Regional Imagination: Poka-Dots, Hammer Pants and Seattle Grundge

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

California Regional Identity – Is it Simply Participatory?

Pinecrest, California

Photo of Pincrest Lake, California, some 6,500 ft elevation in Tuolumne County

It was a funny thing growing up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in the 80 and 90s. Besides Hammer Pants, Poka-Dots and Seattle “grunge,” among other things, my community remained relatively isolated from national trends in fashion, music, & mass urban popular culture. The cities and “the city” (read San Francisco) were places far distant, yet strangely familiar. The idea that an urban identity existed came to me when I was young and I noticed quite clearly that not only were the clothes different from us country folk, but also the attitudes of urbanites were quite different.

However in the late 90s a new California identity emerged in California popular culture. This new northern California identity came with little fanfare to my hometowns (I moved a lot in a small area), yet by the time I left high school in the late 90s it was clear that “NorCal,” as one commercial brand put it, became more than just a state of mind but an identity with varying levels of participation. For my friends and others around me it was a way of distinquishing oursleves from the rest of the nation, and particularly in contrast to the stereotypes of wealthy, elite, and capitalist Southern California. If you didn’t identify with northern california, explicitly or implicitly, you were in effect considered an outsider.

In hindsight, thinking about this almost hegemonic regional identity illustrates two distinct dynamics in imagining a regional identity. First one is geographic. Simply living in Northern California, I was almost obliged to identify with “NorCal” or a Northern California identity. However, on the other hand, identity is also participatory and did I participate in this northern identity or simply benefit from it? Is ignoring the popular imagining of regional identity acquiescing to cultural hegemony?

"Lake Tahoe, California"

Photo of Lake Tahoe, California in the Winter of 2010-11. Photo by Calhistorian

This 21st century paradox of space and identity I imagine was not all that different from Northern California a hundred years prior as I look at it in San Francisco in the 1890s. By the time I left for the University of California in 2007, I seemed to almost appropriate or accept this identity, not through comparison or direct association, but by contrast. I was NOT Southern Californian!

One factor which influenced my identification with Northern California was the urban spaces I associated with. As a rural resident, I identified myself as rural. But at the same time I wasn’t just a citizen of Tuolumne County, but of California, and the United States. Psychologically my identity stretched to Washington D.C., San Francisco, and other satellite urban spaces in which I interacted. While Sacramento provided a image of civic governance and state power, it was San Francisco which filled my visions of the quintessential city – the apex of urban development. It was images and visions of San Francisco when I thought of cities and the urban environment. This I imagine was little different for California’s of the late 19th century. While Sacramento could represent state power, San Francisco could represent everything else.

Certainly there are geographic levels of association to urban places. The nearest city where I grew up, Sonora, California, was for a long time my only reference to such an agglomeration of capital, people, and the built environment. But as I widened my experience beyond my home county, San Francisco came to represent the center of Northern California culture. The apex of science, art, culture, and urbanity, could all be readily drawn from “the city by the bay.”

So when I evaluate regional identity in 1890s California, do we see a similar situation of geographically split identity as I experienced myself? According to historian Glen Gendzel (Pioneers and Padres: Competing Mythologies in Northern and Southern California, 1850-1930. 2001) and others, two distinct regional identities existed in the late 19th century as well as into today. Centered on the “instant city,” a Northern California identity matured as San Francisco and the northern part of the state developed into a wide and productive mining and commercial economy. In contrast, in the 1880s, Los Angeles began to see its own development mature into an urbane future. As the Southern Pacific Rail Road was completed, floods of midwest migrants, as well as Mexican immigrants developed the southern part of the state. San Francisco began to see that the legacy of the Bear Flag Republic, the Gold Rush, and dominance of the Pacific market was being challenged by the supremacy of LA, its population, and its inland empire.

"Won't They Remain Here In Spite of the New Constitution?"

"Won't They Remain Here In Spite of the New Constitution?" - Image Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

While San Francisco came to see its own past as based in “Pioneer Myth,” it easily incorporated California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage as subjugated historical memories. The Spanish and Mexican periods, the Pioneer myth illustrates, was supplanted by the more industrious and pious christians from the East. The 1894 California Mid-Winter Fair held in San Francisco was precisely this declaration of Anglo- and San Franciscan supremacy and dominance of the new emerging California. Perhaps in contrast to Gendzel, who points to two independent and competing regional identities based in the south and north, maybe it is more appropriate to argue that L.A. appropriated the Spanish and Mexican legacy out from under San Francisco’s pioneer legacy as it rose to prominence in the 1890s and 1900s.

Therefore while we can agree that two distinct regional identities operated, derived from two perceived urbane landscapes and regional imaginations (SF & LA), were they mutually exclusive? In other words are we still stuck in a theoretic rut by assuming that identity is static, conforming, or unintelligent? As I had difficulty when I was young figuring out which ‘identity’ to accept (Northern or Southern), identity in the 1890s was likely influenced by similar ambiguities and choices. Thus, how are we to determine historically how a person identifies themselves?

If we accept Mexican-American historian George Sanchez’s model of cultural adaption, “any notion that individuals have occupied one undifferentiated cultural position – ‘Mexican,’ ‘American,’ or ‘Chicano’” must be abandoned for the sake of accepting “multiple identities.” For me the new paradigm hinges on participation and multiplicity of ends in deploying various identities. How are we to understand Chinese and Japanese participation in the pioneer myth of San Francisco? What discourses played between these seeming contrasting identities? Or, as with my case, how do we reconcile a rural identity which is intimately bound to an urban space, like San Francisco and the pioneer myth?


  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” American Historical Review 90 (June 1985): 567-593.

  • Gendzel, Glen. “Pioneers and Padres: Competing Mythologies in Northern and Southern California, 1850-1930.” Western Historical Quarterly 32 (Spring 2001): 55-79.

  • Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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