Letter to My California Dreamer: ‘This Boom Town Boomed Best When You Boomed With It’

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For our series “Letter To My California Dreamer,” we’re asking Californians from all walks of life to write a short letter to one of the first people in their family who came to the Golden State. The letter should explain:

What was their California Dream?What happened to it?Is that California Dream still alive for you?

Here’s a letter from Carolyn Gray Anderson to her parents:

Dear Mom and Dad:

Your marriage may not have lasted, but your romance with San Francisco did.

You headed west with advanced degrees in city planning and met on the job in the early 1960s. The world: your oyster.

I grew up already nostalgic for your San Francisco — your North Beach haunts, your episodes with glad-handing local politicians and literary notables, your fantastic rotation of flats, from Telegraph Hill to Nob Hill to Chinatown. Apartments that cost you a roughly a fifth of your entry level incomes.

John Anderson, an aviation enthusiast from a young age, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1954. (Courtesy of Carolyn Gray Anderson)

Dad, you left rural Arkansas for the Golden State when a college buddy promised you a summer gig in a Balboa Island restaurant that served up steaks to vacationers and celebrities. The sand was warm, the girls were suntanned, and you ate like a king. No wonder you decided to finish your degree on the Pacific Rim.

You earned your master’s from UC Berkeley and worked under four San Francisco mayors in the heyday of redevelopment agencies. You and your fellow planners contributed to projects like BART and the Model Cities Program. And you played hard, too, forming a cadre that persuaded developers to admit you to the vacant top floors of newly-built skyscrapers for your impromptu cocktail hours.

In 1969, you scraped together a down payment on a Potrero Hill Victorian. You bought it sight unseen and, for 50 years, there in the banana belt of the city with a sweeping view of the bay, still could not believe your good fortune.

John Anderson at home in San Francisco, 2014. He bought his 1897 Potrero Hill Victorian in 1969, sight unseen. (Courtesy of Carolyn Gray Anderson)

Not everyone who knew you realized you spent many a Thanksgiving or Christmas morning walking through town, handing cash and food to people who live on the streets.

Mom, Fort Worth-born with a little Madison Avenue under your belt, you spent your early career holding your own among the man-splainers of the day, a highly educated person who applied her creative ideas to urban systems.

Charlotte Schofield, San Francisco, ca. 1962. (Courtesy of Carolyn Gray Anderson)

You teetered on I. Magnin spike heels as you pushed your baby’s pram up and down San Francisco hills. Literate and lipsticked, with a penchant for vintage Porsches, you were just as comfortable with the John Cheever set as you were with long-haired hippies.

No one was surprised when you — the poster child for 1980s Dress for Success — retired from HUD to embark on a second career as a fashion designer and instructor.

Mom, you now live far away, migrating between nests in Dallas and Northern New Mexico. You can be confident that this boom town boomed best when you boomed with it. The San Francisco of high tech, high rent, and $10 avocado toast will never know the splendid opportunities laid at your feet 60 years ago.

Dad, you didn’t live to hear me read you this tribute. You were happiest sitting by the water, whether the bay at sunrise or Point Reyes in the fog of summer. And you lived your last months near the Pacific Ocean, whose sirens had called you decades earlier.

By your example, Mom and Dad, I traveled and lived far away. But when I returned, it was on purpose. Like you, I take great civic pride in the California city I chose, Los Angeles — this place where people think no one is actually born, though I, a native San Franciscan, meet native Angelenos all the time.

Carolyn Gray Anderson and her brother Aaron, ca. 1970, on an unfinished stretch of the 280 freeway near Potrero Hill. In his old age, their father, John Anderson, confused people by pointing to it and saying, “I let my kids play on that freeway.” (Courtesy of Carolyn Gray Anderson)

I inherited the true scrappiness of the West. I’m the product of two people who gravitated to San Francisco’s legendary gateway to dreams, still a magnet for the hopeful and ambitious. It’s a heartbreaking town without pity we all love.

Your Daughter,

Gray

Carolyn Gray Anderson Lives in Los Angeles. We’d love to see your letter to your family’s California Dreamer. Maybe it was a parent, a great-great grandparent or maybe even you were the first in your family to come to California with a dream. Fill out the form here and share your story with us!

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