Greetings From California: Letter From a State in Crisis | The Nation


Greetings From California: Letter From a State in Crisis

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.--Edward Abbey

Duroville, California

Poking around this jumble of ramshackle trailers lined up along a dozen dusty, unpaved roads on the outskirts of the Torres-Martinez Indian reservation, surrounded by the barren and baking Southern California desert on three sides and a fetid, smoking rubbish dump on the fourth, you'd think naming this place Duroville was nothing short of a cynical, deliberate joke. Duro, in Spanish, means "hard" or "tough." Duroville. You know, Hard Times Town.

Instead, it's just a cutting coincidence. A decade ago, sensing opportunity amid a severe housing shortage for Mexican-born farmworkers who toil in the nearby fields, local resident Harvey Duro opened up this land for any campesino willing to park his trailer for about $500 a month. So what if there was no running water, no plumbing, no health regulation of any sort and if, in general, Duroville was really no better than the Dust Bowl-era labor camps described in The Grapes of Wrath?

Yet the 3,000 or so mostly Purépecha Indians (from the Mexican state of Michoacán) who populate this outpost between posh Palm Springs and the near-dead Salton Sea have fought relentlessly--and successfully, thanks to a recent court order--for the right to keep building this hardscrabble hamlet and are adamantly grateful for the modest haven it offers them and their families. Especially on a summer day like this, when the mercury tops 112. "Thank God for Duroville," said 45-year-old farmworker Elias. "Without this, where would we have to live?"

Elias knows of what he speaks. Just a few miles up the road, in the preposterously named flyspeck town of Mecca, several dozen of his co-workers simply sleep in their cars in the parking lot of El Toro Market. Riverside County officials, resigned to this degradation, are caring enough, or at least are realistic enough, not to evict them and instead provide toilets and weekly portable showers. "Things here are worse, worse, worse than ever," said Emanuel Benitez, a community outreach worker at the local office of California Rural Legal Assistance. "These people make about $13,000 a year. They have no money for rent. And anyway, there are no places here to rent."

All this, a mere two hours southeast of 90210.

As recently as a few years ago, it would have been an easy reporter's trick to juxtapose the Fourth World conditions of Mecca and Duroville with the lush golf courses, seven-figure mansions and glittering casinos thirty minutes away in the Palm Springs valley in order to prove that two very different Californias coexist, blithely ignorant of each other.

Nowadays, that seems too facile. Certainly, the socioeconomic distance between the two extremes remains vast, if not immeasurable. But now we are talking about degrees of pain and comfort rather than separate social universes. The city of Cabazon, for example, home to one of those mega-rich casinos, recently clocked in with a 30 percent unemployment rate. The wealthiest enclaves of California have hardly been driven into misery, but no social stratum is exempt from the crash of The Dream. A morning's ride west of Palm Springs, on the shimmering Orange County coast, the $500-a-night St. Regis-Monarch Beach resort, where AIG sponsored a free-spending bash last fall, just days after getting a federal bailout, has been seized by Citigroup. Like a record number of properties in California, the St. Regis has an "underwater" mortgage, owing $300 million on a hotel now worth maybe a third of the debt. Up the same coast, the ritzy San Francisco Four Seasons resort just defaulted on a $90 million loan. The rich, it turns out, aren't that different from us anymore. Even they are traveling less and cutting back on hot stone massages.

Let's make it easy to understand. California might be suffering its worst drought in decades, but the entire Golden State is underwater. Goodbye to those timeworn, bubble-gum-colored fantasies of the Endless Summer, California Girls and gleaming, pool-pocked suburbs. Hello to a new set of descriptors: "Bankrupt." "Ungovernable." "California Nightmare." "Failed State."

You know something is radically wrong when the mere act of the governor and the legislature agreeing on a budget to close a $26 billion deficit after months of haggling is hailed in bold headlines. Or maybe you get the message when you're a state contractor and you get an IOU instead of a paycheck and then find out the banks will no longer honor your scrip. Or you see that state unemployment rates are nudging 12 percent; that in LA County the poverty rate hovers near 20 percent; that some of the thousands of teachers who received pink slips are on hunger strike, while California schools are ranked forty-seventh in the nation; that the state college system has suspended admissions for spring 2010, raised fees 20 percent and forced its faculty to take unpaid leave two days a month; that thousands of state workers are being laid off and those who remain must take three furlough days a month for the rest of the year; that protesters in wheelchairs are blocking the halls of the Capitol; that a number of state parks are being closed; that California's bond rating is just above junk level; that Southern California had its highest peak in personal bankruptcies last year and that so far this year they're up 75 percent over that; and that one in four capsized mortgages in the United States is in California.

Recently, two Democratic representatives from the Central Valley appeared before a Congressional committee and, comparing their region's economic devastation to Katrina, asked to be declared a federal disaster area eligible for emergency relief. According to a Brookings Institution report, among twenty of the economically weakest metro areas in the country, four are in the Central Valley. One of them is the capital, Sacramento. In another, the Merced-Stockton area, the 70 percent drop in housing prices is so steep that homes there don't even qualify for federal recovery assistance. That's on top of the estimated 5 million impoverished Californians who have no cash assistance whatsoever.

Those east of the state line tempted by the allure of schadenfreude ought to think twice. California has the eighth-largest economy in the world and produces 12 percent of the national GDP. There can be no solid national economic recovery without a resurrection of California--something not very likely in the short term.

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