The San Francisco Bay Area has seen a steep decline in people moving in from out of state.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
City Life

WALLACE BAINE: COVID-19 has done what nothing else could — finally stop the California Gold Rush

With fewer people moving to the Golden State and more than ever leaving, Wallace Baine writes, it’s clear that the higher the cost to get in the gate, and the more technology is devoted to keeping you out, the harder it gets to fake your way in.

I’m sitting at a red light on Mission Street. There are two things I notice about the car waiting in front of me, a 2000-ish Honda Civic as gray and dreary as the December sky. First, the trunk is being held closed by two vertical strips of duct tape — not exactly standard equipment on that model, as far as I know, but at least the color scheme works well with the car’s finish.


Second, the plates are out-of-state. Let’s just say it’s from one of those states that touch the Atlantic Ocean, more than 3,000 miles to the east. If the Civic’s overall condition didn’t tell you, then certainly the plates suggest that this car has done some hard traveling.

Waiting for the light to change isn’t exactly conducive to approaching a stranger and starting a conversation, and I’m not big on tailing people to their eventual destination. So I had no way of knowing whether Joe (or Joanne) Duct Tape was only passing through, or the just-arrived new kid in town, still practicing the pronunciation of “Soquel” in the mirror.

Twenty or 30 years ago, a car with out-of-state plates was a pretty common sight around Santa Cruz. A trained eye could easily tell the difference between the Hendersons from Ohio on a summer road trip with the kids and a couple of friends from Boston who’d hocked everything on a one-way trip west to “Frisco” or elsewhere in “Cali” (eccentric terms reportedly used in other parts of the country) in pursuit of a new life.

I noticed a lot of the latter around town back in the day, the cars looking like old sneakers, unable to disguise that “I’ve been driven across the continent” look, their out-of-state plates offset by decidedly local bumper stickers (the Mystery Spot was a popular one), communicating their owners’ eagerness to become a local as soon as they could get an appointment at the DMV.

Today, such a thing has become increasingly rare. The domestic import is becoming a rapidly disappearing species. As goes the monarch butterfly, so goes the newcomer to California. At least that’s the conclusion of a new study from the nonpartisan California Policy Lab that found, since the beginning of the pandemic, all regions of the state have experienced steep declines in the number of people moving to California from other states.

In the Bay Area, the decline has been especially pronounced, with a 45% decrease in the number of newcomers from the period right before the pandemic shutdown in March 2020 to last September.

California has become, to quote the paradox-spouting savant Yogi Berra, like that restaurant to which “nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

On top of that, the number of Californians moving to other states also increased, though not nearly as dramatically as the decrease in newcomers. Overall, census data shows that the state’s population grew between 2010 and 2020, though at a slower rate than in previous decades, and at a slower rate than the rest of the country. Much of that growth came from people arriving here from other countries.

In fact, the state Department of Finance reported earlier this year that California actually lost population in 2020, as compared with 2019, the first time annual population numbers have gone into reverse since 1900, when they first started keeping records.

Finally, after more than 150 years, the California Gold Rush appears to be over.

Doubtless, many Californians are pleased at these population developments, figuring that 40 million (California’s current population) is a pretty compelling point at which to put up the No Vacancy sign. But many of those same people, at some point in the recent or distant past, had been newcomers themselves.

And even for California natives, someone near or far up the family tree had made the same trip from some other state in a Buick station wagon in 1965, or a Studebaker coupe in 1935, or a Conestoga covered wagon in 1875.

Traffic on a California road
(Via Pixabay)

I was one of those folks myself, first rolling into California fresh out of college in a dusty blue 1980 Subaru with a balky tape deck and North Carolina plates in the Olympic summer of ’84 in Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul and was as naive as a Disney doe, taking to heart the words of the Doors’ Jim Morrison in “The End”: The West is the best/Get here and we’ll do the rest. (Pro tip: A fool is he who makes major life decisions based on anything Jim Morrison says.)

Yes, I lived and worked in some sketchy circumstances for a few years, wandering up and down the coast of California, but eventually things turned out pretty well for me. I can’t, however, believe that things would unfold similarly if I showed up today in Santa Cruz or some other California city as a 22-year-old airhead from some other time zone with a few hundred dollars and an old guitar.

A few years ago, I wrote on the 50th anniversary of the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, which changed the course of pop music history back in 1967. I interviewed several people who were there at the time and I was told that many of those who saw those historic performances did so for free, having snuck in through breaches in the overmatched fencing that surrounded the event, especially late in the day when any pretense to security had been abandoned.

Today, to sneak into a major music festival such as Coachella without paying would take a hybrid of a Navy SEAL team and the cast of “Ocean’s Eleven.”

The Monterey International Pop Festival was indeed another era in California history.

By the way, tickets to Monterey Pop ranged from $3 to $6.50, which even in today’s dollars is only about $23-$50. That was to see Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Otis Redding and 30 other eye-popping acts in one weekend. The cheapest tickets to Coachella in 2022 are north of $500. The show’s promoters even offer financing options … for concert tickets.

I think of living in California much that way. If you already have your wristband, it’s still a fabulous place. But as the price of that wristband has skyrocketed to absurd heights, those of us who bought in at Monterey Pop prices have no clue about what newcomers face today. And the higher the cost to get in the gate, and the more technology is devoted to keeping you out, the harder it gets to fake your way in.

Maybe this disappearance of the newbie from another state is just a pandemic phenomenon, but I doubt it. Crushing housing prices, NIMBY no-growth policies, crippling traffic — all this was going along quite robustly before COVID-19 came along. And it’s hard to champion keeping the door open to the out-of-stater when California natives are having to flee to other states like refugees.

If Jim Morrison and the Doors emerged out of Los Angeles today instead of 50 years ago, I can imagine they’d be singing a different tune:

The West is the best/But stay away, our state is too stressed.