A Return to Roots

Refactoring the California Dream from the balcony of Los Angeles

A decade ago, I quit my stable public finance analyst job and started an indie publishing company with a childhood friend. That was an amazing, if ill planned, adventure. Together we catalyzed, designed and edited a zine on California’s future, including a personal letter from a couple young men making their way in the world. A key excerpt.

“The recent (and in some ways ongoing) financial crisis exposed structural rot in the foundations of the American dream. No longer can we believe that the paths our parents took to carve out a life in La Crescenta are available to us. The sad part is California needs, more than ever, what La Crescenta stood for. Opportunity for the everyman.”

My wife and I grew up in La Crescenta, a simple suburb abutting the mountains above Los Angeles and serving as the “balcony of Southern California.” When we were shopping for homes, our realtor, also from La Crescenta, loved to say that the average home tenure here was north of three and half decades. The national average is closer to a decade.

This past month our little family of three moved back home. My wife’s parents built an ADU in their backyard and kindly moved into it, offering us the opportunity to move into the front house. It’s a big move, not least because our daughter might go to a (what was once our rival) elementary school up the street.

California housing prices being what they are, such stories are increasingly common, scrambling what’s left of the old standard life scripts about getting married, buying a house and settling down. Many of my friend’s parents growing up didn’t have a college degree or were able to afford a home on a single school teacher income.

That’s impossible today. Of course today we have lots to be grateful for, not least little things like clean water that not too long ago were radical innovations. I certainly am very lucky to have such a giving family. There is perhaps some lessons we can learn from the deeper history as my generation grapples with our present moment.

Somewhat like the split founding story of the town of Springfield from the Simpsons, La Crescenta has two diametrically different pioneer stories in the late 19th century. The canyon behind my parent’s backyard is named after the so called Colonel Pickens, the community’s founding scoundrel who apparently never actually served in the Civil War.

Growing up, I once suggested to my dad that perhaps Pickens Canyon should be renamed because the “Colonel” was such a scoundrel. My dad passionately disagreed. Pickens cut down the local forest for firewood, a scar which has yet to heal. The canyon needed the name Pickens as a reminder of what went wrong.

There’s a tiny pocket park down the corner from our new (old) home that’s named for Colonel Pickens and has a nice little bit of signage on the local history. It’s the sort of quietly sacred place that people too quickly pass over in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

There I learned that Pickens sold his land to Dr. Briggs, more of a Jebediah Springfield type to Picken’s Hans Sprungeld. Briggs is the name of the street where I now live and was a pillar of the community type who helped found La Crescenta’s first school, first church, first public park and first medical facility.

The difference between the founding settlers of Pickens and Briggs illuminate what may be a broader divide in the heart of the pioneer spirit. There's the "I got mine" land grab mentality and then also the "build the new" gumption. There's a very different relationship to the commons and community resources. Here’s what our young, rather idealistic selves had to say in that spirit:

“Whatever you do, find a way to chip in. Get involved at your local school. Volunteer your professional expertise or life expertise in the classroom. Lead a coalition to bring the community schools model to your neighborhood.

Together we can build a revolution around pragmatic problem solving. We challenge our fellow Californians to take ownership over making the American dream accessible to those who are willing to work for it. That task is not new. In many ways, it is the defining goal of the American experiment. Every generation must earn the privileges of freedom. It’s our duty to honor California’s storied heritage, and we intend to do our part.”

In the intervening years, I’ve been lucky to be able to travel the globe and form close friendships with friends from far away, learning in the process the rather obvious lesson in retrospect that much of what I love about California — a willingness to try the new, an open and cosmopolitan attitude — takes root in many shapes and sizes, and California in no shape or form has a monopoly on that pioneering spirit.

Locally, there are many more layers to La Crescenta than just the earliest settlers, a lot more founding moments than just when white Americans showed up. In a future post, I plan to explore that deeper history, both more recent and a longer time ago.

Thanks for reading.



PS I asked Chat GPT to generate an image based on the text of this post. The follow is what the bots came up with.

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