California Dream a Nightmare?

in / by
Karen McSorley.

The idea that there’s a California dream burst into popular culture in the 1960s through the music of the Beach Boys and Mamas and the Papas and continued through the collective consciousness through such movies as La La Land and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While the dream’s exact plot morphs depending on the person invoking it, its central theme is the ability of each one of us to reinvent ourselves, along the way perhaps becoming wealthy or famous. 

California has been seen as a lucky place, a land of opportunity and good fortune. But in a time of chronically high populations of permanently unsheltered people, an absence of affordable housing, wildfires, drought, and climate change, is the California dream dead? 

“The dream lives on,” longtime Mission Bay resident Karen McSorely said, “and California will continue to drive the nation and the world for as far out as we can see. California has long been at the world’s cutting edge for many reasons, and that position is not about to change.” 

McSorely will focus on factors that’ll drive California’s future in “Unparalleled Imagination: The History of California Art,” a course she’ll teach next month at San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

According to McSorely, Californians have a unique mix of religious and spiritual beliefs. Before the arrival of Europeans, California was home to a wide array of indigenous peoples and cultures. For many, the coming of the Spanish was a calamity whose scale and scope are only now being widely appreciated. But, the steady mixing of natives and invaders created a blend of beliefs brought by immigrants from throughout the world, physically expressed in missions, churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, ashrams, and cathedrals. 

“Even the most obscure creeds find expression here, and that gives California a unique and vital energy,” McSorley said.

Californians accommodate people from all over the world — Americans from other states, Europeans, Latin and Central Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders — who arrive eager to embrace the new while feeling an intense nostalgia for their homelands. 

“Our unique mix of creeds is matched by our unique mix of people, ethnicities, and cultures, and it has created an energized and uniquely diverse place. California is the whole world, collected in one melting pot,” McSorley explained.

California has been the scene of intense political turmoil. The state stayed in the Union during the Civil War but displaced nearly 120,000 indigenous peoples from 1848 to 1870. For decades, political battles pitted railroads and large corporations against workers and farmers; out of those skirmishes emerged a powerful progressive movement. Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, while the Black Panthers helped lead the Civil Rights Movement, and the LGBT crusade emerged as a vital force from the HIV/AIDS crisis.

California is at the end of the American mainland, a Garden of Eden, a popular playground. That and the sunny weather encourages a state of mind open to new things and ideas, a place of renaissance for individuals, communities, futures. 

Much of the United States’ economic heft is generated in California. In the last few decades, the nation’s economy has reshaped itself, now dominated by companies that started in the state: Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, Salesforce, Twitter, Uber and Lyft, Airbnb, Yelp, Oracle, Intel, and Adobe. Much like the Quattrocento and Cinquencento during which Europe led the world—Brunelleschi, DaVinci, Michelangelo—California is where art and science coalesce creatively behind invention, innovation, and industrialization.

For more information on Karen McSorley and her course, visit