I’m a native Californian, born and raised in Los Angeles during the 1950s when it was still a small town. I have albums full of pictures of my family picnicking on a deserted Santa Monica beach. My sisters and I spent summers at our grandparents’ San Fernando Valley ranch, long before strip malls replaced orange groves.
But three years ago, with my heart heavy, I made the decision I had known for years was inevitable. I left California and moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t afford California’s housing; my home was almost paid for. And I didn’t leave because I couldn’t find employment. I had a secure, well-paying job in the public school system.
I left because California had become an increasingly unpleasant place. Too many people, driving too many cars and building too many box stores that replaced too much precious, irreplaceable land forced me away from my once beloved state.
Recently released Census Bureau data indicates that I’m only one of thousands who have fled. California has been in a steady decline for more than four decades. By the mid-1960s, California, the Golden State, had became the most popular destination for the disaffected who lived in various less-appealing Midwestern and Eastern states. Through their songs, The Beach Boys promoted California’s easy-living message across the country. Better highways and ease of jet travel made California more accessible.
At the same time, in 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act that brought millions of immigrants to the state. The legislation combined with California’s allure to Americans who moved in to escape the rust belt started a population explosion that the state has never been able to adequately accommodate. In the mid-1960s, California’s population stood at 17 million; in 2010, about 38 million.
High immigration levels into California and new births among immigrants created the need for more hospitals, roads, schools and housing that eventually led to intolerable urban sprawl.
California’s current depressed housing market should incentivize those considering uprooting. In Pennsylvania, for example, while home sales are not robust, the market at least has a pulse. A motivated person could sell here and use the proceeds to make a great deal in California. But what would happen to the newcomers once they landed? California, with the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate, has no jobs.
Some are optimistic that California will stage a recovery. I’m not one of them. For those who hope that California’s children will lead the charge back into viability, I’m sorry to give you the bad news that the state’s education system is dysfunctional beyond repair. Having seen California’s schools as an insider, I must glumly report to you that despite the best efforts of caring teachers and administrators, educating more than 6 million students from hundreds of nationalities and cultures is a challenging task that even the most dedicated cannot perform.
People may be moving out and foreign-born arrivals may be slowing. But whether you believe that demographics are destiny, California’s population -— and, thus, its problems — will continue to grow well into the foreseeable future. In 2007, the California Department of Finance projected 60 million residents by 2050. Today, you may be able to knock a couple of million off that total, but it’s not enough to make a significant difference in California’s fate.
Many suggest that Californians who leave will soon rue their decision. We’ll miss the beach and the mountains. I’ll allow that natives like me will never get California out of our blood. But National Geographic Traveler, citing its fine art and architecture, recently named Pittsburgh one of the world’s “best 20 places.”
Take it from me. Life — and a good life — goes on after California.
— Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns — mostly about immigration and related social issues — since 1990 and is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS). After 25 years as an English as a Second Language teacher in the Lodi Unified School District, Guzzardi has retired to Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.