When I moved to Santa Barbara five months ago from Louisville, KY, I was understandably disoriented: the oppressively perfect weather, the highways, the glut of postwar housing developments, the drought.
How — and why — did Southern California come to exist? What are the important markers in its history? In search of answers, I did what I always do when I move to a new place: I found the nearest bookstore. After perusing a number of titles, these three books ended up providing me with a well-rounded lay of the land:
1) “Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water” by Mark Reisner
When you live in the American South, Midwest, or Northeast, the drought is merely something you read about. Then suddenly you’re in Southern California, and it’s unavoidable. Lawns are brown. Cities are required to reduce their water usage. Farmers are panicking. Elected officials are cajoling El Nino to soak the Golden State. “Cadillac Desert” explains how Los Angeles sprouted from the desert by diverting water from the Owens River. The chief player in orchestrating this was the wildly-ambitious William Mulholland, who was appointed chief engineer of the LA Bureau of Water Works in 1911. But did Mulholland legally bargain for this water, or outright steal it? You’ll have to read to find out.
2) “Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963” by Kevin Starr
To read California history is to read the vast work of Kevin Starr. He’s written nearly a dozen books that dredge up the history of this state. “Golden Dreams,” with its focus on the postwar era, is arguably the most vital in terms of Southern California. During the 1950s, roughly $50 billion of defense spending was funneled into California — and especially into Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. With money came an influx of workers streaming into the area. Between 1947 and 1959, California’s population jumped from 9.8-million to 15.3-million, with much of that growth happening in those southern counties. This explains so much about Southern California’s aesthetics, architecture and city planning.
3) “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles” by David L. Ulin
There is no place like Los Angeles. The city is especially discombobulating for those moving from metropolises like New York, Chicago, or Boston where there are public transportation systems, and the downtowns serve as a fulcrum for urban life. In “Sidewalking,” David Ulin tells his story of moving from Manhattan to LA; swapping a subway for an automobile; switching from a city that has built up to one that has built out. Ultimately, Ulin concludes that he cannot simply apply the rules of New York to Los Angeles. They are different organisms — each beautiful, confounding, and evolving in their own ways.