California Builds the Future, for Good and Bad. What’s Next?

California Builds the Future, for Good and Bad. What’s Next?

California’s character emerges out of the seesawing between two impulses, one restrictive, the other rebellious. Although a majority of voters cast a ballot in favor of Prop 187, resistance to the measure was steadfast, especially among young people, chipping away at its support. It was declared unconstitutional in federal court and was effectively ended by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. The proposition’s passing strengthened Latino voter turnout and changed the electoral map for the next 25 years.

Now, as California takes on the threat of climate change, a housing crisis that is spilling out of state and a demographic exodus, we find ourselves again at a crossroads. Listening to the radio after a wildfire a couple of years ago, I heard a caller pin his hopes on technological innovation as a solution to this problem. But as we approach the future, it might be worthwhile to consider how we got here in the first place.

Three hundred years ago, the future arrived on foot, clad in the brown robe of a Franciscan friar. In 1769, charged by the Spanish crown with exploring and “civilizing” the area then known as Alta California, Father Junipero Serra and the padres set about building a chain of Catholic missions on a 600-mile route that ran through the territory on a vertical line. The road, which in parts followed already existing Indigenous trails, was called El Camino Real (“the Royal Highway”). The highway supported the farms and ranches that would eventually become the backbone of the territory’s economy, but the mission system presaged a long and brutal campaign of displacement, forced labor, acculturation and violence against the Indigenous peoples of the state — which the Spanish envisioned as a Christian territory filled with gente de razón (“reasonable people”).

In 1848, as California came under U.S. rule, flecks of gold were found in the American River. By some estimates, nearly 300,000 people moved to California during the Gold Rush, tripling the state’s population in roughly 10 years. In order to transport people and goods to and from the West, a new type of roadway was needed: the Transcontinental Railroad. The newcomers hoped that a combination of luck and hard work would make them rich, a belief that became known as the California dream, a precursor to the national mythology around the American dream.

But the Chinese workers who took on the difficult and dangerous work of building the railroad became the target of resentment, special taxes and a host of legal restrictions. Chinese Californians fought against discrimination in various ways. When a young cook named Wong Kim Ark was denied entry to the United States after visiting China, he sued, arguing that his birth in San Francisco made him a citizen under the 14th Amendment and therefore exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a landmark case that established the principle of birthright citizenship. But the exclusion of Chinese immigrants remained the law of the land until 1943, when American interests in World War II aligned the nation with China against Japan.

By this time, the trains and electric trolleys that had allowed speedy — and racially mixed — transit through the state’s biggest cities were falling out of favor. The future belonged to automobiles. The Arroyo Seco Parkway, now part of the 110 freeway, opened in 1940, connecting Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. Other freeways and highways soon followed, linking rural areas to cities and California to the rest of the country. The junction in East Los Angeles where the 5, 10, 101 and 60 freeways connect is now one of the most traveled highway interchanges in the world. But as the urban historian Gilbert Estrada has shown, it was once home to Mexican American families, some of whom were displaced to make way for construction. Black and brown dispossession was integral to freeway construction and, along with explicitly racist housing policies, contributed to today’s low level of Black homeownership.

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