. In any event, mass transit is being expanded. Yes, you can take light rail in the City of Los Angeles.

This reinvention ethos also characterizes New England, with its 'er, vigorous climate and rocky soil. Especially in Greater Boston, the capacity to churn out inventions keeps saving our region's economy, albeit with the occasional recession.

Of course, Southern California has a sunny climate. But we have lots of fresh water, which in the long run is even better. Still, I now think that the Golden State has enough Hollywood and Silicon Valley risk-taking inventiveness to assure its long-term prosperity. Giant solar-powered desalinization plants on the Paramount lot?

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Kudos to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo for tackling waste in the state Medicaid program. Oregon provides a model of how to do this. Medicare is a much bigger national cost problem for America but harder to control: The old have better lobbyists than the poor.

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Rachel Held Evans's Washington Post piece, "Want Millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church 'cool''' was spot-on. Trying to maintain religion through trendy marketing is doomed. We seek ritual that resists the gyrations of modern commercial culture. We want the permanent and the transcendent to help maintain our sanity.

Even if we don't believe the theology, we'll take, say, "The Book of Common Prayer'' over a Facebook "spirituality''. The faster that technology and the consumer economy go, the more we need the quietly "traditional.''


Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based editor and writer and a partner in Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a health-care-sector consultancy. He is also a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a former International Herald Tribune financial editor and former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, where he writes a bi-weekly column.