The Three Californias

There’s been a lot of talk lately about splitting California into two different states, but the fact is that there are already three different Californias, not two. No, they’re not different political states, but the three Californias have as many similarities and differences as any three neighboring states. They are of course Southern California, Northern California, and the often-overlooked Central California.

This leads to the obvious questions: where does Southern California end, where does Northern California begin, and what’s in the middle?

Californians identify as Northern, Southern, or Central based on geography, but the differences are greater than simply where you live, and one of the biggest differences is climate. Southern California is warmer and drier than Northern California, and that’s not just in coastal areas. If you look at the eastern portions of the state, they could scarcely be more different. In the South, the eastern side of California is a vast expanses of desert. In the Central and Northern regions, it’s the Sierra Nevada mountains. Interestingly, it’s the mountains in the north that set up the biggest conflict between the different ends of the state: water rights.

Central California Almond Grove

Northern California gets most of the rain, but more people live in the south, and the agricultural economy in Central California relys on a steady flow of water, as well. Much of the water in the South is transported there via aqueducts, a fact which is a sore spot for many people in the North, who feel that the South is stealing their water. People in the South consider it a shared resource, so it can’t really be stolen. Benefits of being one state.

Economically, the differences between regions are sharp. Central California is the true bread basket of the world, or more accurately, the almond grove of the world. California produces more agricultural output than any other state, and the Central Valley is the heart of it. The economy of Southern California is much more diverse. People generally think of the entertainment and media industries in LA, but the reality is, there are many other industries that are just as important, but get less attention than show business. A partial list of major Southern California industries includes aerospace, transportation and shipping, tourism, bio-medical, the military industrial complex, and others. These industries also exist in the Northern and Central regions to some extent, but not nearly at the scale or diversity at which they are present in the South. Northern California is dominated by technology. There are many other industries in the region, but tech is the essence of the regional economy. Without it, the economy would collapse– statewide.

Culturally, the different regions of the state are highly diverse. The Northern and Central regions have nothing that compares with the size and scale of Los Angeles. LA is huge, several times larger than the largest cities in Northern or Central California. But it’s even larger relatively when you consider the greater metro area. LA is a truly global city, in a way that the North’s biggest city San Jose, or the Central’s biggest city Fresno simply aren’t. San Francisco comes close culturally, but it’s size is an order of magnitude smaller than LA.

Northern California has Napa Valley, which produces some of the finest wines in the world. Central California has Pass Robles which produces comparably fine wines. Southern California has San Diego, which produces some of the finest beers in the world. Southern California’s beaches are better, mostly because it’s warmer, and there are more of them. Northern California is arguably more scenic than Southern California, but Central California has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. Southern California has Disneyland. In fact, the region is arguably the theme park capitol of the west. Central California has Yosemite and King’s Canyon National Parks, among the finest in the world. Northern California has great skiing at Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area. Southern California has some of the worst traffic in the world. Central California is somewhat isolated, without good access to major international airports. Northern California has some of the highest housing prices in the world, achieving an absurdity all their own. There are pros and cons to each separate region, but they are all unique.

As for boundaries, to a Southern Californian, SoCal ends at the north end of the Tejon Pass on Interstate 5, also known as the Grapevine. That’s the point at which you enter the Central Valley, wherein lie the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, and the shining metropolis of Visalia. These aren’t Southern California, but they’re not Northern California, either.

Along the coast, Southern California ends at Solvang, which is still close enough to Santa Barbara to count as Southern. And yes, Santa Barbara is Southern. Lompoc goes to Central California, but Southern California keeps Buellton, and the Pea Soup Anderson’s off Highway 101. In the east, the South includes the Interstate 15 corridor through to the state line at Nevada, but nothing north of Fort Irwin or Highway 58. Death Valley is Central, but Tehachapi is Southern. Barely.

On the other end, the southern limit of Northern California is Carmel. Below that, and you’re on the Central Coast. North from there, and you’re in Northern California. There is some debate as to whether the dividing line in the Central Valley puts Merced in the Northern or the Central part of the state, but in my opinion, Merced is Central and Modesto is in the North. In the east, along Highway 395, Bishop is the dividing line between Northern and Central. In fact, it specifically transects a place called Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, California, the very line passing along the wall that separates the sandwich and bread shop from the pastry shop. Anyone driving from Southern California to Mammoth or Tahoe should understand the importance of Schat’s Bakery. North of Bishop is Northern California, and  south of it is Central.

Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, California, the dividing line between Central and Northern California

Altogether, Northern, Central, and Southern California are as similar and as different as any other neighboring states. But there is one final cultural point that must be addressed: how Southern Californians talk about freeways. We use the definite article “the” when identifying freeways because we invented them (sort of… a little… at least in the west), and that’s what we called them before they were numbered. Often the ones that were numbered were different numbers at different points, so it made sense to name them for where they were going. Hence, the freeway that went over the Cahuenga Pass was called the Cahuenga Pass Freeway. But today, we no longer say the name of the freeway, we just say the number. The number. The 405, the 91, the 10. Like nature intended. The reality is, a few of us Southerners are capable code-switching, to blend in with our Northern neighbors when necessary, but when we’re on our home turf, we exclusively use our local vernacular, as a shibboleth. Not everyone can be from here.