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Popular History at Its Best - California-Style

By Merle RubinMerle Rubin, who writes from Pasadena, Calif., specializes in reviewing literature for the Monitor. / June 12, 1990



MATERIAL DREAMS: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THROUGH THE 1920s by Kevin Starr, New York: Oxford University Press, 453 pp., illustrated, $24.95 `FOUNDATIONS in Water'' is the title Kevin Starr gives to the first part of his new book, ``Material Dreams,'' the third volume in his ongoing series ``Californians and the American Dream.'' In his first volume, Starr examined aspects of ``the moral and imaginative drama of California in the 19th and early 20th century.'' His second volume, ``Inventing the Dream,'' focused on southern California in the Progressive Era. With the third, Starr enters the modern era, culminating in the boom years of the 1920s, when the groundwork was being laid for the polyglot megalopolis that is southern California today.

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Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, prophets and planners envisioned ways of transforming the arid landscape into an irrigated region that would support farming and city life. It is a complicated story, involving the combination - and conflict - of the public interest and private self-interest. It inspired director Roman Polanski's devastating screen portrait of greedy megalomania in the 1974 film ``Chinatown.'' Starr's version is, not surprisingly, less dramatic, probably more evenhanded, and in its own way, quite as interesting.

The cost to the natural environment of such grand water projects was evident then as now. The 19th-century naturalist John Muir (who lived on into the first 18 years of the next century) foresaw the damage these schemes would do to his beloved wilderness, as rivers were diverted into aqueducts and canyons flooded to make reservoirs. Yet, to the early visionaries who dreamed of establishing a flourishing settlement in the arid lands of the West, the idea of making the desert bloom had biblical reverberations. To farmers who had long contended with the harsh, volatile weather of the Midwestern and Plains states, the prospect of a milder, more controlled, man-made environment looked like a dream come true.

The saga of water is only one of the many stories Starr has to tell. There's the story of the oil boom, of land development, of the rise of such institutions as the Department of Water and Power, the Los Angeles Police Department, the University of Southern California, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And alongside the almost magical burgeoning of the greater Los Angeles area, Starr finds a contrasting story in the history of Santa Barbara to its north. While Los Angeles chose the path of growth, Santa Barbara opted for a more tightly controlled development, in line with what was perceived as the region's romantic Hispanic past, thus retaining its air of being a genteel resort for the very rich.

To the wealthy oligarchs who sought to control its destiny and to the middle- and lower-class boosters and Babbitts who brought their brash blend of puritanism and commercialism, Los Angeles seemed the providential place to transplant their values. Starr contrasts the upbeat, if unabashedly show-biz-style evangelism of Aimee Semple McPherson with the fiercely bigoted, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-Jewish fundamentalism of Bob Shuler, who proclaimed Los Angeles ``the only Anglo-Saxon city of a million population left in America.'' As Starr aptly notes, Shuler was a ``paranoid populist of distinctly American caste of mind,'' who also ``loathed the WASP oligarchy ... the Los Angeles Times, and rah-rah USC fraternity boys.'' He saw the establishment that ran the city as a ``conspiracy and a private club... The fact that Shuler was partly correct in these assessments,'' Starr concludes, ``only reinforces Delmore Schwartz's contention that even paranoids have enemies.''

Starr demonstrates a firm grasp on each of the many diverse, often conflicting, tendencies at work in shaping the complex, contradictory world of southern California: a city of transplanted Midwesterners and cosmopolitans, of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Mexicans, Asians, blacks, southern and eastern Europeans - groups whose influence was no less vital for being undervalued, and in some cases, unacknowledged. He pieces together a splendid mosaic of the city from countless stories of the individuals who settled there and set about the task of realizing their various dreams. Particular emphasis is placed on architects, whose works are living testimony to the dreams of home that inspired them, and on the literary community of writers, librarians, printers, and booksellers, who transplanted the traditions of written culture to the land soon to become better known as the capital of the film industry.

Starr's emphasis on what might be called ``local heroes'' sometimes makes the book sound a little provincial. But his elevation of these cultural figures is calculated to offset the prevalent and misleading clich'es about Los Angeles as a city without cultural traditions or aspirations.

Calmly magisterial in assembling the many parts that make up the whole, lively and shrewd in delineating the details, ``Material Dreams'' is popular history in the best sense. It will leave you looking forward to the next volume, in which Starr will explore how this optimistic city faced the challenge of the Great Depression.