California Life : How I Got to California

Like many Americans and Californians my family came from somewhere else. This is a photograph from 1916 of my great grandfather Norman MacDonald and my great grandmother Murdina MacDonald, shortly after they immigrated from the Isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland to Ontario, Canada.

They moved from the Isle of Lewis because the one patch of land he farmed could not feed a family. Newly arrived in Canada, they took this family portrait with their children in their best clothes:

Mary, my grandmother, the oldest daughter -

Annabelle, the second -

Dina (short for Murdina), the third daughter -

Donald, the first-born son, full name Donald MacDonald (poor kid) -

Norman, the second son -

Baby Peggy, who would soon die in the influenza epidemic of 1918

And still yet to be born:

Angus, who was in the Canadian Navy in World War II and swam away from three warships sunk by Japanese torpedoes -

Murdo, who was in the Canadian Royal Air force and who rode in the “death seat” as the rear gunner in a slow moving bomber, flying raids over Europe.

He was shot down and killed on his 26th mission.

Ruth - the ninth child, also on the West Coast now, but in Vancouver Canada.

My grandparents endured poverty, a long trek across an ocean, the death of two children, and a difficult life on a new continent. Yet you can see their strength and pride in this photograph, and when things are tough for me I am reminded of the good stock from which I come and that I have it easy compared to them.

My mother and father both grew up in Thunder Bay, Canada, but my mother fell in love with California when she worked in Santa Barbara for two years as a traveling nurse

.When she stepped off the train in January in the 1960s, she saw palm trees framed by mountains with a dusting of snow.

Palm trees and snow at the same time? she thought. How was that possible?

She was amazed but also felt that she had found home. She returned to Canada where she met my father, and after ten years of marriage and three kids she finally convinced him to move our family to San Francisco, which technically makes me a first generation immigrant to the United Sates, and the second generation in North America.

And, like me, for half a century most Californians were from somewhere else, especially in the urban centers - the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

Living in Los Angeles it’s rare to encounter a native Angeleno, and even more rare to find someone whose parents and grandparents are from California. That’s because from 1960 to 2010, the population of California grew 167 percent, which means most everyone or their parents were from somewhere else.

We all came here for that particular permutation of the American Dream called the California Dream, and yes, it does exist.

Not to disparage any other state, but people just don’t speak of the Carolina or Arkansas or Wisconsin Dream. But the California Dream has taken a hit in the last few years. Since the economic downturn life isn’t as pleasant in California as it has been and more people have left the state than moved here.

This has led to other changes.The USC Population Dynamics Research Group has come out with a new study confirming this.For the first time in fifty years, most people who live in California were born in California, and by 2030 two thirds of young adults will have been born here. I’m not sure how I feel about the news. Part of me breathes a sigh of relief. There are enough people here already, thank you.

With fewer people coming, we may finally be able to keep up with public needs, like rebuilding infrastructure, and private demands, like more housing.

Then again, I’m an immigrant and I know immigrants made California great. What will happen if the dreamers stop coming?

I know Silicon Valley worries that if they don’t grab the brightest engineers from around the world they’ll just go somewhere else.

But there may be a bigger problem than fewer engineers -- we are facing a future with fewer children. Not only are fewer families are coming to California, but fewer families are starting in California.

Read this, from the same 2013 USC Populations Dynamics Research Group Study:

The number of children under age 10 living in (Los Angeles) county is projected to drop 15 percent from 2010 to 2020, on top of last decade’s 17-percent loss of children in that age group.

At the same time, baby boomers are reaching retirement age. The proportion of elderly residents in LA is expected to nearly double from 9.7 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2030, the report projected.

You can see where this is going. California is in debt. I am worried about our educational system, our infrastructure, and about climate change. How will we manage? Everything will get worse before it gets better and it will be hard to keep the dream alive.

California is facing many struggles and we need some good immigrant stock from around the world. We must find a way to lure smart hardworking people here, and to get them to stay and to raise smart and hardworking future Californians.

But how? My mind flips back and forth --

Flip: It’s expensive to live here, and there are easier places to start a business.

Taxes are high. We have tough environmental protections and regulations you don’t have to endure in other places.

Flop: California is still pristine because of those regulations, and those rules will probably end up being instituted elsewhere eventually.

California leads the way, which is why it’s sometimes called a bellwether state.

Do we lower taxes? Remove regulations? Provide incentives? Promote immigration?

It’s so strange to consider any of this, since California has never needed to do that before.

The Dream itself fueled it all. What must change?

It leads my mind to one thought I dare not yet discuss in this nascent blog -- Proposition 13.

However, I will raise a few questions:

You are 60, you own your home and you pay $5000 in property taxes.

If you sold your house and moved somewhere else in California, you’d have to pay $20,000 on a new home of comparable worth. Would you ever move?

You are 30 and you’ve saved up to buy your first home and you have one child and another on the way.

Someone aged 60 is finally selling their home, and you want to buy it so you can renovate it or tear it down and start over. However, that same property will now cost you $20,000 a year in taxes. Do you buy or wait?

Or would you want to move to Arizona or Colorado instead?

I won’t answer the questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts -- and also tell me how you and your family came to California!

Some interesting links : 

USC News : LA is no longer a city of newcomers

USC PopDynamics

Manhattan Institute : The Great California Exodus: a closer look

PBS American Family, Journey of Dreams : East LA, Past and Present

Here is a link to an interesting documentary project about the changing Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which epitomizes the changes California has gone and is going through.

Click and watch some cool video. : East LA Interchange : a documentary film