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Behind the Scenes


An interview with...

Kevin Starr
State Librarian-Historian

What do you mean when you say, "The Central Valley is the California of California"?

Well, I think the central valley is what all Californians have in common. The central valley incorporates within itself all the constituent elements of California. The central valley after all is both northern California and southern California and central California. Central California incorporates all the landscapes of California and I think, most powerfully, central California incorporates all the people of California. And now with the diversification of the central California economy, central California is also reflecting the total economy of California. So it's the one region that all California has in common. It's the California of California.

Having established that, that how important is the Central Valley to the overall well being of the state?

Well, I think without the central valley, California would be claustrophobically confined to its coastal regions. California as we know it would not exist. Central California is the heartland, and the heartland is a physical place -- but it's a psychological place as well California is centered on central California. It's the tabula rasa, really, on which we write the future history of the state. The historical patterns of coastal southern California and coastal northern California are rather determined. They're determined by population; they're determined by environment regulation; they're determined by over a hundred and fifty years of industrial history. The narrative of central California is not that complete. In fact, it's only being assembled in a more sophisticated format in our own time as diversity is added to the economy of central California. So in thinking about California, in thinking about the future of California whether in terms of population growth, further economic diversification, the success of California as a ecumenical civilization, we have to think in significant measure about central California. That third shoe if you will is falling now with a very dramatic clunk on the consciousness of California.

From a historian's point of view, have the people who are controlling the state learned anything from the history of California's development that would help the central valley?

In the 20th century two major political lessons were learned from the history of California by public officials. In the first part of the 20th century, our political officials learned the lesson of political reform: that California had to be better managed politically, and thanks to progressive movement, by the 1920s those ideas were largely implemented. In the latter part of the 20th century, California began to contemplate the next big challenge from its history and that was the management of its growth. And that process is still underway and central California is crucial to both the challenge and the solution.

What do you think is the biggest problem that we now face in terms of handling the growth?

Central California is devoid at present of a central metaphor, a central vision of itself as a totality. A totality that that would embrace proper growth, that would embrace the preservation of agriculture, that would embrace the implementation of high technology industries that are environmentally favorable, that would embrace the further assimilation of its ecumenical population in terms of language and other academic skills. We need a central vision for central California -- and we're going to get it. We're working on it now, we're thinking about it. It's the next great issue, especially as linked to growth. It's the next great issue of California politics.

Can the association of Bay Area governments serve as a template for managing growth in the Valley?

I think the success of the Sierra Business Council points the way for central California. The Sierra Nevada mountains sustain toward a quarter of a million people living there now. They live in the north, and the center and in the southern part of the state because the Sierra Nevada extends down dramatically throughout the eastern side of California. They've learned to think Sierra Nevada-wide and I think that the central valley has to learn to think central valley wide. We have foundations: the Great Central Valley Foundation, the growing interest of the Irvine Foundation in central California. It is dawning on policy makers, planners both within the central valley and California as a whole, that the crucial arena for the management of growth and for the successful negotiation of our new inevitable population by 2040, that central California is at the matrix of either the solution or the matrix of the catastrophe.

Could you give us a brief history of growth patterns in the state?

California developed by booms. The boom of the gold rush was succeeded by the boom of the 1880s, when the railroad connections began to have their effect. The boom of the 1880s was succeeded by the boom of the early nineteen hundreds which brought over three million people into southern California. The boom of the early nineteen hundreds was succeeded by the boom of the World War II period, which pushed our population up to nine, ten, twelve million. The boom of the World War II period yielded to the boom of the 1960s when the immigration laws were reformed and California became significantly Asian-American and Mexican-American in its population. Those booms are the pattern of California growth.

And the boom of this time is…?

The boom of this time is the living population reproducing itself and the fact that California is such a creative economy, such a wonderful place to live that literally we're going to have continuing mass migration into California from the rest of the United States, and the world. In fact if you looked at the DNA code of Native American California -- of the million Americans who lived in the present day United States at the point of Columbus's arrival -- more than a third lived within the present day boundaries of California. I wouldn't be surprise if 150 years out, one third the total population of the United States could be in California. We certainly see an emptying out of the difficult regions in term of weather. People don't say, "Gee when I grow up, I want to move to North Dakota," -- and I'm not insulting North Dakota! California -- the lifestyle, the weather, the climate, the dynamic interactive economy, the ecumenical civilization -- I think is going to continue to attract population in the century to come.

What is this growth going to do to the demographics of the central valley?

Well, I think the demographics of the central valley, given the growth that California is going to be experiencing, will be a composite representative mosaic of the entire state. I don't think there will be one population not represented in the central valley. Now you have to remember this about the central valley: it was the last part of the California to be settled. It was settled by the native Americans, of course; but it really wasn't settled by Spain, it was not settled by Mexico -- they just nibbled the edges of it. It was not even settled by American Californians till the late 19th century, when you began to have irrigation technology to make life in the central valley feasible. It was not fully settled by cities and towns till the invention of air conditioning in the 1930s and 40s made it a much more salubrious place to live. So there is an invented quality to central California; I call it "the invented garden." What took a hundred years to achieve on the coast is being achieved for better or worse in the central California in a matter of decade.

What are the ramifications going to be if we start moving away from our agriculture base?

I think growth is presenting California with an institutional crisis. Cities that grow too quickly move beyond the ability of their institutions to serve -- beyond the ability of churches, synagogues, schools to serve a too rapidly expanding population. Agriculture is a business but agriculture is also an institution. Agriculture is at the core of the DNA code of the central valley and the continuing of agriculture is more than just, like we say in Los Angeles, "Don't quit your day job." It has something profoundly Jeffersonian about it. Jefferson was not delusional when he said that this nation could never detach itself fully from its agriculture capacity and remain a great and moral society. And the challenge today is to reconcile this agricultural foundation of California and the needs of a population.

How do you do that if you're losing 250 acres a day of prime farm to urban growth?

The paradox of growth has to reconcile two very antagonistic principles: the free market and the jurisdiction of the public sector. And there is going to be a painful clash between those two principles in the immediate future on the issue of agricultural properties that we're pawing under. You see because agriculture properties are not just business commodities; they represent a form of trust, of public trust. Agriculture is open space; agriculture is necessary for the total social, communal, and cultural well being of a society. Therefore, the paving over of the central valley represents not just a threat to California economy, not just a threat to the California formula; it represents a threat to the whole culture and way of life that we have in this state. And at some point, just as we said to politics, "Reform yourself," we're going to be saying to the loss of agricultural properties, "Enough is enough," and that's going to be politically painful.

How well can the central valley accommodate the building of major urban centers?

Unless Californians --whether in central California, northern California or southern California -- learn to live, of their own free will, more comfortably with the principle and fact of density, this state is going to be in terrible trouble. But I have great faith that the people will learn those things. I think we're seeing that now in the kinds of townhouse developments; in the best aspects of the smart growth movement; in our recognition of what we've lost, for instance, as the city of Fresno metastasizes to some one hundred square miles; in the struggle of metropolitan Sacramento -- as its growth moves toward the two million mark -- to maintain its institutional coherence. I think the battle is being joined. The exact formula, and political compromises, and détentes that we have to reach to manage growth in central California is not exactly clear, but the process is under way. Don't forget: when we take about two hundred fifty acres being lost to California every day, it's the people who give the permission. The people ultimately are the sovereign authority behind every planning commission. It's the elected officials who set up the parameter of land transfer; it's not just the market. Land is a public trust and the most conservative people will acknowledge ultimately that the people have jurisdiction in the question of land use. And so what we have to have is a growing awareness on part of the people of central California as to what would be lost. We had that awareness regarding our coast; the coastal commission is a result of the fact that we realized that our twelve hundred mile coast was in danger. We had that in terms of endangered species; we had that in terms of redwoods. As many of the acres of redwoods that we lost, we would have lost even more had not it dawned on people at the turn of the century that we're losing that commodity. It is dawning on us now that we're on the verge of losing California in a way that would be tragic if we don't come up with proper modes of handling growth and if we don't learn to live more densely in our landscape.

How long will it take to develop the processes needed to manage growth ?

Ideas have consequences. Ideas that were social welfare ideas in the 1960s dominated social welfare programs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It's the ideas that we have now -- the good ideas, the challenging ideas regarding growth management -- that will dominate the decades to come. But the time frame, the workout time, the build-out time of these ideas is not in years but in decades. On the other hand the rate of growth, the fast forwarding of our culture, and civilization is so dramatic that I think we can compress those years by some factor -- but not completely. You need complex political agreement for this kind of planning, and that kind of complex political agreement just takes time; that kind of consensus takes time. If I were a elected official I would be frightened of end run -- a proposition 13 statewide regarding growth. That is to say, a well-intended but draconian measure that would bypass the subtleties of the legislative process and would impose on California an antigrowth program that might have disastrous albeit unintended consequences. And that's why we have to back our elected officials as they struggle to do something which we have not done really very well, and that is to manage growth on a statewide basis.

To sum up, what do you think the next quarter century holds for us here?

Given the growth facing the central valley, the next quarter century will either have for us a spectacular coping with the problem…or a catastrophe. That catastrophe could be a catastrophe of just runaway growth, or it could be a catastrophe of bad antigrowth laws that have unintended consequences. The more utopian or hopeful scenario would be a balanced society, which is going to allow for more growth but at the same time halt the runaway plowing, the "asphaltization" of California agriculture -- and at the same time have environmental concerns pervading every sector: agriculturally, in terms of wilderness preservation, and in terms of urbanism, suburbanism... I would like to see for instance a stopping of the runaway growth of cities. I want to see Fresno come back in on itself, fill out those brown fields, regain its institutions, and recapture the mood that Fresno had when I was a teenager working at Yosemite National Park in the 1950's, when all the college kids, the students from Fresno, the people had sense of an institution because you had a manageable city. Sprawl vitiates culture, isolates people, and makes it more difficult to maintain parks, symphony orchestras, athletic leagues, etc. So I think that just the sheer desire of people to be happy in their lives will provide a tremendous motivating force to manage growth in central California in the next ten years. And we won't have the catastrophic scenario; we'll have something not utopian, but we'll see certain corners being turned.




The complete text of New Valley Episode 101 -- Preserving the Dream...


Presentation also made possible by a grant from
the Great Valley Center


New Valley Official Site