New California Dreaming The Golden State from No-Cal to So-Cal
We’ve got plenty of reasons for California dreaming: from the origins of the local food movement and the tech revolution to reminiscing about the Summer of Love
WHAT COULD BETTER REFLECT the complexity of California t han a certified organic farmers market under a state freeway? This was my singular thought as I stood on a rainy Sunday morning in Sacramento amid growers’ stands stacked with awesome bounty – persimmons, esoteric nut varieties, citrus in surprising shapes and shades – and overhead the belch and roar of traffic. Even looking up at the underside of U.S. Route 50 between 6th and 7th streets was an esthetic contradiction. “The Bright Underbelly” is the work of local artists, a fanciful mural – like anti-graffiti – covering 70,000 square feet of concrete. Against a background of sky blue, there are vignettes for each of the seasons, birds in flight, wildlife and trees and, on the support pillars, naïve-style text documenting the work.
Sacramento is a foodie crucible, surrounded by famous ly fertile farmland, ranch es and vineyards, with a year-round growing season and a Mediterranean climate. It shows in the olive oil, the salad greens, the tomatoes and in the restaurants. I ate delicious food at every turn while visiting and made the acquaintance of “shrubs” – an arcane recipe newly revived in which artisanal “drinking vinegars,” made from acidulated fruit and botanicals, are mixed with soda and improved with a shot of alcohol (or not). But in my mind, gastronomy doesn’t really jibe with the gold rush – the city’s legacy – or the government, its raison d’être. You can be sure that Sacramento’s first citizens, pioneers who crossed the country by stagecoach in the mid-1800s to seek their fortune, flee debtors’ prison and reinvent themselves, mostly worried about scurvy.
The gold rush made Sacramento, but it’s not what makes it interesting today. It’s more about what that bonanza wrought. When prospectors struck gold in 1848, Sacramento was a hardscrabble backwater, California was a territory owned by Mexico and to travel east in any comfort you had to sail around South America. Two years later, California had joined the union; 20 years later, the transcontinental railroad had come through and, by the 1870s, Sacramento, by then the state’s capital, was established as a western showpiece of neo-classical architecture. Those people got the job done.
Sacramento’s accelerated development makes its elegant capitol building with its porticos, rotunda and dome all the more impressive. Today, this is where Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, holds office. Here, too, is where the Yes California campaign rallied support on Nov. 9, the day after a Republican outlier and reality TV star became the president of the United States. Yes California – the state that put Hillary Clinton over the top for the popular vote win – wants to secede from the union and is at the forefront of a very credible anti-Trump movement.
A few blocks from Sacramento’s Capitol Park is the Crocker Museum, an Italianate mansion built in 1885. Originally conceived as an integrated complex, a house and gallery together, it became the first purpose-built public art museum in the west. The railroad agent (read robber baron) for the state, Judge Edwin Crocker, and his wife filled it with European masters, including drawings, paintings and ceramics collected during their buying trips to Europe over a period of just four years. Adjoining the heritage building is the modern wing built in the 2000s, home to an acclaimed collection of California art.
Innovation is in California’s DNA – it didn’t start with Silicon Valley. The completion of the railroad was the single biggest transportation disruptor of the 19th century, the self-driving car of its era. Then came Hollywood, the 20th-century dream factory that commodified fantasy and made reinvention semi-acceptable as a career path. It was motion picture technology that turned “back-of-the-envelope” accountants into studio moguls. Steve Jobs, raised in Mountain View, a suburb of San José, had historic role models.
Driving southwest from Sacramento toward Silicon Valley, from one of California’s oldest settlements to its most powerful, is like time travel with mountain vistas along the way. Some of the fastest growing technology companies in the world are here. Revenue is doubling annually; they can’t hire big brains fast enough. Yet it feels like “there’s no there there,” as Gertrude Stein said. We drive along suburban freeways, passing down-at-heels strip malls, going from one tech temple to another. The campuses of Google, Facebook and Apple all seem to be hermetically sealed universes where employees work, eat and play.
The most cloistered of all is Apple’s new headquarters, dubbed “the spaceship,” now under construction in Cupertino. Plans have been closely held, the construction site requires security clearance and the internet is obsessed. Drone pictures reveal a gigantic silver oval ring, which will accommodate 13,000 employees. The president of Apple, Tim Cook, calls it “a centre for innovation for generations to come.”
It’s at first arresting to see the bricks and mortar versions of the brands that literally govern our lives. In San Francisco, too, you look up from your phone to see the Airbnb, Uber or Twitter logo affixed to a building’s facade. But unless you’re a venture capitalist, there’s not much to do in Silicon Valley other than shop. On each of the campuses, there’s a storefront selling branded swag. More compelling to me is the Beam store on the main drag of Palo Alto where you can buy yourself a robot – from a robot. No store clerks, no attitude, I guess.
San Francisco felt like a sea change after Silicon Valley. Walking through the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, even the air smelled sophisticated. This, too, is a city that grew out of the gold rush, a city built by dreamers. So while it looks European and feels ultra-moneyed, it is also the product of fierce enterprise, ethnically diverse and left-leaning. San Francisco is where counterculture movements were ignited, gay rights activists launched their cause and where the Summer of Love – one mo- mentous season in 1967 – defined a generation and an era. This year marked its 50th anniversary, and the city honoured it with a full cultural program of concerts, art exhibitions and happenings.
Yet technology is never really in the background in San Francisco. One evening, I ate oysters at Waterbar on the Embarcadero, overlooking the city’s most brilliant public art – the Bay Bridge swathed in 25,000 LED lights that pulse and twinkle from dusk to dawn. The artist Leo Villareal programmed The Bay Lights so the patterns are everchanging and never repeated.
Originally a two-year installation, it was gifted to the State of California last year and is now permanent. Innovation for the people: there’s a reason it’s called the Left Coast. www.visitcalifornia.com
Technology Drive street sign in Silicon Valley, Calif. Sunset over San Francisco