First, a confession: I'm a Baby Boomer born in the mid-Fifties who came of age watching the "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" (albeit in black and white).
Now, a disclaimer: as my NPR colleague Sara Sarasohn puts it, "I was born here, so I don't have a California Dream!"
But I grabbed the opportunity to take a look the history of Watts for this series because I've long analyzed and investigated what happened to my home state between 1954 and 1970. I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area so the magical realm of Disney and Disneyland seemed like a foreign country to me. By age ten, I was aware of the civil rights struggle and the campus unrest at nearby UC Berkeley. The Black Panthers had a stronghold near my junior high school in Richmond, California. I was too young to have a ringside seat for Watts, the Summer of Love, Altamont, and the rise of Ronald Reagan, but I knew that the California ground was shaking in more ways than one.
History's first draft take on Watts read a little differently back then:
Enough time has passed for historians to take account of that era and with their help I'm beginning to make some sense of it. One of the frustrations of any honest radio reporter is that we can't tell all of the story we've reported; the medium, directed at listeners with finite attention spans, just doesn't allow it. But I can share the titles of some of the histories that helped me tremendously as I think about California and its history. (Each one of these links takes you an excerpt, so you can get a sense of the books and their particular take.)
Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture 1955-1966 by Kirse Granat May.
Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future by Peter Schrag.
NixonLand: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein.
Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles by Eric Avila.
Finally, pick up any California history book written by historian Kevin Starr of USC. His every title is a play on the theme of the California Dream.
What I take away from these important works is that the short-lived optimism of the post-war era masked a much longer record of complexity and conflict in California.
So when we're talking about the California Dream—how and whether it is still alive—I think it's important to go back to history. If Peter Schrag is right and California's experience is a forecast for America, then keep in mind that the future doesn't begin today or tomorrow. The future began yesterday.