California sheds glitz; embraces tougher heroes

June 26, 2014 

California’s reputation as a supremely glamorous place was once so entrenched that even sports teams lived up to the image. The “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s played a Hollywood brand of basketball. The 49ers, under quarterback Joe Montana, were as elegant as the San Francisco Ballet.

Perhaps that’s why it’s jarring that the most valuable sports franchise in California might be the Los Angeles Clippers, long known for mediocre-at-best basketball and a racist owner. In agreeing to purchase the Clippers for $2 billion, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has caused public head-scratching over the economics of pro sports.

But sports is more than business – it’s culture. And Ballmer is making a cultural bet: that a team known for losing might be a good fit for the California of tomorrow. As our state becomes a shabbier place, aren’t we more likely to root for struggling teams?

From football allegiances to food, Californians are embracing grit over glamour. For more than a generation, we’ve been moving from higher-cost coastal communities to cheaper places inland. We’ve flocked to food trucks and shunned white tablecloth cuisine. As operas from Sacramento to San Diego struggle to stay open, we line up by the thousands for free park concerts like those given by the all-volunteer MoBand in Modesto.

Why are we choosing connection over aspiration? The answer lies in the economic blows of the early ’90s recession and the recent housing crisis. California, once the fifth largest economy in the world, has been overtaken by China and other rising nations. Home ownership has been declining, and so has the percentage of people working. When you account for our higher cost of living and the value of government assistance, California has the country’s highest poverty rate at 24 percent.

But economic anxiety goes only so far in explaining why we’re no longer so interested in “Showtime” sports or Hollywood glamour. In L.A., it’s the bourgeois Bohemia of Venice Beach, not the conspicuous wealth of Beverly Hills, that’s fashionable. Rich kids from the Peninsula are moving to Oakland and getting around on bikes. They want authenticity, which to them is anything that has a modicum of texture.

Everyone in California must keep it real, even those whose lives are unreal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, about whom I wrote a book, once told me he was “from the streets.” I couldn’t resist asking, “What street is that? Mandeville Canyon?” a road near his Brentwood mansion. For my impertinence, I got a history lesson in post-war Austrian poverty.

Such populism is more than just political; it’s practical. For all our wealth – we still lead the country in billionaires – California has failed to invest in infrastructure. But that’s OK – we like gritty things, so we endlessly celebrate our old aqueducts and freeways and bridges as they decay. Such celebrations are cheap and we love cheap. Gov. Jerry Brown is cruising to re-election on the virtues of being a miser.

Our sports reflect the same shift. Today’s emblematic team are the Oakland Athletics, who win without spending money on super stars. We’ve even fallen in love with a cheaply bred horse, California Chrome, who came so close to the Triple Crown.

This new California reality is most apparent when you listen to the young. Becky G, a 17-year-old who might be the first rapper produced by the housing crisis, touts her family being forced out of their Inland Empire home and moving into her grandfather’s garage in Inglewood. Despite her success, Becky G reminds us that she’s a “California girl.” In her hit, “Becky from the Block” she sings out: “I still get grounded; always stay grounded. / Still do chores even when I’m on tour.”

When the Beach Boys sang of “California girls” they evoked endless summer. These days, “California girl” means: I’m working-class, and tough as hell.

Mathews writes the Connecting California column for ZocaloHYPERLINK “zocalopublicsquare.org” Public Square.

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