SAN FRANCISCO – What will we tell the next generation about the 20th century in California?
It was a time of nuclear power and flower power, an era of newcomers thundering into the state, pressing forward by stagecoach, train, cars, planes, and, finally, light pulses hurtling along the invisible byways of the Internet.
It was a century of speed.
“Things that we once did in two or three days are now done in 10 or 15 minutes, the speed of everything has gotten almost to the point of being out of hand,” says Central Valley citrus grower Nicholas Hill.
“We became totally addicted to growth and to technology,” says environmentalist David Brower.
Items from a time capsule intended to be unearthed in 2099 in suburban Livermore:
Mayor’s cell phone. Hewlett-Packard computer mouse. A family’s monthly bills. Bottle of port.
California got a running start early in the century when the great earthquake of 1906 tore down San Francisco and a determined populace put it right back up again.
Soon, the state was diverting rivers and flooding valleys to water Southern California and create an agricultural powerhouse.
In 1927, the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” was produced in Hollywood.
In 1929, Ernest O. Lawrence invented the cyclotron at Berkeley, furthering the work of unlocking the secrets of the atom.
In 1938, Hewlett-Packard was founded, setting the stage for California’s emergence as a computer power.
Among those striking gold in Silicon Valley was software entrepreneur-turned-political crusader Ron Unz. He’ll remember the 20th century as a time when the state’s population boomed from 1.5 million to 33 million.
“California moved from being really a small state on the periphery of the United States with no great significance to being far and away the largest state,” he says.
Unz, who successfully campaigned against bilingual education and is now trying for campaign finance reform, expects California to stay on top.
“We have Hollywood, we have Silicon Valley … we’ve certainly become one of the most ethnically diverse states.”
Diversity didn’t come easy.
Chinese immigrants were the focus of laws designed to drive them out of business in the early 1900s, Japanese-Americans were shunted off to concentration camps in World War II.
Californians were still tangling with issues of race at the century’s end with a largely white electorate voting to dismantle state affirmative action programs and attempting – so far unsuccessfully – to deny schooling and most medical services to the illegal immigrants, many of whom are Mexican.
But there are other milestones.
In 1999, the lieutenant governor and assembly speaker are Hispanic. Two women represent California in the U.S. Senate. The glittering city of San Francisco is led by Willie Brown, former assembly speaker, political power-broker nonpareil and the son of a black Texas sharecropper.
Michael Rossman, one of the leaders of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley that signaled a generation’s determination not to accept the status quo, will remember the 20th century as a time of great brutality worldwide.
But he’ll also remember “the tremendous opening of hope and vitality that occurred in the 1960s with a promise of a humane justice for all of us.”
“To my mind, the most important fact about the future is that it is unknown. Modern fears are contrary to an older American attitude of believing that what is new will be good,” Open Letter to the Citizens of the Year 2100 by Edward Teller, guiding spirit behind the H-bomb.
Californians seem to have mixed feelings about whether faster is better.
“The most interesting thing about living in this age from when I was a kid and now is the Information Age,” says grower Hill, 40, who has seen citrus farming go from “good old boys who sat around in our pickups and shot the bull” to businessmen with computer-regulated crops and cell phones to keep in touch with overseas contacts.
“In a sense it’s very scary because there are no controls on some of this stuff but if you don’t keep up with it you’re going to be left behind,” he says.
Speed, particularly the rapidity with which man is using up natural resources, has long worried Brower, the 87-year-old environmental veteran and founder of Friends of the Earth. But he’s encouraged to see that the conservation movement is picking up momentum along with everything else – “I think we’re beginning to catch on.”
Many see the 20th century as the best of times.
“It’s a very exciting century. Everything about the century has been a lot of advancements,” says Lucy Casado, whose Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant in Los Angeles is a hangout for celebrities and politicians.
Born a century earlier and she’d still have been cooking, says Mrs. Casado, but at home – and for free.
Stephen Schochet, a Hollywood tour guide whose love for the golden days of the silver screen led to an audio book called “Tales of Hollywood,” is glad to be living during a time “of great creativity.”
Still, he notes wryly, life in the fast lane in late-20th-century California could slow to horse-and-buggy pace round about rush hour.
“A lot of traffic. We spent a lot of time alone in our cars,” he says.
North Coast innkeeper Ken Torbert sought refuge from urban hassles in the 1980s, leaving his job as an analyst and strategic planner in the San Francisco Bay area to run the 100-year old Gingerbread Mansion Inn in scenic Ferndale.
The future followed him back to the past. Now, he communicates with customers via his home page on the Internet.
“Even guests who have come here before will look up their rooms on the Internet,” he marvels.
Torbert’s happy with his traffic-free technology.
But others see the 20th century as a time when Californians had it all but didn’t know what to do with it.
“I would tell my grandkids that I lived during an hourglass period of 30 years in California, from the 60s – when money and material success meant the least to American culture – to the ’90s, when the whole process turned upside down and sifted into the most surreal appreciation of super-wealth the world has ever seen,” Susie Bright, Santa Cruz-based sex advice columnist and author of the recently published book “Full Exposure,” said in an e-mail.
“Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols,” Thomas Mann.
Did 20th-century California move at hyper speed, or was it more the speed of hype?
Citizens of the 19th century, after all, felt they’d come far and fast with the advance of railroads and the invention of the telephone.
Canadian Mark Morton, coauthor of a book called “The End: Closing Words for a Millennium,” found that pundits of the 19th century thought their time span the most momentous in history and “it’s quite startling to read people writing stuff like that at the end of the 18th century.”
The truth, he says, is a matter of perspective.
“I truly believe that knowledge is advancing at an exponential rate. But what happens at the same time, I think, is that our assumptions about the world change along with that.”