We All Live in California Now
A few weeks before I left California, my wife and I were driving down Telegraph Avenue, the iconic street in Berkeley/Oakland near the University of California that Sixties activism made famous. On this particular afternoon, a man was standing to the side of the busy street, picking up large chunks of wood and throwing them at cars as they drove by him. Was it dangerous? Yes. Could someone have been hurt? Absolutely. Was it sad to see someone in such a troubled state? Definitely. Was he mentally ill, or on Meth, or both? Very possible. But none of that was what truly bothered me on that beautiful summer day. It was my own reaction. A shrug. Resignation. After all, something like this happened every day in our little corner of the Golden State. It was typical. Another afternoon in Oakland. Another day in the Bay. Another dystopian moment in the state that once defined the “good life.” There was nothing to do about it. God knows, the police were overwhelmed long before they ever got to responding to events like this.
People like that man were on seemingly every street—marginal, mentally troubled, drug-addled, angry, violent. Many of them were “experiencing homelessness” to use the preferred nomenclature. In the space of just that one year, 2019, homelessness in Oakland was up almost 50%! Thousands more populated the streets in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Everyone was shocked; no one had solutions, least of all city officials. They had few good options even before having their hands tied behind their backs by local activists and advocates defending the rights of people to live on the street.
I often asked myself the question in those days, “How we did we get here?” and “How did I get here?” I think the answers to both questions are relevant today, not just for those who have the privilege to live in one of America’s wealthiest regions, but for all of us. California is not America. But if you think California’s problems will stay on the West Coast, then perhaps you aren’t paying attention. California is a cultural incubator for the country, and regularly exports much of its culture to the other forty-nine. That is often a positive. How many important movements and trends, large and small, first flourished in some California subculture? Sometimes, though, the exports aren’t so favorable. And today, when it comes to urban issues, gaps are closing faster than most realize.
If you don’t see it, I suggest you look a bit closer at urban neighborhoods near you. Rising crime, dysfunctional government, surprising levels of homelessness, spiking housing costs, soaring rents, anti-police rhetoric, increasing activism, stretched infrastructure, high levels of drug abuse, inequality—any of that sound familiar?
Once upon a time, I fell in love with Oakland. And California. It was 2012. Happy refugees from the East Coast, my wife and I had packed up our lives and drove west for the same reasons so many have over the decades—a change, a new start, following friends, and a chance to build a new kind of life together. Oh, and much better weather.
My wife, who grew up in beautiful but damp, rainy England, loved her sun-drenched days in the East Bay. She told me, “Every day I wake up and my iPhone weather app says, ‘mostly sunny.’ And so am I.” We delighted in the climate, the fresh produce, the golden hills, and the coffee shops of our local neighborhoods, Temescal and Rockridge. For the first time in my life, I took a civic interest in local politics. It seemed Oakland and the East Bay might be on the verge of a new, golden era. There was money coming up from Silicon Valley, people moving across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. Oakland still hummed with activism and protest, as it often has, but there was a sense it could be channeled into growing the city. A popular local website published an article, “Why all my friends are moving to Oakland.” A new friend helped open a coworking space in the once-neglected uptown, a hub for community and entrepreneurship, and we eagerly signed up as founding members. Even the more troubled parts of the city seemed to be improving. The diversity of the city, and of the entire Bay Area, was energizing. It felt like the future, and we took advantage of California’s many offerings. We hung out with geeky intellectuals in San Francisco, empowered by the billions flowing through the city. We fell under the spell of wine country. We worshipped faithfully every Sunday at California’s “church,” otherwise known as the fabulous local year-round farmers’ market. We spent weekends kayaking with sea otters, imbibing the magnificence of Monterey Bay. We discovered Tahoe and my wife learned to ski. We visited Big Sur and the iconic Esalen retreat center for the first time. We explored the nooks and crannies of the Bay Area, imagining where we might live in a future in which we could afford a house. Occasionally, I made it back to Marin County to explore where I’d lived in the 90s, and we smiled at the concerns of everyone over sixty when we told them, “We’re living in Oakland.”
Yes, there were warning signs. The crime rate was disturbingly high. The police force was woefully short-handed throughout the Bay. The history of Oakland was troubled, a racially charged narrative that provided plenty of reason for trauma and recrimination and cycles of distress. But a new leaf seemed to be turning. We had hope—so much . . . too much. Oakland was not what it had been. But neither was it what we wanted it to be. We didn’t anticipate the confluence of wealth, progressive politics, and good intentions gone wrong that were already turning the Bay area and many of California’s cities into a new, troubling form of urban breakdown. We failed to foresee that bizarre mixture of incredible success and massive failure, an unsettled concoction of policy mistakes decades in the making. Those mistakes, and the policy environment they were incubated in, managed to turn what might have been a golden age in the Golden State into a cautionary tale for the whole country.
“Green can’t govern!” I exclaimed one day in exasperation to a friend, using a shorthand term that comes from the cultural development model Spiral Dynamics. What I meant was that progressivism, with all of its laudable idealism, its focus on society’s marginalized, its emphasis on resetting power dynamics, its fundamentally anti-business mindset, its high morals and low pragmatism, has little ability to respond adequately to the policy environment it was facing in California neighborhoods. In fact, it seemed to be making it all worse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always shared many of progressivism’s political concerns. I want to live in a world in which racism is being addressed and acknowledged; in which social inequality and grinding poverty are fast becoming problems of the past; in which the environment is not an afterthought or a political football, and in which we all have the sexual and emotional freedom to live as befits our own personal pathways and predilections. But what was happening around me in California, a place with seemingly endless supply of economic opportunity, was not the political revolution progressives were looking for.
Let’s take one issue that was at the heart of it all: Housing. In our neighborhood of admittedly charming Craftsman homes, built in the 1920s, prices skyrocketed. It was the same all over the Bay. As renters, we were amazed to learn that the quirky, dated 2200 square foot house in which we rented a small top-floor apartment was worth almost $2 million. The cost of living was similarly inflated. Luckily, our incomes were rising, but not that fast, and I felt for our friends without that advantage.
I went to the Berkeley City Council meeting to try to better understand what was happening with housing. In the midst of an obvious housing crisis resulting in homelessness, dislocation, and suffering, and impacting low-income people the most, why couldn’t they help facilitate more building? There were about 100 people present to comment on a proposed apartment building—not a huge one, but actual new units. Like most such projects, it had been under design and consideration for years, finally running the inevitable administrative gauntlet to obtain city approval. The developers had already agreed to several concessions—the addition of units of affordable housing, design changes, and so on. They’d even offered several hundred thousand dollars to fund a community housing activist salary for a local non-profit (I always found that an odd form of extortion, but that’s another story). This development, after years of planning and negotiation, was supposed to be ready for final approval. About forty people, mostly younger folks, took the lectern and argued for the project. They talked about the price of housing, and how urgently we needed more supply. Then about twenty people, mostly older folks, took the lectern and argued against it. They voiced the usual complaints—developer greed, changing the character of the city, bad design, environmental concerns, not enough parking, and so on. I imagined that many had probably been doing this for years, maybe even decades. They were fighting the good fight—running scripts from another era. I’m sure there were many developments worthy of being killed in seventies and eighties, but if being reflexively against development had once been a good idea, it had now gone horribly wrong. And the irony, I thought to myself, was that these were the same people who lived on streets like mine, with signs on their front lawns proudly proclaiming that “Immigrants are Welcome,” “Kindness is Everything,” and “All Humans Deserve Equal Rights.”
Finally, the vote was about to proceed, until the city council demanded one more concession. I don’t remember what it was, only the disbelief on the face of the representative of the developer. Another hoop to jump through, another shake-down. He wasn’t authorized to make another concession. In exasperation, he refused. The council never voted. The meeting ended. Years of planning, wasted. Nothing ever happened at that site while I lived nearby.
I realized I was asking the wrong question. It was not, “Why doesn’t more get built in an obvious housing crisis?” The right question was “How does anything ever get built at all?” And of course, for many, that’s the real goal: blocking development, period. I remember reading about a new development in Fruitvale, a traditionally under-served part of the city. City leaders were excited. The opening was a big celebration. The newspapers featured it prominently. It seemed like a great project, well-conceived. It was praised in local press as a “national model for development without gentrification.” Then, I kept reading. The project had taken twenty-four years to get developed! The only thing that’s a national model for is a multi-decade housing crisis and a homelessness problem that won’t ever quit. Human suffering on a massive scale. A have and have-not society. And that is exactly what happens when your housing policies serve activists and NIMBYs not people and progress, when they over-respond to ideological interests and underreact to pragmatic realities, and when they are captured by the past and under-serve the future.
I grew to hate the term “affordable housing.” City leaders would indulge in the bizarre pretense that insisting developers add a handful of affordable units could somehow make up for the thousands and thousands of units that remained unbuilt. Sure, building “affordable housing” is a good thing. But when it’s used as a smokescreen for an anti-development policy, it becomes part of the problem. In the end, we don’t need a few extra units of “affordable housing”; we need housing that is affordable.
For homeowners, the cycle starts out a positive. Prices go up. Neighborhoods improve. At one point in San Francisco, homeowners were making an average of $11,000 per month in price appreciation. But the later part of the cycle is vicious—other costs start to rise, people move away, the middle class gets squeezed, homelessness gets worse, people fall through the cracks, the streets degenerate. More crime and violence. More drug problems. Massive tent cities. Needles on the streets. 28,000 cases of human feces on the streets of San Francisco in 2019 (and those were just the ones that got reported). Somehow, in the most tolerant place in America, they tolerate this as well. Businesses started to close. Conferences were canceled. Stores pulled out of neighborhoods, unable to cope with the level and brazenness of the constant theft. Trump tweeted. People got outraged. Polarization reigned. You know the drill.
“Pop . . . pop . . . pop . . . pop . . . pop!” The noise was loud, surprising. “What was that? Were those gunshots?” my wife asked. “Nah, I don’t think so. Must be firecrackers.” I responded. Now, I look back and roll my eyes at my more than a little naïve response. You can take the boy out of Oklahoma . . . A few minutes later, we heard it again. Twenty minutes later, I stepped outside, and about five police cruisers were sitting in our street. I asked an officer, “What happened?” “A drive-by shooting,” he said. “But no one was hurt.” He was nonplussed. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was Oakland, after all. Unless someone was injured, it hardly registers as criminal activity.
Not everyone took such things seriously until they were victims. A friend worked downtown, dismissive of the danger until she was mugged at gunpoint. A couple leaving a restaurant down the street were mugged and accidentally shot. A young man in a coffee shop nearby had his laptop grabbed, tried to run after the perpetrator’s car, and was dragged to his death. At eight in the morning, a few blocks from our street of multi-million-dollar houses, commuters were waiting for a ride into San Francisco when several men got out of a car with machine guns, lined them up, and went down the row taking their backpacks, laptops, and phones. In the middle of rush hour. On a busy street. And it didn’t stop there. A knife-wielding guy at a bus stop. A man chased down the street outside our house, dragged down and robbed. A woman screaming and two teenage boys running away right in front of our porch as I ran out to help her. Car break-ins. Home invasions. There were so many incidents. Day after day. They just blend into one other.
And yet, it wasn’t just the crime that was disturbing. It was the response from the community. Ignore it. Excuse it with talk of wealth gaps and inequality. Pretend it isn’t that serious. It was as if the culture didn’t want to see the problem. They preferred to complain about the police. About developers. About gentrification. About rich people. About Silicon Valley. About people who complain about crime. After all, isn’t that just so, well, privileged?
Where were the police? you might ask. Good question. When an incident occurred, they would eventually show up and take statements. In my interactions with the police, they seemed professional; they tried to be helpful. But describing the problematic and toxic relationship between the activist community, the city leaders, the police, the business community, and the general culture would take a book in and of itself. I understand that the police haven’t always been good actors in our society, as recent high profile national events have only highlighted. But the culture of the city seemed to reject the very idea of the police—as if their existence was a policy failure that should be barely tolerated or fixed at the soonest possible moment. It often seemed as if the general goal was to disincentivize the police from addressing or responding to crime. Unfortunately, it’s working. Every misstep from the police was met with widespread outrage while thousands and thousands of incidents of crime were largely ignored. It often seemed like most forms of crime had essentially been decriminalized.
This was particularly evident when it came to the basic city laws. Rules would be selectively enforced, with police turning a blind eye to situations that were just too politically charged to be worth dealing with. A friend remarked one day that he had received an expensive parking ticket outside his office, while a bit further down the same street a person had been living in their car for months without response from authorities. This created a strange, two-tiered society, with an underground culture that was essentially lawless.
The result was an environment in which one constantly felt that there was no one to help curb the chaos on the streets. People felt the need to take the law into their own hands—literally. My neighborhood, like many others, took up a collection to hire a private security patrol. One neighborhood in San Francisco tried to do something about the open-air drug bazar in its alleyway by placing large boulders on the sidewalk to prevent encampments. This became known as “hostile architecture” and in a bizarre urban farce, activists would come in the middle of the night and roll the boulders into the street, forcing city workers to take them out of the street the next day. Such scenes were played out in countless ways across California. A woman parked her camper van in the street in front of a friend’s house and was clearly using it for prostitution. Police assured him that they could do nothing. He finally purchased a large boat trailer and parked it out front, preventing, at least for the moment, the mobile brothel. Another act of hostile architecture. Another person falling through the cracks of society. Another unraveling thread in the human fabric. Another day in the Bay.
There is still no place quite like California. Sun, mountains, parks, ocean, wildlife, cities, food, wealth, wine, tolerance, experimentation, freedom. The rich abundance of the American dream, all concentrated in one beautiful state. I still feel the pull of its beauty and mystique—just as I did when I first drove West from Oklahoma, aged 22, looking for a sense of freedom and possibility I couldn’t find in my home state. I found it, and many other things in California—a career, a community, a calling, and a commute that included the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge. “How’s the land of milk and honey?” my father used to ask me on our phone calls. A lifetime Oklahoma resident, he liked to joke that “Okies moved to California in the thirties and raised the IQ in both states.” But the California promise also moved him, and I could tell some part of him liked that I had headed West with my own dreams. Then, as now, California represented some of America’s highest aspirations. But it’s also come to signify some of its most unfortunate failings. Will we learn its lessons? They’re not simple.
Progressives run much of California and have largely failed it. We should be honest about that. For all of us, like me, who care about progressive priorities, it’s a black eye. But that’s not a partisan observation. These are policy mistakes that have been baked into the cake for decades; they’re not the result of any one politician, one administration, one party, or one city. And I’m not going to pretend that the answer somehow lies in switching sides. I mean, certainly, there were times when I would have loved to have a bit more law and order in the policy mix. And I would have been happy to briefly channel my inner libertarian and wipe away some of the regulations that were causing so much unnecessary red tape and human suffering. There were moments when I half-jokingly declared that I wanted to move to a red state so I could be a liberal again. But the truth is, I’m not convinced anyone has the answers, on either side, or in the middle. It will take something more to solve this set of issues that confront our postmodern society. It will take a post-progressive spirit.
Let’s take the combined issues of homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, and vast amounts of disturbing, anti-social behavior, and petty crime. I honestly think that solving these issues will take a post-progressive approach—less ideological, more targeted, smart, and tough but still deeply humanitarian. It will inevitably involve some traditional clean-up-the-streets, fix-the-broken-windows, law-and-order approaches. But arresting our way through a generation of opioid or meth addicts and mentally ill individuals is not a solution in an evolved society. Progressives are passionate about that, and they’re right. However, stopping a wrong answer does not equate to a right answer. We will have to get better about smart interventions, humane institutions, education, and creating new opportunities for generations of adults who need to find better futures. And I know this is controversial, but society is going to have to find a way to more compassionately take care of the few percent of the population who otherwise fall through the cracks. Now, we do it by default, poorly—turning too many cities into “a giant, lawless open-air ward for those suffering from [addiction and mental health] issues,” as Amy Alkon points out in a hard-hitting Quillette article. We need to do it better, and pro-actively. Responding adequately to these issues will require that we neither criminalize them nor accept them without sanction so that they become anti-social and dangerous. We may need new structures in our society specifically designed to better address these challenges. We also need radical policies that generate new forms of housing, and enough of it, so that it becomes truly affordable—especially for those who can’t vote with their feet by moving away. And affordability must work for both individuals and society. The amount of money currently being spent by California cities on the issue of homelessness—with questionable results—has itself skyrocketed, and is hardly replicable across the country.
I should add that, as with many of these issues, the problem is more than just housing or crime. It’s a whole cultural attitude. And this is the part I find most difficult. A generation of activists has somehow decided that to protect the dignity of the individual from the imposition of an uncompassionate state they must protect the right of individuals to have no dignity whatsoever. And to do so in our front yards. We must find a way to affirm the former sentiment without succumbing to the latter.
I live in Denver, Colorado now. It’s a different culture. But neighbors are starting to complain about the shocking levels of homelessness, the needles, the drug abuse on the streets, the brazenness of the crime, the way the police seem unwilling to get involved. Friends and family members describe spiking housing costs, bidding wars, and all-cash offers as new features of the local real estate landscape. In the news, I read about the national rise in crime, and about housing issues that once seemed unique to California (and maybe the Northwest) spreading around the country. I see progressive institutions with the best of intentions trying to respond to these entrenched problems with lots of strong statements and little success. And I wonder, and worry, about what the future will bring. Will we learn the lessons of our greatest state? Can we bypass the dystopian part of this 21st century moral drama?
“They call it paradise. I don’t know why,” sang the quintessential California band The Eagles, whose music perfectly captured the laid-back mood of the California lifestyle at its ascendance. Today, California is not the promised land. Nor is it the great hope of progressivism. But it may still represent the future of urban politics in America. And that future is asking urgent questions of us all. I hope we can find the answers. Our society will need them. Time will tell whether it’s a blessing or a curse, but we need to face the truth—we all live in California now.