Not in a golden state

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 1995, 12:00am

WHATEVER happened to the Golden State? California Dreamin', whatever that was, appears to have spent the past five years degenerating into a nightmare.

Perhaps the idyllic 60s vision of a sunshine-soaked, surf-stroked haven never really existed. Maybe it was inspired by an excess of mind-bending drugs, or just too much Napa Valley chardonnay and sun-dried tomatoes.

But no matter how much of the California dream was fact or fantasy, the capital of the counterculture is a sorry apology for its former self. And as the suntanned symbol of the state's past financial predominance, Ronald Reagan, slumps into the shadows of Alzheimer's disease, so California seems to have forgotten its proud, flamboyant history.

California is still the world's seventh largest economy. But it is also justifiably feeling very sorry for itself. There are two reasons for this: the first is the recession, and the second is God.

Taking the latter first, few could argue with the premise that the Almighty seems to be punishing Californians for having had too much fun these past few decades. Residents of coastal areas in both the north and south of the state have this week been bailing out of their expensive homes as Pacific storms brought the worst flooding in recent memory.

Ironically, one of the biggest drenchings was reserved for the Malibu-Santa Monica area, one of the country's driest, most temperate idylls, whose wealthy residents were only a year ago fleeing from the ravage of hillfires. Then there was the small matter of the Los Angeles earthquake, exactly 12 months ago. Residents may well be asking themselves when their battered, burned and drenched buildings can expect to be buried in an avalanche.

Even when the weather has been behaving, the citizens of LA haven't. The 1992 riots following the Rodney King beating case left emotional scars as deep as the cracks carved in the earth by the rumblings of the faultlines.

Up in the San Francisco bay area, life hasn't been much easier. Apart from this week's flooding, the Oakland hills were also decimated by a vicious forest fire in 1991, and before that, the city boasted its own horrific earthquake, back in 1989.

In total, these tragedies cost hundreds of lives, billions of dollars, and had presidents declaring more states of emergency than Italy has had elections.

FLAGELLATED non-stop by the heavens, Californians have also found themselves prey to the vagaries of economics. The recession of the early 90s, which prompted a bad cold in the rest of the country, saw the state laid up with double pneumonia. California's previous strength, based on a seemingly endless supply of jobs in aerospace, real estate and defence, was reversed by the collapse of these and other sectors, as the state's economy shrank quicker than anywhere else in the Western world.

Northerners and East Coasties drawn to the Golden State because of its weather and a healthy economy found to their despair that they could no longer rely on either the elements or a job.

In 1993 alone, there was a net flight of 170,000 people from Los Angeles. Given that most of them are rich enough to choose where they live, such an exodus deprived the city of both tax revenue and skilled workers. Meanwhile, the state's population rose only 1.4 per cent, the lowest in two decades, and most of that probably attributable to immigration, legal or otherwise.

The state's other claim to fame - as the recipient of approximately half of America's illegal aliens - has caused social and political divisions which will only get worse before they get better.

Nevertheless, California is beginning to show signs of a pulse. Since the slump's trough in early 1993, jobs are slowly being to be created; people are not only beginning to sell houses again, but are building them too; and disasters like the earthquake have had a positive spin-off in terms of job creation, especially in the construction sector; Hollywood is beginning to rediscover its glittering past, and more people are employed in the film, music and related businesses than ever before. The state also retains its status as a prime target for Asian investment, not least from Hong Kong.

California governor Pete Wilson, who has nursed the state through its many travails, is now so popular that he is being touted as a possible shot for the Republican nomination to run for president in 1996. Deja vu, anyone?