I don't live in California, and I never have, not physically, at least. But culturally, all of us postwar babies have been living in California most of our lives. Over the last 40 years, as Americans flocked to the Golden State in search of the good life in a new Gold Rush, California became the mother lode of ephemeral fads and deeper social trends.
In the '60s, the state gave us student protests, hippies and free love. In the '70s it provided the soil from which a thousand therapies bloomed. From skateboards to salad bars to self-esteem, California was the source. It seemed that whatever was going to happen in the United States was going to happen first in California.
Somehow, though, the state has lost its footing on the cutting edge. Recent events may have something to do with this. For instance, when most Americans think of Los Angeles today, it is not images of Hollywood glamor and elegant palm trees that come to mind. Rather it is visions of gang warfare, drive-by shootings and a gun at every bedside.
Then there's the Great Recession of the '90s, which has migrated west and looks like it's made a permanent home for itself in California. And, of course, there are the headline-making natural disasters-the droughts, the seasonal mud slides, the brush fires, the San Andreas fault--which more and more appear to be nature's way of telling the rest of the country that no one was ever meant to live in California in the first place.
The cumulative effect of all this is that trend watchers no longer consider California to be the foremost laboratory in the great American experiment. Indeed, the state's social and economic decline means it's no longer essential for tastemakers to know what's going on in the San Fernando Valley or Marin County.
But while these social pacesetters are near unanimous in their agreement that California is no longer the place, they have yet to settle upon a new standard-bearer for the nation--and it seems unlikely they ever will. Fragmentation has become a fact of life in every aspect of American culture, and this area is no exception.
One popular candidate to pick up the torch from California is Seattle, the over-hyped home of grunge and the epicenter of Northwestern Chic. The city and its environs are beautiful, and its daily life is relatively uncomplicated. Plus, by replacing sun and surf optimism with the sort of dour hipness that comes naturally to an environment that's chronically gray and wet, it serves as a kind of anti-California. Maybe that's why so many disenchanted Californians have moved there of late.
Less obvious, perhaps, is Minnesota. The 12-Step State has quietly become the refuge of choice for a nation in recovery. Although no formal study has been conducted, Minnesota seems to lead the country in treatment centers per capita. Blame it on the tortured Scandinavian combination of discipline and guilt. Whatever the reason, Minneapolis is now a primary retreat for burned-out Manhattan club kids, who find that their drug-fractured psyches can be held together by abundantly available treatment, non-alcoholic cares and the constraints of Midwestern niceness.
There's also Santa Fe, which emerged a decade ago as the center of the yet-to-be-exhausted taste for new-age spirituality and has out-California-ed California in the process. And what about Miami's South Beach, which has superseded Southern California as the continent's fashionable sun 'n' fun spot? In a final ironic indignity to the creators of beach blanket sex, the art deco decor of South Beach looks like a movie set from Hollywood's Golden Age.
Hipper-than-moi types could probably come up with other viable candidates. The Texas Panhandle perhaps? Or the Missouri Ozarks? How about Atlanta, which is expecting an Olympic-sized boost in 1996? Maybe it's finally time for Phoenix to shine.
The point, of course, is that in these increasingly splintered times, almost every locale in the country has the potential to make a viable contribution to the nation's culture.
And what of the Golden State? A recent story in The New York Times says that between 1985 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of people moved out of the state, heading east or north in pursuit of a new version of the California dream. These transplants account for 44% of the new arrivals in Nevada and Washington, and they've turned Boise, Idaho, into a boomtown.
Which just goes to show that Californians still have the power to make social trends and affect lifestyle choices--they just have to leave California to do it.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)