California Dreaming: For the Rich Only?

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreaming on such a winter’s day…

“California Dreaming”
The Mamas and the Papas (1965)


California is a land of dreams. From the star-struck Midwestern girl seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood to the Oaxacan farm laborer hoping to earn a few bucks for the folks back home, the Golden State lures the brave, the imaginative and the desperate. Almost another nation perched on the Pacific, California’s migrant histories span different eras, ranging from the Dust Bowl environmental exodus to the Indochinese apocalypse and the Central American cataclysm, among numerous others.

21st century California exudes an energy bursting from a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, cuisine, music, and literary expressions. But you had better have money- plenty of it-not only to enjoy the place, but just to survive

Downtown Los Angeles has left the Great Recession behind, but is increasingly developing along the lines of a classic Latin American downtown for the well-to-do.  Suited for the hip and cash-imbued, new apartments rent for $3 per square foot while condominiums sell for $600 per square foot.  Documenting at least 94 new residential and other developments, the DT News captured the mood in the throbbing nerve center of the City of Angels.

“It seems that every week brings the announcement of a new project, whether its residential development or a billion-dollar mixed use proposal that seeks to mesh some combination of housing, hotels, retail and office space,” the business newspaper recently noted.

A new $160 million development in L.A.’s Art District that consists of 438 apartments and more than 78,000 square feet for stores and restaurants is perhaps appropriately named One Santa Fe.  According to the DT News, rents at the urban village range from $1,700 for a studio apartment to $4,000 for a two bedroom townhome-style unit.

In such an environment, immigrant and other workers last week cheered the Los Angeles City Council’s vote to hike the minimum wage from $9 per hour to $15.37 per hour for employees of large hotels beginning in 2015.

“Si se puede!”-“Yes, we can!” boomed a crowd of workers organized by Raise LA Coalition as city council reps approved the wage increase.

“Because of the size and prominence of the hotel industry here in Los Angeles, I do believe that this will have national reverberations,” Ken Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, was quoted.

Elsewhere in California, workers of Santa Cruz’s Dream Inn staged a September 26 rally against management’s proposed three-year wage freeze to be followed by one percent and two percent raises in the fourth and fifth years.  Employed by an establishment that charges nightly rates between $210 and $400-plus, the hotel workers were incensed at a plan quashing their dreams. “Dream Inn Workers Need a Fair Wage Increase to Continue Working in this Community,” read one sign.

Up Highway 101 and over to the coast, monuments to money and the new gentry abound, though the beach-front homes in Ventura are likely doomed to an archaeologist’s footnote by the rising sea levels that will eventually overwhelm them.  In one coastal city where the April 2014 rental vacancy rate that was gauged at 0.6 percent, the cover story of the last issue of the Santa Barbara Independent was unsurprisingly titled “The Rent Squeeze.”

To afford a studio apartment beginning at $1,114 per month in the sunny tourist and student town requires the tenant to earn an annual salary of $44,560, or $21.42 per hour, the Independent estimated.
Unfortunately, Santa Barbara’s mean annual salary is only $36,773, according to the publication.

Still, thousand-dollar rents are for the peasants. Local real estate listings promote “exclusive villas and penthouses in the heart of Santa Barbara” for $1, 995,000 and up. And make no mistake: these prices are for the lesser fraction of the one percent. Ocean view estates and properties are going from $3 million to $35 million.

North of Santa Barbara is wine country, a provincial source of pleasure for the hip, the noveau rich and the old rich.  Around Paso Robles, 32,000 acres of vines tickling the coastal hills make for an impressive sight. One can imagine what the Central Coast will look like after marijuana is legalized.

San Luis Obispo boasts at least 23 varieties of wine churned out by vinters, with Grenache, Syrah and Pinot Noir ready to make any connoisseur’s lips quiver. Wine tasting, wine tours and wine festivals keep the culture buzzing, as another popular beverage, beer, also froths in an artisan’s vat of gentrification.

In California’s second largest population center, the San Francisco Bay Area, the  gentrification is more pronounced than in either the Central Coast or Southland. Here, virtually every nook and cranny is contested space. Conflicts thrive among motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists; pit old-school taxi drivers against Uber, Lyft and other ride services; and cast money-dripping developers against cash-strapped residents. Stories of renters living in closets or stacked on floors just to say they live in the high-tech Hipsterville-by-the-Bay are legendary.

In land-filled and housing short San Francisco, a controversy not unlike brouhahas in Acapulco and other international resorts has even emerged over the growing business of tenants sub-leasing rooms to tourists.
Overall unemployment is much lower in the Bay Area than in other parts of California, where the overall state jobless rate of 7.4 percent is higher than the official national average of 6.1 percent, but in some Bay Area counties now nudges the 3.7 percent rate that was officially recorded in 2006 before the economy crashed. Yet, residents must earn handsome salaries or work two or three jobs to meet the cost of living.

The so-called Plaza 16 project in San Francisco’s Mission District is a flashpoint in the struggle over gentrification. Historically, the Mission District was home to successive waves of working-class Irish, Italian, Mexican, Central American, and other Latin American immigrants. Nowadays, the size and of a resident’s bank account is increasingly the defining characteristic of a local.

“There used to be so many Latinos,” lamented Candelario Melendez, Mission District resident and member of the activist group Causa Justa. “People that I knew, people that I worked with, people that felt like family-but that’s not what it feels like anymore.”

Local businesswoman Paula Tejada, whose empanada shop was described by El Tecolote newspaper as “one of the few surviving Latino-owned small businesses left in the Mission District,” added: “We’ve lost something that’s a treasure. And in this new wave of obliteration, we keep losing everything that makes us a sophisticated city.”

A battle brews between a community coalition of 50 organizations and Maximus Real Estate Partners, LLC, which proposes to build a luxury condominium development near the 16th Street Bay Area Rapid Transit plaza in one of the few remaining pockets of the old Mission. A protest rally and march is planned at the site for Saturday, October 4.

Today’s gentrification extends well beyond housing and real estate to encompass virtually every sliver of life. Public transportation is for the working poor (especially immigrants), the homeless or those convicted of drunk driving, while eco-friendly electric cars are for the affluent.

Food is another commodity undergoing class-minded market segmentation. At the California Fresh Market supers on the Central Coast, sea food is practically beyond the means of a low-wage worker, ranging from $6.98 per lb. for red snapper to $11.98 per lb. for ono, the Hawaiian delicacy. Health-conscious consumers find organic Hass avocados for $1.48 each while budget-thrifty shoppers can buy non-organic Hass avocados for a dollar each.

Reminiscent of the two-tiered market that emerged in Mexico around the time of the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement, chicken breasts advertised as non-genetically modified go for a hefty $5.98 per lb., while chicken legs for the masses sell for $1.18 per lb.

And don’t forget sports. An Associated Press cost survey of attending the 49ers new $1.3 billion stadium in the Silicon Valley burg of Santa Clara, duly named after Levi Strauss and Company, rated a family outing of four there the most expensive in the National Football League.

According to the Associated Press, a family foursome could fork out $641.50 in paying for tickets, parking, food and drinks at just one game.

A hot dog alone, which the press agency cautioned is strictly considered a frankfurter at Levi’s Stadium, goes for $6.25 while the cheapest beer to wash it down retails at $10.25. Again, these are peasant prices that don’t include the $2,000 license fee for the right to buy season tickets, another $80,000 license fee to purchase premium seats and pricey gourmet delicacies for members-only tailgate parties.

Isn’t it interesting how products like wine and hot dogs, once considered the stuff of Skid Row or the blue-collar barbeque, now command such fancy names and high prices?


Additional sources: Indybay.org, September 27, 2014. Article by Alex Darocy. El Tecolote, September 26, 2014. Article by J.B. Evans. Common Dreams, September 26, 2014. Article by Deidre Fulton. DT News, September 22, 2014. Articles by Eddie Kim and editorial staff. Daily Journal, September 20-21, 2014. Santa Barbara Independent, September 18-25, 2014. Associated Press, September 5, 2014. Mercurynews.com, July 25, 2014. Article by Mike Rosenberg. Sfgate.com, May 27, 2014. Article by John Cote.


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