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California's disconnected and ever-changing traditions

April 25, 2009 |  5:00 pm


Listening to panelists of "City Life: The Manufactured West" at the L.A. Times Book Festival, we residents of the American Southwest are all New-Age pioneers on the crest of yet another makeover.

The noontime Saturday panel discussed California’s decentralized politics, the very central issues of immigration and globalization, the curious characteristics of the people who live here (resilient, conscionable and, more often than not, displaced), and the circumstances that propel and restrict our progress.

One issue is geography. Panelist Christina Binkley, author of “Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas” and Wall Street Journal columnist, pointed out that California is really three states (moderator Patt Morrison quipped that their names were Logland, Fogland, and Smogland), all with disparate interests, making it difficult to develop policies that serve the entire population.

The conversation also touched on the idea that California is unbound by tradition and that the lack of familial ties and rigid class system (still present on the East Coast) allows ambitious people with industrious ideas the freedom to experiment. However, as panelist Abe Lowenthal, USC professor and author of “Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge,” pointed out: “The thing about California is that everything grows, but nothing connects.”

 A quick show of hands illustrated that over half of the audience members were not native Californians, a peculiarity that causes every new generation to be a “first generation” and more likely to, in Morrison’s words, “invest only in itself and never give back to the greater community.”

Even Binkley, originally from New York, admitted that she was more likely to donate to institutions back East to which she feels emotionally connected than to local organizations.

The quick turnover has its positive aspects too. Business columnist James Flanigan, author of “Smile Southern California! You’re the Center of the Universe,” noted that the evolution of industry — from the gold rush, to defense, through aerospace and housing speculation — has kept Southern California on its toes and in a constant state of reinvention. Lowenthal suspected that biotechnology, with 40% of the industry’s companies in the area, would be the next leader of the So Cal economy.

One of member of the audience asked, “When will California be established?”

Binkley’s definitive answer: “Two hundred years,” and then, “Never.”

--Heather Robertson

Photo: Little Lake, Calif. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times