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What We Learned About California in 2021


Looking back on this year as we head into the new one, it may feel as if not much changed in California during 2021.

A year ago, Californians were hunkering down against surging Covid-19 infections, as they are now. Although vaccines had arrived, distribution was a challenge. Holiday plans had been disrupted.

I was even writing this newsletter. (This time, I’m filling in for Soumya, who’s taking a much-deserved break.)

But we’ve been making progress. Hospitals are not overwhelmed in Los Angeles, one of the national centers of the pandemic at this time last year. Millions of Californians are vaccinated and have gotten booster shots, providing them with a level of protection against illness and hospitalization that felt unimaginable a year ago. The Rose Parade is back on.

And we still managed to deepen our understanding of this vexing, beautiful state. Here are some of the stories that taught my colleagues and me something new — or, at least, made us think — about California:

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sound defeat of the recall

It has long been relatively easy to attempt a recall of the governor of California. But as my colleague Shawn Hubler reported, there are reasons that the only person to have successfully unseated the state’s leader is the singular Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Although Californians spent months in a state of limbo — wondering whether we’d be asked to decide whether to oust Newsom from office and if so, when — once the election was on, the governor tried to beat back the campaign against him by leaning into national political divisions. The choice, he said, was effectively between him and former President Donald J. Trump, between science and conspiracy theories. The strategy worked, as voters across the state — including in the political seesaw that is Orange County — rejected the recall.

A wave of anti-Asian violence

Early this year, a string of jarring attacks, captured on video, reignited simmering fear and hurt among Asian Americans who have felt like targets for violence and harassment. For many, the anxiety started with the former president’s rhetoric — his insistence on calling the coronavirus “the China virus” or the “Kung Flu” — but in 2021, that anxiety and fear coalesced into outrage.

That was before March, when a gunman shot and killed eight people in Georgia, six of whom were women of Asian descent working in spas. Across the country and in California, my colleagues and I reported, Asian Americans were at once devastated and galvanized. Leaders demanded serious action to address anti-Asian discrimination.

But as my colleagues Kellen Browning and Brian X. Chen recently wrote, agreeing to fight racism is one thing. Reaching consensus on what that actually entails is quite another.

Climate change’s continuing chokehold

In 2020, while huge swaths of the West burned, many tourists sought refuge at and around Lake Tahoe, the azure gem of the Sierra Nevada. This year, as the Caldor fire burned dangerously close, residents were forced to flee in an exodus that felt symbolic: a cherished sanctuary, suffocating in smoke.

This year, in addition to contending with fire and power outages, Californians became acutely aware that the state is running out of water. (My colleague Thomas Fuller wrote about a Mendocino innkeeper pondering the reality of $5 showers.) And scientists say drought is very much in the future, even if it is raining or snowing where you are now. But as I learned when I reported on San Diego’s long, difficult journey to water stability, the situation isn’t hopeless.

The enduring changes brought about by the pandemic

Last year felt like one long string of crises, each one colliding with the one that came before it, like cars piling up on the freeway. (Drive safe this weekend, by the way.) This year, it felt as if there were finally opportunities to take stock of ways the pandemic helped us break free from some of the conventions of life before.

In California, as my colleague Conor Dougherty reported, a small pilot program aimed at getting homeless people off the streets, away from Covid-19, and into hotels, also showed a possible path forward for making a dent in the state’s enormous homelessness crisis.

As Soumya reported in October, Clement Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District was spared the financial ruin that ravaged other cities in large part because it is relatively self-contained — residents can find most of what they need within a short walk or bike ride. Clement Street’s success, she wrote, shows how neighborhoods of the future can be resilient.

Here are a few more uplifting stories that defined this year:

  • Britney Spears pleaded with a Los Angeles judge to end the conservatorship that controlled her life for 13 years. It was an astonishing development and a request the judge granted, finally freeing Spears.

  • A deaf football team took the state by storm.

  • Betty Reid Soskin — the woman synonymous with the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, once described as “sort of like Bette Davis, Angela Davis and Yoda all rolled into one” — turned 100.


Today’s travel tip comes from Lori Cassels, a reader who lives in Alameda. Lori recommends Point Reyes National Seashore:

“Kayak on Tomales Bay, and you can even see bioluminescence in the new moon nights. Hike any trail and you will awed by natural beauty at every turn. Eat oysters or drink local wine and drive by Tule elk. And it is only an hour away from where live.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


How are you marking the start of the 2022? Are you making any New Year’s resolutions?

Share with us at CAtoday@nytimes.com.


Sometimes, two birds in the bush may be better than a bird in the hand.

It seems as if that would be the case, anyway, for the avian enthusiasts who recently participated in the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s 122nd annual Christmas bird count.

Their mission, The San Francisco Chronicle reports, was to tally every bird within about 177 square miles over the course of a day.

That task, birders said, requires a kind of Zen-like patience.

“It can be hard. It’s not for everyone,” Terry Horrigan told The Chronicle. “Sometimes, for hours, you’re just looking and looking and looking.”


Thanks for reading. We’re off tomorrow and will back in your inbox on Monday. See you in 2022.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Sunscreen letters (3 letters).

Soumya Karlamangla, Jonah Candelario and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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