polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

California Love

by Alex Schafran

If you see me walking down the street, whether in a large city surrounded by the cacophony of changing spaces or in a small town far from the center of the polyphonic metropolis, I suspect that you will perceive something between a smile and a smirk bestride my generally unshaven face. There are some who would argue that said facial expression is a result of ignorance, or drugs, or that it is a willful deception, masking a truly tortured soul. Although there are kernals of truth in all three explanations, the story that I tell myself is that it comes from the little bit of happiness, the optimistic spirit with an outsized sense of the possible and a keen eye for the beautiful, engendered, in part, by being from California.

Alas, these are difficult days in the Golden State, where almost a half million homes have been lost to foreclosure. Just over the hill from where I live, in San Joaquin county, one out of every 73 housing units was foreclosed upon in August alone. With the unemployment rate above 12%, foreclosures may get worse before they get better. Although the political discourse may have moved on from foreclosure as the heart of the crisis, the reality in many California communities has not.

It is a crisis which has further undermined one of the most under-appreciated of California's numerous assets - our unparalleled system of higher education. Although it has been slowly eroded over the past generation, the current cuts, when combined with a 25% tuition increase that will push "fees" (tuition is free by law) in the UC system over $10,000, represent a brazen and full frontal attack on the very future of the possibility that is California.

Yet this crisis in education is one not simply caused by a crisis in the urban (i.e. foreclosure crisis begets economic crisis which begats fiscal crisis), or by the legacy of a white suburban tax revolt (Prop 13), but one which will have major effects on the cities and towns we love. These cuts, which impact the CSU and Community College system with even greater ferocity, threaten the future of tens of thousands of soon-to-be urban citizens, many of whom are young people of color who will be the first generation in their family to attend college. More than simply the future workforce of California, they are the future urbanists of California, eager minds who need the space and place to develop solutions to our urban problems and to learn to problematize the legacy of past solutions.

So when more than 5,000 students, faculty and staff walk out of classes to protest in the legendary spaces of Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, in the long shadow of Mario Savio, it is not the least bit "misdirected," as longtime California political analyst Peter Schrag would have you believe. Nobody understands better than Schrag how deeply the problem is rooted in the state's disfunctional system of governance and the legacy of Prop 13, but it is sad that he can not appreciate a true display of anger when he sees one, the anger of a community seeing one of its greatest jewels stripped bare (and which made national and international headlines).

Urban politics may be inchoate at times, but such is the nature of decisions that impact not just our lives but our possible futures. So if you see hints of anger poking through the smirk on these odd Tuesdays, know that it is part of life these days on the coast, in this place, to alter Joan Didion, where I am from.

Photo by Alex Schafran.