Berkeley and Watts: Shaking the Calif. Dream In the early 1960s, California was hailed as a model for America's future. But youth unrest at Berkeley and rioting in Watts offered a very different reality. By the end of the 60s, the dream had been badly shaken.
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Berkeley and Watts: Shaking the Calif. Dream

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Berkeley and Watts: Shaking the Calif. Dream

Berkeley and Watts: Shaking the Calif. Dream

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This is Day to Day, I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Every Monday this summer we're looking at the nation's troubled economy through the lens of the California dream. That's because in many ways, as California goes, so goes the nation.

COHEN: The Golden State has always attracted its fair share of dreamers. Here's one of them.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): This is the Hydrogen Hummer, the famous Hydrogen Hummer.

BRAND: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Talk about a living example. An immigrant from a working-class family in Austria.

COHEN: He comes to California and makes his name lifting weights. Then in movies, and now he runs the state with the eighth largest economy in the world. But Schwarzenegger is now coming face to face with the limits of the California dream. The state now has a multi-billion dollar deficit. California leads the nation in home foreclosures.

BRAND: It wasn't always like this. Today NPR's Richard Gonzales looks back, to when the California dream was alive and well - at least for some.

RICHARD GONZALES: In the early '60s, one of the most popular shows on TV was all about a golden place in the Golden State.

(Soundbite of TV Show "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color")

Unidentified Announcer: Walt Disney Presents the wonderful world of color.

GONZALES: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was a cross-promotion for the number one tourist attraction in America, Disneyland. The family-oriented fantasy land is located, as Time Magazine describes it, in the magic realm of California. And as the state's population surpasses New York in 1962, that California dream is widely promoted by other media.

Professor KEVIN STARR (University of Southern California): Everywhere you look there was this sense of exuberant well being about being a Californian.

GONZALES: Kevin Starr is a historian of the University of Southern California.

Prof. STARR: I read I can't tell you how many articles, as we became the largest state in the union. I mean Holiday, Life, Look, Saturday Review, they all ran major full-book articles on California. It's announced here it is, as an urban suburban fulfillment of wartime and post-war dreams for the good life.

GONZALES: California boasts a new freeway and water system. New campuses for the state university and lots of new jobs for the highly skilled. Across the nation, a California dream sells like a commodity, says historian Kirse Granat May.

Ms. KIRSE GRANAT MAY (Historian): The idea of California, you don't even have to go to California to experience it, you can buy a California ranch house in almost any state of the union. You can have a pool, you can turn on your radio.

(Soundbite of song "Surfin' Safari")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Let's go surfing now, everybody's learning how, come on a safari with me.

GONZALES: But the dream has its limits, and that soon becomes apparent in California's minority communities and on college campuses. December 1964. Students at UC Berkeley stage a major protest against the university's ban on political activity. The students launch what they call a free speech movement. Their leader is a philosophy major named Mario Savio.

Mr. MARIO SAVIO (Political Activist): When the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you got to make it stop.

GONZALES: Berkeley becomes synonymous with a burgeoning campus revolt that would sweep the country. But off campus, the protests provoke a backlash among Californians who view the students as spoiled children, says journalist Peter Schrag.

Mr. PETER SCHRAG (Journalist): I'm working class, I'm making you know 14,000, whatever it was, you know I'm paying my taxes so these kids can go to Berkeley or UCLA or whatever, and they're tearing the place down. I mean, it is offensive.

GONZALES: Just a few months later, another jolt to the California Dream. This one from an LA neighborhood called Watts.

Unidentified Reporter: Six days of rioting in a Negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities. More than a hundred square blocks were decimated by fire and looters.

GONZALES: Practically overnight America gets a picture of California that's very different from anything the country has ever seen.

Unidentified Reporter: And few buildings were left intact. Firemen were harassed by snipers and brick-throwing hoodlums as they attempted to control the fires, many of which were left to burn themselves out.

GONZALES: When the violence in Watts is finally over, 34 people are dead, about a thousand injured. Almost 4000 people arrested, and much of it has been televised live. Back then, Watts resident Larry Aubrey(ph) was working as a parole officer. More than 40 years later, as he was recalling the unrest, Aubrey told NPR he didn't condone the violence, but he did identify with the anger that caused it.

Mr. LARRY AUBREY (Resident, Watts, California): People were just venting. People with very little hope just said to hell with this. To hell with this, we're tired of this, you know.

GONZALES: A government report on the cause of the riots cites chronic unemployment, inadequate schools, a lack of public transportation. Yet the notion that the California dream eludes the black residents of Watts comes as a surprise to the rest of California, says journalist Peter Schrag.

Mr. SCHRAG: Watts was a reminder that even in California we were not beyond the race problem. And it really was kind of a shock of waking up from a dream.

GONZALES: Public reaction to Berkeley and Watts would have a big impact on California politics. Ronald Reagan runs for governor of California in 1966, and he speaks of the Golden State as a paradise lost. He says unruly university students should be treated like criminals. As for Watts, Reagan blames the riot on the unreasonable expectation of outsiders.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: In there, there are a great many people who come recently from the Deep South. Like earlier immigrants who came from other countries to this country, they had come here many times in their lack of education and knowledge, they come believing in a lot of promises that the streets were paved with gold, and that all their problems were going to be solved if they could once get to Los Angeles. And it wasn't true, of course.

GONZALES: Ronald Reagan gives voice to an emerging conservative tide in California politics. There are other ground-shaking events, pessimism over the Vietnam War, continuing campus unrest, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, the Manson murders, and finally the infamous rock concert at Altamont where four people died.

Prof. STARR: There certainly is an enormous amount of street-theater of conflict.

GONZALES: Historian Kevin Starr.

Prof. STARR: And the cool of the 1950s, the cool California suddenly becomes the very not cool, very hot California. The passionate, engaged, messy. You have really a transformed California.

GONZALES: Transformed, but still on America's cutting edge, when it comes to environmentalism, gay rights, technological innovation, and the challenges of immigration. Starr says the dream is matured and tempered. The fixed population has doubled since the early '60s, and it's fairly clear that for many across the country and around the world, the California dream lives on. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

BRAND: What does your California Dream look like? Has it changed with the economic slowdown? We have a special blog devoted to this topic.

COHEN: It's called Daydreaming, and you can find it by going to the Day to Day site at Maybe you live in another state. Do you still California a model of innovation, a place where dreams can become reality?

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