Democracy in Suburbia

The Economist asks: "Is California Back?" Contra Costa County wonders: "Were we gone?"

These are communities in title only, quaintly retaining names of long-irrelevant downtowns. Their residents largely blinker out the rest of the world, see little in common with people in the rest of the state, and seem willing to tolerate any level of dysfunction in their distant state capital, car-alarm-magnate-financed recall drives notwithstanding.

I grew up in a procession of California towns, ending with seven years in Elk Grove, a south-of-Sacramento development billed during the late 1970s as America's fastest-growing town. At 20, I left for Mexico City, where I stayed on and off for 11 years. Each time I came back to California, I'd feel like a far less sophisticated de Tocqueville, astonished and perplexed by what I saw.

For one thing, conversations in California seemed strange. Elsewhere in the world it is common to strike up topical conversations with strangers at a bus stop, but I learned that here, only in certain venues does one talk about subjects outside one's immediate purview. I remember asking a woman at a party in 1987 what she thought about Douglas Ginsberg, who had withdrawn his U.S. Supreme Court nomination after being outed as a pot smoker. She looked at me blankly for a few beats, brightened, then offered what I came to comprehend as a bit of California logic: "Oh, I'm a Special Education major." In 1998, when the U.S. launched a heavy bombing campaign against Iraq, few people seemed interested in conversing about the fact America was at war: "Yeah, I guess we are, kind of," one co-worker offered.

Elk Grove, once a town I could cross by bicycle in 10 minutes, seemed to sextuple in area during my absence, and now stretches 20 miles across in all directions. The state Department of Finance recently announced that Elk Grove is again -- or perhaps still is -- the fastest-growing city in California. The Los Angeles Times reports proposed plans for building housing tracts over the deep, black, unstable loam of the Sacramento River Delta west of Interstate 5, which forms Elk Grove's current informal border. Last month, the California Supreme Court rejected an appeal to halt an enormous shopping mall and housing development on farmland south of town, ensuring that Elk Grove will remain notable for some time to come.

Perhaps mindful of this, Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this month chose Elk Grove as the location from which to announce that he'd cut a deal with cities and counties to reduce their budgets by $2.6 billion. Elk Grove city services would take an estimated $1.5 million share of the hit. Nobody present seemed perturbed.

City officials ordered an ambulance and fire engine to be placed beside the governor's podium, in front of the seven television cameras. City employees briefly let off work created a photo-op crowd. The Beatles "Come Together" played on a temporary sound system. And councilman Jim Cooper told a reporter for the Sacramento Bee's community news section that "The governor chose Elk Grove for a reason. Elk grove is a model city."

Indeed. It is the model of Californians' blithe inattention to perennial budget crises, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, gridlocked transportation, a degraded environment, dwindling water supplies, and unavailable housing. The Elk Grove ceremony for the governor perfectly represented a state whose public discussion avoids subjects that really matter, and for whom the Economist's question, "Is California Back?," makes little sense, given how few of us seem to notice we've been gone.

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