A suburb is a suburb is a suburb, isn’t it? Not when it’s an “agriburb” writes Paul J.P. Sandul in ‘California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State’ (West Virginia University Press, Rural Studies, book 2, 306 pages, notes, illustrations, index, $27.99).
Rather than playing the Mamas and Papas song suggested by the title, I’d recommend some Scott Joplin ragtime music while you’re reading Sandul’s book, adapted from his 2009 doctoral dissertation. Some of the language in the book sounds very Ph.D., but it’s mostly very readable and appealed to this reviewer, who lived in California from 1976 to 1992.
For all but two of those years, I covered real estate for the Los Angeles Times, so I was somewhat familiar with the three “agriburbs” Sandul examines: Ontario, about 30 miles east of L.A. and Orangevale and Fair Oaks in the Sacramento area.
In fact, I watched my one and only NASCAR race at the now long gone Ontario Motor Speedway. Not far away, in what is now Moreno Valley, I enjoyed sports car racing at the now defunct and long gone Riverside International Raceway, one of the most famous racing venues in the world. Maybe the California state motto should be “Defunct” instead of “Eureka.”
The three agriburbs — Fair Oaks, Orangevale, and Ontario — are examined in minute detail — maybe too minute for many readers. Their distinctiveness as places that combined the “adoration” (Sandul’s word) of agriculture with the convenience of a nearby large city, differentiated agriburbs from conventional suburbs of the era like Riverside, Ill., designed by the architect of NYC’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, for the wealthy classes of Chicago.
From the 1880s, when Ontario was developed by George Chaffey Jr., a transplanted Canadian who named the “model colony” after his native province, to about 1932, when a hard frost wiped out the dream of orange growing in the Sacramento area, one form of the California dream was a suburb where lots were measured in acreage rather than square feet. Consumers Back East (that’s the phrase Californians use for anybody east of Lake Tahoe) also shifted their taste to orange juice, rather than the fruit itself, and Florida growers quickly dominated the juice market.
Boosters like Chaffey in Ontario, and the McClatchy brothers and Harris Weinstock in Sacramento favored citrus growing because they believed it was the most dignified form of farming for transplanted city slickers.
Obviously, many of the boosters were men of the boardroom rather than the soil, because the actual work of growing, picking and packing oranges and lemons soon was done by ethnic minorities, including Japanese, Mexicans and Chinese, who were not considered desirable by the white men who created the three agriburbs. From the start, lots in these communities were deliberately planned, developed and promoted for profit, unlike conventional suburbs. Near the end of the book, Sandul discusses modern incarnations of agriburbs in Colorado and North Carolina — communities inspired by the rise of localism in food production. The jury is still out on the survival of these new communities, especially since Ontario, Orangevale, and Fair Oaks today have morphed into conventional suburbs.
Sandul’s analysis contributes to a new suburban history that includes diverse constituencies and geographies and focuses on the production and construction of place and memory. Boosters purposefully “harvested” suburbs with an eye toward direct profit and metropolitan growth. State boosters boasted of unsurpassable idyllic communities while local boosters bragged of communities that represented the best of the best, both using narratives of place, class, race, lifestyle, and profit to avow images of the rural and suburban ideal.
This suburban dream attracted people who desired a family home, nature, health, culture, refinement, and rural virtue. In the agriburb, a family could live on a small home grove while enjoying the benefits of a progressive city. A home located within the landscape of natural California with access to urban amenities provided a good place to live and a way to gain revenue through farming.
“California Dreaming” is an outstanding work of cultural history that should explain many elements of California — including the racism of many of the developers toward people who weren’t white — for those who are puzzled by the ongoing story of the Golden State. This is a book that California nerds will really groove to, “on such a winter day!” or any other day, for that matter.
By the way, the Amazon.com description of the book has it listed with just over 200 pages…They must have been thinking of Sandul’s dissertation rather than the book at hand.
About the author
Paul J. P. Sandul is an Assistant Professor of History at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He earned his PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara & California State University, Sacramento, and he specializes in Public History, Cultural Memory and History, Oral History, Suburban and Urban History, and Rural Studies. He has taught or is teaching courses in American history, urban history, public history, and cultural memory, as well as (under) graduate seminars. His recent publications include California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State (West Virginia University Press, 2014); a co-editor and contributor to a new anthology called Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, forthcoming (University of Minnesota Press); a chapter concerning suburban development and the environment in Sacramento for River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region (University of Pittsburgh Press, December 2013). Past publications include articles for the Sound Historian, Agricultural History, and East Texas Historical Journal, and two books about California suburbs for Arcadia Press. Sandul has also written over a dozen book reviews for such journals as the Business History Review, California History, Journal of Southern History, Pacific Historical Review, and The Public Historian. Sandul is heavily involved in public history projects and oral history as well, which often provides opportunities for students, and serves on advisory committees and boards for both professional and local historical societies and journals. For example, he directed the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project about the famed congressperson (think Charlie Wilson’s War), which transcripts and audio are available: http://www.sfasu.edu/heritagecenter/5318.asp. Lastly, Sandul is involved in local heritage organizations and civil rights activism, including serving as an Executive Committee member and Committee Chair for the Nacogdoches, TX NAACP.