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The Idaho Trail : Migration of Californians to State Raises Real Estate Prices, Tempers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year, the winds of August bring a smoky controversy to this bustling Northwest city, pitting a stubborn stock of locals against a quirky new breed of residents: the ex-Californians.

That is when farmers set fire to 40,000 acres of bluegrass in a time-tested technique to add nitrogen to the soil and increase crop yields. Throughout August--prime tourist season in rural north Idaho--the skies above Kootenai County blacken with billowing plumes of soot, a sure-fire signal of the Potato State’s biggest rhubarb.

Like thousands of other environmentally conscious California transplants, John Mann watches the streaks of smoke trail low over Coeur d’Alene Lake and its resort hotel, over blue-collar housing tracts sprouting from once-virgin forest land and massive, newly built mansions locals refer to as “California dance halls.”

And he fumes.

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“You show me somebody who doesn’t complain about the smoke and I’ll show you an idiot,” said the former Thousand Oaks resident, frowning in distaste. “But these farmers are given free rein--just because this is the way they’ve always done things.

“I just don’t get it. This would never happen in California.”

The bluegrass burn-off is just one volley in a cultural clash being waged in this tradition-bound town of 28,000 residents, less than 100 miles south of the Canadian border: Californians, weary of the crime, earthquakes and overcrowding back home, have come here by the carload, bringing with them fat home equities and what the locals regard as curious big-city attitudes.

Californians are moving northward in search of a rural solace many believe can no longer be found in the country’s most populous state. Between 1991 and 1993, 28,202 Californians moved to Idaho, making up nearly 27% of the state’s 98,446 new residents. In the same period, 5,315 former California residents moved to Kootenai County, nearly 40% of its newcomers.

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California provides more than twice as many Idaho emigres as second-place Washington state. And even many of the latter, according to Idaho state transportation officials who tally newcomer origins through auto license plate transfers, are once-removed Californians who moved on after finding the growing congestion of Seattle and Puget Sound too much like home.

Mann left Thousand Oaks and a career as a stockbroker because he hated Los Angeles traffic and cultural tensions: “I’m no racist but I just got tired of being a minority in Los Angeles, tired of explaining English to 7-Eleven clerks and counting their change for them,” he said.

“And I’d go orbital, absolutely berserk, if I had to sit in traffic. I’d hyperventilate, pound on the wheel.”

For most Southern Californians like Mann, this new life has been a bit of Northern Exposure--searching for their own private Idaho, a niche among the straitlaced and sometimes-cranky native population who wear the term local like some Great Northwest badge of honor.

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Barbara Lund, a 40ish ex-model from the City of Industry, had such a hard time adjusting to Idaho men that she founded a dating club for California transplants, attracting dozens of lonely hearts, frozen out of the Idaho singles scene or self-exiled from it.

“Idaho,” Lund said, “can be a very lonely place.”

The name Coeur d’Alene was coined centuries ago by Native American hunters, angered by French traders they thought were low-balling fur prices. They called them small-hearted men. Hence, the story goes, Coeur d’Alene means “heart the size of an alene, " a small leather-piercing tool the Indians used.

Today in Coeur d’Alene, many locals are lashing back at what they regard as a new small-hearted invasion, of big city “kooks” whose very appearance and every action affront their traditional values.

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“There’s a stereotype of Californians here,” said David Bond, a reporter for the Coeur d’Alene Press. “They Rollerblade around town in neon, glow-in-the-dark clothes. They put fences around their land and call the forest service all winter long, complaining that locals are killing the deer.”

Californians, locals say, just cannot comprehend the folksy style of the Handle, a thin wooded finger of northern Idaho dividing Montana and Washington state, where deals are sealed with a handshake, where you can ride a horse for two days straight without crossing an asphalt road, where its plumb impossible to find a mechanic or carpenter come the first day of hunting season.

Coeur d’Alene native Ted Anderson is fed up with watching his hometown turned into a “little Los Angeles.” He tells of Californians suing the city, locals and one another, including one Los Angeles family who had the gall to fence off access to a popular local watering hole and forbid people to swim there.

“They’re a funny bunch,” said the 86-year-old retired sign painter. “They hated the place they came from so much, they headed for the hills. Now they want to make the hills just like California.”

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Locals such as Anderson say Coeur d’Alene is changing faster than the weather on a fall Friday.

Suddenly, the summer air is filled with police sirens and the detested blare of car alarms. Locals complain that there are racial problems in their school system (although it is still more than 98% white), and grumble that youths in gang-style backward baseball caps and baggy shorts are popping up in the high school sea of cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans. Teen-agers are bringing guns to class, no longer seeing them as tools--as their fathers and grandfathers did--but as weapons, they say.

In Idaho, moose, deer and osprey still line the roadsides like 7-Elevens “back there” in California. Locals around Hayden Lake pump unfiltered water into their houses. People pay for their gas after they have pumped it--with a personal check, no less. It is the place that Bill Clinton finished third in the last presidential election.

So what if the average salary is $19,000 a year, that there are more minimum-wage jobs than pine cones scattered across the forest floor. This is a proud right-to-work state where leaving car and house doors unlocked does not necessarily spell disaster, where teen-agers are watched by stern-faced cops issuing tickets for offenses such as under-age smoking and spitting on the sidewalk.

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The neighborhood banker, waitress and police officer will wave to you on the street, call you by your first name and even ask about the kids.

All this is endangered, the locals will tell you, by the flood of Californians, with their rude driving habits and standoffish demeanor. The resentment surfaces in jokes told at bars, notes left on car windshields or epithets tossed at passing sports cars.

Some of the resentment is based on dollars and cents. Armed with huge equities siphoned from the Los Angeles real estate boom of the 1980s, ex-Californians have invested heavily in Kootenai County property, raising housing prices to where many blue-collar Coeur d’Alene residents now cannot afford to buy a home.

In Kootenai County alone, there are 700 realtors, mostly to serve the California market. Indeed, locals point out, 1% of the population has a real estate license. Just five years ago, $100,000 homes were an extravagance. Now homes regularly sell for half a million dollars. Rents in many cases have doubled since 1990.

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It grates on locals that on some stretches of U.S. 95, the main north-south thoroughfare through town, there are bothersome traffic lights every half-mile now, where Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes sometimes outnumber John Deere tractors.

To make matters worse, folks learned last year that an Irvine real estate broker was teaching people how to leave California in a three-hour seminar at UC Riverside titled “How to Move to the Pacific Northwest.”

Even more irksome than newcomers, however, are those who presume that five years in Idaho makes them a native--with the right to slam the door on everyone else.

The local no-growth committee, locals point out, is composed primarily of ex-Californians.

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Mann’s wife, Debi, who came here with him four years ago, admits that she wants to close the door on future transplants: “We thought we found our own Shangri-La and no one else knew about it. Now it’s all being ruined. What I say to these newcomers is ‘Go find your own nirvana. You’re tainting my dream.’ ”

Other ex-Californians have found it easier to just stick to themselves. And when one family moved back to San Diego last year, they put the California-bashing to work for them: They threw a “Send Us Back to California” yard sale.

There are some locals who believe that Californians are good for Idaho, bringing a newfound cultural diversity--authentic Mexican restaurants, coffee shops and small breweries.

And best of all, they say, new ideas.

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“This town was still debating woman’s suffrage in 1978,” said reporter Bond. “For many locals, gourmet food meant deep-fried something. Nobody drank wine without a metal cap. The new blood has changed that.”

But progress has come at a price, say Bond and some others, who complain that some Californians brought with them the racial tensions they complained about in California.

Not long ago, African Americans were a rarity--13 in the county in 1970, growing to 68 in 1980 and 139 in 1990, out of a population of 80,000.

“When I arrived from Santa Barbara in 1978, people stared,” said 43-year-old mechanic Phil Wilson, who is black. “They would stop me to ask if I were black. Some had never seen a black person before. They didn’t want me to work on their cars.”

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Now Coeur d’Alene has a white supremacy group--its leader and many members are Californians.

Jim Wilson, a former Oceanside policeman who runs a Coeur d’Alene radiator shop, founded a social group for California law enforcement transplants who moved north for reasons of wide open spaces--as well as race--he says.

“How do I say this tactfully?” Wilson said. “In Southern California, 80% of the calls you get as a policeman are from Hispanics and blacks. You just get tired of it. You want to get away.”

Bond regards these as Californians that Idaho can do without. “Believe it or not, California has provided us with some real narrow thinkers,” he said. “We may be rednecks up here, but we’re not bigots. There’s a difference.”

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Bob Potter, a former A T & T executive and ex-resident of La Canada Flintridge, is now president of Jobs Plus, a nonprofit agency whose goal is to bring good-paying manufacturing jobs to an Idaho economy depressed by slowdowns in the mining and logging industries.

“It’s a financial and cultural gamble,” he said of the move. “People shouldn’t come here expecting to make a killing with some downtown frozen yogurt shop. Because they won’t.”

In five years, Potter has recruited 37 companies to Kootenai County, 33 of those from Southern California--including several small firms from the San Fernando Valley area, such as U.S. Products from Agoura and the Wilkinson Co. of Westlake Village. In all, he has created 2,000 jobs for residents as well as relocating a handful of workers from places such as Anaheim, Reseda and Woodland Hills.

But some people are beginning to move back.

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After less than two years, Kathy Smith and her husband are taking their three sons back to Orange County, fed up with Idaho’s rugged weather and surly attitudes. “Once the beauty wears off,” she said, “there’s not much to like about this place.

“People tell you to relax, ‘This is northern Idaho,’ they say. If you dress professionally, they say ‘Heck, where are you going, to a wedding? Or is it a funeral?’ Get me out of this place.”


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