Archive for the ‘California Faultline’ Category

Rail line from Oakland entering California's Livermore Valley

In the early morning hours of November 25, 1942, four German prisoners of war bound for a POW camp in California’s interior escaped as their train passed through the Livermore Valley east of San Francisco. These men had hopes of blending in with the local German community until they could find passage home. The four were captured within hours of their escape. A photo appeared in the Oakland Tribune later that day showing Alameda County Sheriff H. P. Gleason talking to one of the POWs, Edward Lorenc, 21, who’s asking to talk to the Polish consul. According to Lorenc, he’d been forced into the German army against his will. Later in the article, readers see another captured prisoner, Hans Koerber, also 21, who’s quite happy to present his pedigree as a full Nazi Party member trained up in the Hitler Jugend and confident in the virtures of the Third Reich. Both men were captured wearing diamond-shaped patches on the seats of their prisoner uniforms that reportedly meant “shoot” to their captors.

What if these two men had been successful in their escape? Both had been part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but they seem as different as night and day. How would these reluctant immigrants survive in a hostile countryside in their attempt to blend in? How would they be greeted by the Californians they met? What would become of them? Real-life Lorenc inspired my character Eduard Lubeck who appears in a short story published this month in Coyotes Along Stony Creek by epublisher Smashwords.

Rail Overcrossing in the Altamont Pass east of Livermore, in the hills where the German prisoners escaped

Such accidental immigration to California is a historical anomaly. Or, is it? There are as many stories of immigration as there are immigrants. Mexican convicts were sent north to populate the pueblo of Los Angeles in the early 1800s. Chinese railroad workers who built Central Pacific’s railroad through the Sierras hoped to return home, but by the end of the nineteenth century many had found permanent refuge in the few tiny blocks of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mexicans escaping the turmoil of the Zapata era  fled north to barrios in Sacramento and throughout the Central Valley that stretches from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. These accidental immigrants to California are as much the rule as the exception. Only the circumstances of their arrivals set them apart.

Newcomers have always faced hostile locals. As soon as the Spanish laid claim to California, they demanded visitors present themselves for approval in Monterey, but this did little to deter anyone. The Russians set up a colony on the north coast called Fort Ross thumbing their nose at the weak governance of Monterey, only to sell their holdings to the locals when maintenance of the distant colony proved too costly. Mountain men and trappers drifting west enjoyed the beavered streams of the Central Valley. Ships piloted by captains from New England and points around the world made regular runs along the coast for decades in their quiet illegal trade with the missions.

When Americans from the east wrested the state from Mexico in 1846 their brethren had already become an established presence, well integrated into the commercial fabric of the region. Thomas Larkin, when not playing spy for his acquisitive handlers in Washington, amassed considerable land, wealth, and goodwill from the local Mexicans. He paved the way for the American conquest that cost the newcomers little in treasure or conscience.  These more-newly arrived quickly set about erecting monuments to their legitimacy and marginalized the Mexicans who’d long called the land their home. The enduring poetry of this takeover is that only a few decades before, the Spanish church had been even more ruthless in subjugating the Natives who’d called the region their home for ten thousand years.

Books I recommend:

Barrio Boy is Ernesto Galarza’s autobiography (1905-1984) about gowing up in Sacramento’s barrio. He also wrote Merchants of Labor which chronicles the Bracero program.

Black Butte Dam (U. S. Army Corp of Engineers) - flooding the area of Stony Creek that is the setting for short story The Gift

The Archaeology of California, by Joseph and Kerry Chartkoff, describes in vivid narrative the California that greeted immigrants who crossed from Asia to North America during the Ice Age. Chartkoff unexpectedly reappeared in my later readings when I was doing research for Stony Creek. He was the author of archaeological reports written in advance of construction of the Black Butte Dam in the 1960s. That area along Stony Creek, much of it now under water, was the setting for my World War II story, The Gift.


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East Bay Hills

It’s 1898, the eve of the Spanish-American War and a time of explosive immigration to the United States. The Panic of 1892 has rocked the foundations of the Gilded Age and shock waves still roil through a fragile economy. In a welcome diversion, Willie Hearst’s New York Morning Journal is ratcheting up sentiment against an evil Spain, and Teddy Roosevelt’s splendid little war is about to get underway.

Jeremy Alvarez is a fatherless seventeen-year-old who’s grown up in his mother’s boarding house in Manhattan. He finds himself on a train with his family heading west to California to visit a dying grandfather he’s never seen. Jeremy is crossing the continent for the first time, and he’s hungry for knowledge of his mother’s ancestral valley east of San Francisco. This is where his grandfather greeted the Americans in 1846 — men of Manifest Destiny who stole his land, and eventually his self-respect.

The California that Jeremy finds is much different from the melting pot of his Manhattan that has gathered the world’s cultures and stacked them like cord wood with no alternative but to coexist. California has the elbow room for prejudice and a tradition of putting Indians, Chinese, and Mexicans in their place.

Jeremy Alvarez is a character in my novel-in-progress, but the subject of unwelcome foreigners is as old as my state that was once a Department of Mexico. A story about Jeremy’s family is told in an earlier novel, An Unseemly Reliquary. Both stories are fiction, of course, but reflect the state’s culture during the Gilded Age.


Central Valley Beyond Interstate 5

Central Valley Beyond Interstate 5

In the 21st century a son of California, Victor Davis Hanson, writes in National Review Online of his beleaguered Central Valley. It is no longer prosperous or white, his farm in Fresno County a witness to impoverished and segregated communities. His childhood elementary school has become “94 percent Hispanic.” He decries the depressed farming conditions, the shift to corporate agribusiness, and laments how the family farm is all but extinct.

His “Third World” slice of California survives on welfare cash cards and the underground economy. But late-model cars and iPhones are not in short supply, providing a run-up to his plaintive question: “Does the $40 million a day supplement to unemployment benefits from Washington explain some of this.”

Mr. Hanson suggests the cause for this decline is illegal immigration, wrong-thinking ecologists, capricious water allocation, ethnic studies programs that preach a “fuzzy American culpability,” and a welfare system gone wild. He is speaking to his choir and his words say as much about the conservative culture that nurtured him as the opinions themselves. His opinions reflect a philosophy, not the facts.

He’s right that the abysmal conditions he describes can be attributed to the body politic, but not, I think, in the way he’d like us to think. The Central Valley farmers enjoy government giveaways that render any welfare or unemployment benefits to individuals insignificant. It is socialized (or government assisted) farming on a grand scale that has seen wealth transferred from public assets to private hands for generations in the form of nineteenth-century land giveaways, subsidized water, and the occasional crop subsidy — all gifts from Washington and Sacramento.

Drive along Interstate 5, these days, and you will see signs reminiscent of the old Burma Shave boards. They say “Congress created dust bowl” and “Food grows where water flows.” What is NOT said is that this water in question, like any welfare scenario, has been taken from the water-rich areas of the state to give to the water-poor areas of the state, transported through a world-class system of dams, canals, and pumping systems created at government expense. Karl Marx would approve. And the near extinction of the Delta Smelt in the canal pumping stations (the Delta’s ecological disaster du jour) like the residents of the impromptu barrios, are just collateral damage.

California’s unique flavor of extractive capitalism has been the economic soul of the state since the Gold Rush. The migrant encampments Mr. Hanson describes in the Central Valley are byproducts of a business model that is a far cry from the pastoral, husbandry paradigm one associates with farming.

The business practices of this mechanized heartland have more in common with the mining enterprises that grew out of the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The mountains were marbled with gold, but it would take capital-intensive factory operations with road builders, blasting crews, stamp mills, water flumes, and rail lines to bring the yellow metal to market. Tailings from the water cannons that washed away those mountains irrevocably changed the Valley, the Delta, and San Francisco Bay.

California’s rich farm land has been no less mined and irrevocably changed. Both the mineral-rich mountains and fertile valleys have been exploited by the political will of already-rich men who could shift the laws to support their enterprises. Parts of the Valley are now wasteland from accumulated runoff of agriculture’s chemical brew, and the Valley has literally sunk from depletion of the millenia-old water table. But concern for human and ecological costs has never appeared on the balance sheets of California’s enterprises. (Leland Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad is but one example of this dynamic in action.)

Mr. Hanson neglects this economic heritage as he constructs his pastoral view of the state. Instead, he suggests the poverty and lawlessness that he describes in the Mexican encampments have grown under the jaundiced eye of the welfare state, a government that rewards indolence and mollycoddles criminals who sneak across the Mexican border to milk the system. I submit that the answer is instead in the structure of the California economy, the business people who would hire the immigrants, and the politicians who do their bidding.

Flags Including Mexico's at Mission San Diego

Immigration, legal or otherwise, is a product of business-as-usual in California, traditions that have evolved since the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s. But the presence of these newcomers leave the people of the state with the knotty question of what to do with them when they are not needed. Have they earned their keep? Do they deserve access to the state’s safety net? Why don’t they speak our language?

Meg Whitman’s 2010 campaign for governor fell victim, in no small part, to the snarky treatment she gave her undocumented hired help. Those of Meg’s class and moral values probably sympathized with her dilemma. Fortunately, the majority of California voters had a different way of seeing the billionaire’s plight. I suspect there was also a bit of backlash from employers who use casual labor: Meg crossed the line. Don’t slap the hand that feeds your kids and chauffeurs them to school. Respect still has some currency on our Left Coast.

Mission San Diego

In the early 1800s traders plied the coast of Spanish California in quiet dealings with the padres–illegal, but pervasive and rewarding for all parties. Later, under Mexico’s rule of the region Larkin, Sutter, and all the others who came before the American conquest did so hat in hand, bowing to the provincial government in Monterey. A few superior beings, like John Fremont, snubbed Monterey and its weak government. Then, as now, there was spotty enforcement of immigration law. But Fremont, the imperious son-in-law of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, had revenge for his inconvenience as an illegal. Just prior to U. S. conquest of California, Fremont engineered imprisonment for the most progressive of the locals, and ironically, the most American-friendly Mexican of the era, benign Mariano Vallejo. Meg would love Fremont.

California’s farming practices, especially in the Central Valley, quickly evolved after the Gold Rush to such a scale that huge labor pools were needed to sow and harvest crops. A steady supply of immigrants, including Mexicans, fed the machine through the 1920s. But hard times such as we have now renewed the calls to exclude foreigners to make room for this county’s own dispossessed and out of work. In a familiar refrain, the Mexicans were pressured to leave. Then came World War II and the farmers once again were short of help with war-time factories competing for the locals. The federal Bracero Program came into being at the farmers’ request. The Mexicans were invited back! But only as long as they could be controlled, easily done through isolation in labor camps. Conditions were dismal, but workers risked deportation if they questioned their treatment. I suspect that anyone wanting to know the meaning of duress should ask a Mexican — today as much as the 1940s when the program was instituted.

Huntington Library, San Marino

Huntington Library, San Marino

The Bracero Program ended in 1964, but the culture of disposable labor did not. The migrant camps up and down the Central Valley never went away, occupying a legally gray, no-man’s land. These encampments have served the conservative business community dominated by a cadre of old families and politicians. Names, like Stanford, Huntington, Hearst, and Chandler survive in the institutions they founded, their heirs, and their immortal trusts. And there is no shortage of newcomers who would share in this tradition, including wannabes in their power quest such as Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina.

California’s persistent nativism has left a mark on the nation by sponsoring a succession of laws and attitudes: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Mexican Repatriation during the Great Depression, mal treatment of the Dust Bowl migrants that would inspire Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and of course the Japanese who were conveniently dispossessed and imprisoned during World War II. Most of all, this predatory regard for foreigners left its mark on the conscience of the state’s people who must reconcile the contradiction that we are all of foreign stock, and how — if at all — can we muster the moral high ground and say, “You are a foreigner, an illegal. Get out.”

We are in an interregnum, a period of shifting American self perception characterized by faltering belief in our institutions. We no longer have faith in our government’s policies toward our global neighbors, and feel little respect for laws crafted under the guidance of the Have-Mores. The cast-offs from California’s agricultural machine are with us. We don’t know what to do with them.

So-called white people now comprise less than 50% of California’s population, but are still the largest single group. Hispanics are catching up. Within a few years, we of the privileged white majority will become the minority, outnumbered by them.

There is, indeed, a Blue Left Coast and a Red heartland in California’s Central Valley. Sparks always fly when they meet. The character in my novel, Jeremy Alvarez, might wonder at this pitched battle that the Red and Blue play with immigration, again and again, each time without reflection on its repetitive nature.

Hanson’s article is available at:


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Yesterday, standing in the checkout line at Costco, I did my usual imaginings about the person ahead of me. On the conveyor: Toy Story 3 (Blue-Ray version,) three ginger-bread house kits, plus a few assorted child-centric items.

My expectations for this shopper were a little skewed from the usual because most of the time I shop at a different Costco in Concord, in the county’s Latino epicenter. Yesterday I went to the Danville store, which has a much different complexion. The route is overseen by succession of multi-multi-million-dollar McMansions ascending the hillsides from the San Ramon Valley floor. A couple miles beyond the Danville store you’ll pass by the guard-gates of Blackhawk, one of the original Bay Area gated enclaves, home to sports notables and infomercial celebrities.

My profiler’s instinct kicked in as I watched my shopper pay with her American Express card. Did I say the young lady ahead of me was blond, wearing casually expensive workout clothes? — not to mention that she had a manner with the checker that would make her the queen of any play-time co-op, or private-school fund-raiser. But yesterday I cut her some slack. I admitted I might be wrong — not necessarily about her pedigree because her attire and manner advertised her station. The fact is, I don’t know her real story and I’d just had a mild wakeup call about blanket assumptions.

The previous night, I saw Bill Gates’ father mugging for the camera as he allowed himself to be dunked in a tank of water: pay your $$, throw the ball, dunk the clown. The sign by the water tank said SOAK THE RICH. This disarming visual introduced an interview with Mr. Gates on the PBS Newshour. Turns out, he’s been stumping for a local (Washington state) tax on millionaires. Refreshing. I’d also seen Bill Gates’ wife in a recent interview promoting her family’s foundation. She seemed as benign as the blond supermom at Costco. The common denominator with all three Gates, Bill, dad, and wife, seems to be an understanding that wealth is not created in a vacuum, and paying back is part of the game. A hopeful reminder that not all billionaires are cut from the same cloth.

Unfortunately, the Gates’ perspective has limited influence on Silicon Valley where two of its elite chose to push their world view into California politics. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman were in the race for the top offices of U.S. Senator and governor, and both made their vision of our state’s future clear through their own history. Fiorina left a trail of unemployed at her former employer, HP, and Queen Meg showed her true colors in the kerfuffle about her fired illegal-immigrant housekeeper.

A couple weeks ago during the height of the election season, Maureen Dowd, in her column for the New York Times, lumped these two billionaires in with a cadre she called the Republican Mean Girls. I’m glad she said it because white guys like me aren’t allowed such insightful statements that border on profiling.

I’m pleased to note that both Fiorina and Whitman have been rejected by California voters, a departure from the rest of the country in the Great Red Sweep of 2010. California IS different. It grows a brand of liberalism (the old-fashioned, Age of Reason variety) anathema to the Heartland. Unfortunately, I suspect the state’s Democratic wins with Brown and Boxer, like tales of generous billionaires, is the real exception. Yesterday’s election elsewhere in the country was more in character with this nation’s longstanding appetite for demagogues and a secret longing for theocracy.

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Earlier this month, Moraga hosted a debate between U.S. Senate incumbent Barbara Boxer and challenger Carly Fiorina, late of HP fame. I watched it on TV from across town. A slick production suitable for state-wide consumption. I expected nothing less. Moraga is a precious place and Saint Mary’s College, host to the event, sets the tone — literally, with its bells (The bell tower is real, but I’ve often wondered about the bells.)

Saint Mary’s moved over the hills from Oakland in the 1920s. At that time the Sacramento Northern Railway, one of the region’s electric railways, served the Moraga Valley. The route was an amalgam of small lines that ran from the Oakland Long Wharf, through a tunnel bored through the Oakland Hills (now abandoned) all the way to Chico. It was a street-car-like commuter line not unlike San Francisco’s Muni in appearance and did its part to link the inland valleys to the hub of commerce that the Bay cities have been since the gold rush. Saint Mary’s had its own little station. But autos were coming into favor and the Caldecott Tunnel opened in 1937 a few miles north-west of the old rail line. The Sacramento Northern ceased passenger operation in 1941 just as World War II was about to turn the Bay Area into an arsenal and staging area for the Pacific theater.

Like the much of Central Contra Costa County, post-war Moraga served as a bedroom and brood house for Oakland and San Francisco. In the morning the breadwinners exited for San Francisco Bay’s commercial centers, returning to their cocoon through the tunnel at night. The success of Central County’s burbs inspired a third tunnel that provided switchable reserve capacity for the peak travel direction. It opened in 1964 as real estate developers eyed East County’s farmland.

Now, two generations later, the Caldecott is a three-tunnel bottleneck much of the day where the non-commute direction, with its single tunnel, hosts a formidable reverse commute. No one expected that commuters from Oakland would be going opposite the traditional commute to the business parks in San Ramon, or going out of their way to avoid the even-more congested freeways that ring the Bay. After decades of discussion and money hunting a new fourth tunnel is under construction courtesy of the federal Recovery Act. In a couple years the barriers that twice daily change the direction of the middle bore will become a memory.

I doubt that I’m the only one who sees irony in the fact that the original two-bore Caldecott Tunnel was built during the depressed 1930s, and the new fourth bore is progressing during California’s Great Depression II. Déjà vu all over again. The Caldecott was started before Roosevelt’s New Deal, before the late 30’s conservative pushback dried up enthusiasm for federal spending. Likewise, the new fourth bore is funded by a financing package that could not be done in the current political climate where deficit hawks, directed by the oppressed affluent** have successfully played the fear card that Roosevelt warned against. Barbara Boxer is on Roosevelt’s side of history and Carly Fiorina is on Herbert Hoover’s. They echo the same polarized California we had during the last depression. The California fault line is alive and well.

** “oppressed affluent” courtesy of Paul Krugman’s opinion piece: The Angry Rich  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/opinion/20krugman.html?src=me&ref=general

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Early in the 19th century, Washington Irving created a hoax around a fictional old Dutchman named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving went so far as to advertise for information on Mr. Knickerbocker’s whereabouts, teasing the public with the prospect of publishing the Dutchman’s abandoned manuscript: A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. New Yorkers seemed to accept the joke with good humor and Washington Irving became famous. A fictional history, properly played, was as good as the real thing. After all, the need for provenance, a history to call one’s own, runs deep.

By the end of the century, this preoccupation with finding one’s roots had become an obsession. My earlier post on H. H.  Bancroft touched on one entrepreneur who rode this crest (alas, with less humor than Washington Irving.) In California, almost every county had its own local history, usually written by local notables, giving their friends and themselves voluminous homage for their civilizing influence during the period following statehood in 1846. These county histories stood side by side more focused autobiographies by early pioneers: usually white immigrants from the East, but also a few from the Mexican families that met them.

In fifty years, the state had gone from the fledgling western anchor of Manifest Destiny to a world-class economic center. This evolution was based first on the precious metals of the Gold Rush and Nevada silver mines, then on the agriculture of its Central Valley. The magnitude of these events swept along the egos of those who witnessed them first hand and left a hole to be filled.

More often than not, these histories and biographies portray a quest that characterizes the heroic nature of the state where men (most visibly, but women, as well) looked back at what they’d done and tried to fashion it into a proper monument to their fame–in the classical sense of carving out a niche in the pantheon of future memories. And if the truth must be massaged a little to insure its presentability on this altar to the ego, such is truth’s nature. Washington Irving understood this better than most.

Now, the media has changed. Books have been supplanted (in popular consciousness, at least) by the digital editions of fame, often nearly as fleeting as the electrical energy that heralds them. But that merely changes the venue, not the game. In a contemporary quest to enter the pantheon, enter the late, great CEO of Ebay and her brain sibling who parachuted nicely from Hewlett-Packard. These ladies are determined to buy their way into household word-dom much as their forbearers in California’s last Gilded Age. I suppose if Leland Standford, former governor and founder of the Farm, could do it, it must be OK for Meg and Carly. So far, the tales they’re spinning about their own accomplishments are reviving memories of Washington Irving.

More later . . . ever hear of the Gold Bugs?

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Mount Diablo is a forlorn place with bone-freezing winds on desert-like slopes. Situated twenty-five miles due east of San Francisco, it was aptly named by the Spanish: a devil of a mountain. Its altitude put it in the cartographer’s list of holy places because it stands out as a marker, sometimes viewable for hundreds of miles, which was useful in those days before satellite imaging, GPS devices, and smog that now shelters Central California most of the year. I’ve never thought much about it because to me it is merely the high point in one of several geological wrinkles that run north and south, separating San Francisco Bay from the Central Valley. The mountain has little to recommend itself beside its historical usefulness in mapping the region. But every so often it makes its way into the news in a way that encapsulates the cultural forces working within California, forces that mirror our tectonic liabilities. Some people don’t like the mountain’s name. The pagans among us enjoy its irreverence, and realists enjoy its accuracy in labeling, but Bible thumpers slap the calf skin ever so much harder about the profane implications of this naming. Devil mountain. Can devil worship be far behind? One such individual wants to change its name to Mount Ronald Reagan.

California has been a prized destination since travelers from Asia crossed the Bering Straights ice bridge and discovered the region’s hospitable coast and valleys. Several millennia later, Francis Drake found the coast too foggy to locate a passage to the interior, but the Spanish moved north from Mexico and built a fort at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Then gold seekers came from all directions creating a mix of expectations that still roils the state, pitting Coast and Mountains with the Great Central Valley in between.

When the quartz dust settled and the muddy runoff from the placer mining turned pale, the state was left with pockets of diversity that would be the envy of any world-class metropolis. It boasted immigrants from the far corners of the globe of every ethnic, racial, and religious persuasion. However, unlike Manhattan, where proximity forced the new faces from Ellis Island to get along, California has its insular acreage, its size. It’s a big place where people can cling to their own kind and shun the rest. But not completely. It seems to be the nature of these outposts of solitude to evangelize and reshape the world to their view of things. They produce individuals who would change the world to counter their own dark imaginings. The gentleman from Oakley, the latest would-be name changer, wants to trade a benign ancient devil for a twentieth century one: a faux cowboy who served as spokesman for the economic policies that devil us today. I’ll take the devil I know, thank you, and cherish my fantasy that Mr. Reagan had been satisfied with hawking appliances on GE Theater.

A post script to this little morality play: the name-change issue seems to be fading from view. Too many devil worshipers, I guess. But our would-be name changer attracted enough attention to earn a seat on the county’s Drug Advisory Board. He touted his experience as a recovering addict as qualification for such a post and the Contra Costa county supervisors evidently agreed. One might wonder if their adroit political move reflects California’s answer to the age-old problem of conflicting agendas: give the malcontent a venue where he can’t hurt anyone.

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