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Restless migrants and restless natives: issues of class in The Second Gold Rush

Michael N. Escobar

History 127AC

Dr. Klein

In The Second Gold Rush, we see the story of how the East Bay came to be what it is today. By the end of the 1940s, the die was cast: all the seeds of the future political, social, and economic life of the region were there. M. Johnson shows the evolution of the region through a variety of lenses, but the principal issue that underlies everything is class. The war caused dislocations along various axes: race and gender, as categories, were also affected. As the author shows, the issue most people were most conscious of and spoke most about was “oldtimers versus newcomers.” Nevertheless, all of the controversies of the period – crime and housing being the most important – are shown in the book to be actually expressions of class, different iterations of the issue in different contexts.


The “newcomers versus oldtimers” issue comes up in the many citations the author provides about the lifestyles of the newly-arrived war workers. The conspicuous consumption of workers making regular, union-backed wages filled the downtowns of Richmond and Oakland. Oldtimers are quoted expressing feelings of bemusement, nonplussed at the sudden flood of people to the bars and theaters: “Oakland had become ‘a frowzy city’”, the author writes, quoting the Oakland Observer. Newcomers were not so negative (“My husband and I often walk the downtown streets… just for the pure joy of the movement all about us”) but they were experiencing this new order as a boon for them, whereas the oldtimers were more liable to resent it. These people condemned the proliferation of everything from cocktail bars to shoeshiners (“bootblacks”), being novel and an obvious sign of population explosion, with references to the “disorderliness” and “vice” that, presumably, were also newly-arrived. Lamenting the displacement of the prewar, friendly small-town atmosphere of personal relations that had formerly prevailed (except in Oakland), the mythic figures of prostitutes and gamblers seem to have symbolized in the middle-class mind the migrant workers – and these are clearly class-conditioned images. Prostitution and gambling are profoundly excluded from the pale of acceptable conduct in the ideology of middle-class Protestants.


With the exception of business owners who profited from the boom in consumption, or property owners who benefited from renters, many oldtimers seem to have expressed considerable animosity towards the newcomers, and sought to preserve as much of the old order as possible, as is seen in the issue of providing schools for war workers’ children: new schools were built for the projects, which would have the effect of keeping those children separate from the children of the old families, who attended the schools serving the older neighborhoods. Even then, schools were provided more quickly for the “permanent” housing projects such as Atchison Village and the residents of “temporary” projects (less economically-advantaged) such as Harbor Gate had to lobby vigorously to get a school built for them. This is evidence of class stratification within the category of newcomers; but in general we can expect newcomers to be of a different class from the old-timers, particularly those old-timers who were responsible for the anti-crime hearings and campaigns, who would pressure for the dismantling of these projects after the war. Newcomers to the Bay Area were seeking opportunity to make a better life; with few exceptions (professionals) these would not be members of the elites of another part of the country. They would not be affluent, with the possible exception of certain skilled workers. So the issue of class is clearly present, with the organized, vocal homeowners of the prewar affluent classes on the one side, and the masses of essentially “imported” workers for the mass-production of war materiel on the other – either Okies and other 1930s immigrants, or working-class people seeking work during the war.


Stratification within class is also seen in the various trials and tribulations of the African-American communtiy. Apart from a small middle class (owners of small businesses, mostly within the community) most of these people were working-class, and they got the worst of the deals that were offered to workers: confined to “inferior housing stock,” discriminated against by the public-housing authorities, they were the last hired and first fired at the defense plants. Were it not for racism, they would have occupied the same structural position in the economy, so they experienced the working-class life of World War II in the harshest manner.


As the author shows, it is problematic to say whether or not crime increased at a greater rate than the population, due to bad recordkeeping, but the existing records do show a certain inequality in the application of the law. For example, blacks were prosecuted far more than whites on charges of draft evasion, with “draft card sweeps” periodically rounding up residents of black communities in Oakland and elsewhere. In problematizing the issue of wartime “crime waves” we are able to see the hysteria about crime, with its hearings and attendant crackdowns, as a class issue. Making an issue of crime was not just something that the media did to sell newspapers; the affluent longtime residents of the Bay needed some issue such as this to be able to reassert what they saw as their rightful place over local affairs. Long before Rudolph Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory, a sensationalistic debate over a supposed wave of rapes and murders was followed by campaigns against street peddlers and street-cleanup efforts (which benefited the owners of established, storefront businesses). As the author herself says, the issues of crime and public order are a frequent mask for class struggle in American politics.


By the end of the war, Ford Motor, the defense industry, and the civil service were all implanted in the East Bay, the countryside was being forced to retreat before the housing subdivisions, and the society was absorbing a continuous flow of immigrants. Even the antecedents of the progressive currents which would make Berkeley famous in the Sixties were already in evidence. The fight over Codornices Village, in which the University administration confronted residents of war-project housing led by a Cal grad student, and other fights with local authorities over wartime housing projects (the bond campaigns, the demolitions), were a definite antecedent of the later Bay Area civil rights movement. The players – labor and the African-American community – were already present, in the same organizations that would later lead the shop-ins and pickets in the 1950s. The interesting thing is that the New Left, born out of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, divorced itself from an association with labor that first came under heavy fire during the 1950s, after its power was recognized in East Bay municipal elections in the late 40s (the “labor revolt”). The hippie movement espoused a kind New Age spirituality, unconcerned with materialistic considerations of the distribution of wealth. In this way we can see the radical sixties as an extension of the retreat away from labor politics, which had taken full force with McCarthyism, after the labor revolt crested.

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