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The Great State of California

created Feb 24, 2016 02:48 PM

A Look at the Land, People, Places, and Industries that Define the State

by Shelley Brooks

There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.     -Edward Abbey

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. -Joan Didion

Californians are more like the Americans than the Americans themselves…For California has always occupied, in relation to other regions, much the same relation that American has occupied toward Europe: it is the great catch-all, the vortex at the continent’s end into which elements of America’s diverse population have been drawn, whirled around. -Carey McWilliams

Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread.  -Jimmy Carter

From the beginning, California promised much. While yet barely a name on a map, it entered American awareness as a symbol of renewal.  It was a final frontier: of geography and of expectation.  -Kevin Starr      

As these quotes suggest, California is seen as a unique and even exceptional part of the American experience. And indeed, the state has a remarkable list of superlatives to its name. The following is a brief overview of some notable aspects of the state that may give you jumping off points for classroom discussions.

The People

You probably know that California is the most populous state in the nation. Mobilization for WWII jumpstarted the phenomenal growth, and California’s post-war jobs, life styles, culture, climate, and beauty put it on track to overtake New York’s 17 million residents in 1962. Today there are more than 38 million Californians, which means that 1/8th of the nation’s population lives in just 163,000 square miles. This creates a population density of approximately 240 people per square mile, compared with the national average of 87. Of course, Californians are not evenly distributed around the state, but like most Americans, live concentrated near the coast, where, in the city of Los Angeles for example, the population density is approximately 8,000 people per square mile. 

LA skyline

It is more than sheer numbers alone that makes California’s population remarkable. There is greater ethnic and racial diversity in California than in any other state, with more than 100 different native languages in California’s public schools. Much of this diversity is centered in urban areas, but every single county in the state contains students who are English Learners, with some counties containing more than 50% of non-native English speakers. (Monterey County has the highest number of English Learners: 62%) In addition to Spanish (which is the language spoken by 90% or so of the English Learners), the other top ten native languages include Vietnamese, Filipino, Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, Hmong, Korean, Punjabi, and Russian.

California is a plurality state, with each ethnic group making up less than fifty percent of the population.  The 2014 census reveals that there are 38.6% Hispanic, 38.5% white/non-Hispanic, 14.4% Asian, and 6.5% African American. The remaining portion of the population is made up of just about every other nationality. Adding to the complexity of such statistics, a growing number of people describe themselves as made up of two or more races. To give a sense of where the population trends are heading, for the past ten years the Asian migration has been the greatest, with Latino/a migration close behind.

The Land

California’s landscapes, like its population, are remarkably diverse. The state encompasses 1,100 miles of coast line, numerous rugged mountain ranges, including the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S.: Mt. Whitney, which rises to 14,494 feet, and Death Valley, which is 282 feet below seal level. Mt. Whitney is situated just 80 miles from Death Valley. 

California’s “heartland” - the Central Valley – is surrounded by the Sierra, Coastal Range, Cascade and Transverse mountain ranges. The Central Valley is 500 miles long and 60 miles wide. Once an inland extension of the Pacific Ocean, the Central Valley slowly filled with thousands of feet of sediments washed from the Sierras, creating one of the richest agricultural centers in the world. This valley receives the drainage from the state's two major river systems, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, which converge to form an extensive delta. 

California is home to three distinct desert regions, including Death Valley. In all, there is more climatic and topographic variation in California than in any other area of comparable size in the United States. There are 24 different climatic zones within California, while most states have only one, maybe as many as 4 different zones. To illustrate this, consider that the annual precipitation is over 120 inches, or ten feet of rain in the NW part of state, while other parts of the state can have no measurable precipitation in a year. The average low in the Sierras during winter is below freezing, while Death Valley is on record with the highest official air temperature recorded in the western hemisphere – 134 degrees.

Death Valley

There are more endemic species, that is, species native to or confined to, California than in any other area of equivalent size in North America. Due to this incredible natural diversity and richness, California is home to the greatest number of national and state parks in the United States. 

The Places

Physical descriptions such as these provide the relief for understanding the built environment of California. First and foremost, California is an urban state, made up of enormous metropolises. These cities often developed to process and manage the resources harvested from the valleys and mountains (San Francisco and Sacramento due to the gold rush, for instance). San Francisco was the first true city in California, and it grew virtually overnight with the opening of the gold rush. Just before the discovery of gold in 1848, there were fewer than 1000 people living in San Francisco (which had recently switched names from Yerba Buena); just one year later, by the end of 1849, there were 25,000 people. San Francisco remained the state’s largest and most important city until the 1920s, when L.A. eclipsed it. Today there are 3.8 million living in L.A., making it the second largest city in the U.S. behind NYC (8.1 million). San Diego follows in size, then San Jose and San Francisco. These four are in the nation’s top 15 largest metropolitan areas.

The Economy and its Influence

If California were its own separate country it would rank among the eight largest economies of the world, with a GDP similar to that of Italy’s. The Gross State Product for California is more than $2 trillion, and the state is responsible for more than 10% of the entire United States’ GDP. California has several major economic sectors, all of which lead the nation, including high tech, biotech, agriculture, entertainment, manufacturing, and tourism.

Its strong economy has of course contributed to its large population and, not coincidentally, its high real estate prices. The average price of a home in California is more than twice that of the national average, and there are many places in California, most notably along the coast, where the average price of a home is ten times or more that of the national average. As a result, the home ownership rate in California is about 10% below the national average.

Compared to the nation as a whole, the state has both above average wealth – think of the wealthy suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles – as well as above average poverty, Migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley have living conditions similar to that of inhabitants of Appalachia, usually considered the most impoverished region of the country. California has the highest effective poverty rate of any state in the U.S., with the high cost of living leading to nearly one quarter of the state’s population living below the poverty line.

Such wealth disparity, when coupled with the state’s great racial diversity, have helped spur some of the country’s most extended riots, such as the 1942 Zoot Suit Riots, the 1965 Watts Riots, and the 1992 Rodney King Riots. But California also has a rich civil rights history, and the state has made strides toward embracing its diversity by incorporating ethnic studies courses and public programs that educate residents about the stories, challenges, and opportunities inherent with its global population.

Perhaps above all else, California is, and always has been, a place of innovation; hydraulic mining, Hollywood, and the high tech industry are all synonymous with the state, and reflect the tremendous human and natural resources that have defined the state from its earliest days.

Teaching California history provides the context for understanding how and why California has become one of the most dynamic places in the world. Read on to learn about the instructional shifts and new content of the new History Social-Science Framework that CHSSP authored, and how this pertains specifically to teaching students about the history of their state. You will also find lessons on the Los Angeles River; teaching the connections between California and the nation during the nineteenth century through the use of historical objects; and the ramifications of the Port Chicago explosion at the shipyards during World War II. Also included in this issue is an update on the California drought and ideas for teaching students about this always-timely topic. Finally, we’ve included a brief introduction to the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy released by the CDE in 2015 to guide the implementation of environmental education for all California students. We hope you will discover material inside this Source issue that you are eager to share with your California students.

Images: Los Angeles Skyline. Photo by Ron Reiring, found on flickr: Death Valley. Photo by Edward Dickinson.