California: State of Change ~ NYT

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Photos by Bob Martin for The New York Times; Animation by Grant Gold/The New York Times.

This portfolio is the first publication from Past Tense, an archival storytelling project of The New York Times. As we digitize some six million photo prints in our files, dating back more than 100 years, we are using those images to bring the events and characters of the past to life in the present. To enhance these photographs’ value as artifacts and research tools, we are presenting these images with some of the “metadata” from the reverse side of each print.

In California, there were deserts and mountains, vast farmlands and a thousand miles of publicly owned beach. There were people from everywhere and opportunity that only a country like America could offer the working man or woman, and their children, too. From San Francisco to San Diego, from Hollywood to the world, California offered succor, health and, oddly, anonymity. If you didn’t like the view, you moved. If the boss gave you grief, you dropped him.

The sun shone mercilessly, but no one asked for mercy.

Everybody was rich because anything was possible.

Men outside the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown in 1970. Nikki Arai for The New York Times

Architect Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1947. Julius Shulman/J. Paul Getty Trust

John F. Kennedy surrounded by fans on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1962. Bill Beebe/Los Angeles Times

When World War II was over, people asked my father’s African-American relatives where they could go after seeing Paris. “Where?” they replied. “I’m goin’ to California where it’s mild enough that you can sleep on the ground outside, wake up in the morning and eat fruit right off the tree.”

Jim Crow had seen his day. It was time to move on and move up; to immigrate within your own country. Southern California was growing by leaps and bounds, and any able-bodied woman or man was welcome to work a job, or two or three. You could buy property, send your kids to school and go out for a drive to nowhere at all, do anything — as long as you stayed within certain parameters, like Watts or the Barrio.

Seasonal farmworkers, part of the “bracero” program, taking a break to eat in 1963. United Press International

Traffic streaming across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on opening day, in 1936. The New York Times

Children attending Japanese school in Los Angeles in 1935. The New York Times

“Elkie,” my Jewish cousin Lily said to my mother, Ella Slatkin, on the telephone in 1945, “in California, it’s never cold and the beaches go on forever. Come out to visit me and I bet you never go back to the Bronx.”

My mother came bleary-eyed and tired to the breakfast table that first morning. Lily asked if it was the time change from New York that made her so tired.

“No, Lily,” my mother moaned. “It’s all that racket.”

Join us for a reception and conversation between celebrated author Walter Moseley and Hrishikesh Hirway, co-host and co-founder of the West Wing Weekly podcast. They will be discussing The New York Times’s new section Past Tense, and its first issue, California: A State of Change. Go behind the scenes with Times journalists, grab a drink and mingle with our guests and fellow subscribers.