For many Americans, the phrase “California history” sounds like an oxymoron. Born out of a Gold Rush and two World Wars, the Golden State, to easterners, has always seemed like the new kid on the block. Californians might have aided in such perceptions, notes the 1970s dean of West Coast literature, Joan Didion. “You might protest that no family has been in Sacramento Valley for anything approaching ‘always,’” she wrote, “But it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it has simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west.” For Didion, such depictions of the past cast melancholy over “those who participate in it,” because underlying the state’s origin story rest a belief that “we had long outlived our finest hour.”
Yet, California with no uncertainty has a long past predating European arrival. In terms of Anglo settlement, however, its “newness” meant it would become a laboratory for the twentieth century vision of urbanity. California’s embrace of the automobile and its highway system influenced retail patterns and architecture and economic development nationally. The state’s popularization of vernacular housing such as the bungalow at the turn of the century and the ranch home in the pre and post World War II period defined large swaths of American suburbanization. “Cheap Amusements” like Disneyland loomed over urban planning and suburban tract developments as designers drew on the Southern California icon for inspiration. Its tax revolts rewrote politics and its politicians and activists promoted both the most liberal ideologies and the most conservative. Its long history of transnational and multiracial populations made it a valuable case study for a United States hurtling toward a majority-minority political landscape and has provided a window into the multiplicity of race outside traditional binaries.
This escape from usual boundaries of discourse relates to the study of its cities and suburbs. Over the past fifteen or so years, historians have tried to dissolve the divide between suburban and urban America, arguing that such divisions obscure the ways in which each affects the other: economically, politically, and socially. We should, many argue, be talking about metropolitan history rather than urban history. California’s complex mix of urban and suburban built environments, populations, and politics has made it a center of study in this historiographical development. Southern California’s membership in the admittedly nebulous designation of the Sunbelt has only increased interest in the state’s history and given its development an even deeper importance.
If historians once ignored the state in favor of an eastern bias that favored more traditional metropolises like New York, Chicago, or Boston, over the last twenty five years they have made up for such blind spots in two ways. The following list of 28 books focuses on works of the past quarter century (with a one exception as noted by the * after the entry) and is divided into subheadings—a “reading list” if you will for metropolitan California. Keep in mind this list is hardly comprehensive and its subheadings are somewhat arbitrary, with many books fitting into more than one subcategorization. For example, Robert Self’s American Babylon could be categorized as Race or Planning/Development, but we chose Politics because it seemed to best explain the book’s focus. Of course, one could argue nearly all the works listed could be put into this category, but the system is admittedly imperfect. As Frank Ocean sings, “We all try/ the girls try, the boys try/Women try, men try, you and I try, try, we all try.”
“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” Didion reflected. “[I]n which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” Perhaps California marks the end of the continent’s western expansion, but its past marks ground zero for the future of urban America. To paraphrase a famous politician, “it’s not the end, but simply the end of the beginning.”
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, 1990
Kevin Starr, California: A History, 2007
Nan Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco, 2005.
Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios, 1979. *
William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past, 2004.
Marilyn Johnson, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II, 1996.
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, 2001.
Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920 – 1965, 2002.
Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, 2005.
Lorena Orepoza, Raza Si! Guerro No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Vietnam Era, 2005.
Danny Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles, 2010.
Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles; Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis, 1997.
Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City, 2007.
 Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), 172.