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Popular History at Its Best - California-Style

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MATERIAL DREAMS: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THROUGH THE 1920s by Kevin Starr, New York: Oxford University Press, 453 pp., illustrated, $24.95 `FOUNDATIONS in Water'' is the title Kevin Starr gives to the first part of his new book, ``Material Dreams,'' the third volume in his ongoing series ``Californians and the American Dream.'' In his first volume, Starr examined aspects of ``the moral and imaginative drama of California in the 19th and early 20th century.'' His second volume, ``Inventing the Dream,'' focused on southern California in the Progressive Era. With the third, Starr enters the modern era, culminating in the boom years of the 1920s, when the groundwork was being laid for the polyglot megalopolis that is southern California today.

Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, prophets and planners envisioned ways of transforming the arid landscape into an irrigated region that would support farming and city life. It is a complicated story, involving the combination - and conflict - of the public interest and private self-interest. It inspired director Roman Polanski's devastating screen portrait of greedy megalomania in the 1974 film ``Chinatown.'' Starr's version is, not surprisingly, less dramatic, probably more evenhanded, and in its own way, quite as interesting.

The cost to the natural environment of such grand water projects was evident then as now. The 19th-century naturalist John Muir (who lived on into the first 18 years of the next century) foresaw the damage these schemes would do to his beloved wilderness, as rivers were diverted into aqueducts and canyons flooded to make reservoirs. Yet, to the early visionaries who dreamed of establishing a flourishing settlement in the arid lands of the West, the idea of making the desert bloom had biblical reverberations. To farmers who had long contended with the harsh, volatile weather of the Midwestern and Plains states, the prospect of a milder, more controlled, man-made environment looked like a dream come true.

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