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Greetings from your new newsletter writer. Let’s keep up the conversation about California

Stars are seen in a dark blue sky above a steep cliff with a white spray of water.
A nighttime view of Yosemite Falls, just one of the places where California’s majesty is in evidence.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Nov. 28. I’m Ryan Fonseca, newly arrived staff writer for Essential California, and I’m happy to be here!

Sitting down to write up my first newsletter, I found it difficult to offer any profound description of life in California. I was born in SoCal, and I’ve lived here all my life. Does a fish know it’s wet?

I spent the first 10-ish years of my life in Ventura County, living in the small beach city of Port Hueneme but spending much of my time (school, friends, sports) in Ventura and Oxnard.

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When I was in fifth grade, my dad took a job with NASA, and we traded in the Pacific air for the arid Mojave Desert in the Antelope Valley, up in the northern corner of Los Angeles County (talk about a vibe shift).

I’ve been fortunate to spend my entire journalistic career (thus far) covering communities in Southern California, working in newsrooms around Los Angeles County. I also teach journalism at Cal State Northridge, where I graduated in 2011.

Perhaps the purest praise I can give California is that I’ve never seriously considered living anywhere else. The thought of packing up and leaving the Golden State feels deeply wrong. Yes, the cost of living is mind-numbingly high, the air is nasty, and traffic sucks at my soul like a dementor. But you’ll endure a lot for that sense of home — and that’s what California feels like to me.

I’m far from alone in that feeling. There’s a distinct majesty that blankets our mountains, coastline, forests and deserts. It radiates like the precious metal of our nickname. It beckons people to visit and move here, chasing that dream that’s been captured in song and film to the point of cliche.

California can very much fulfill that dream — but not always, and not for everyone. In the light of reality, our 163,696-square-mile slice of paradise is not without its flaws.

To me, California is a beautiful land of contradiction. It demonstrates a guiding truth I’ve held to in my reporting career: American exceptionalism isn’t always a positive thing.

Homelessness, a myriad of inequities rooted in decades of systemic racism, gun violence, mass incarceration, healthcare costs, traffic violence, human-caused pollution and the resulting impacts on our climate — we’ve all felt those problems (and more) to some extent, some people more directly than others.

Sure, California is a wealthy, progressive state compared with other parts of the U.S., but how do our ideals and policies stack up next to the realities of the multilayered crises that impact us and the rest of the world?

Journalism and its practitioners are skilled at highlighting the problems that affect our lives. You can scroll through The Times’ website or thumb through the newspaper to see plenty of that important work. But one thing I’m hoping you’ll notice in this newsletter over time is an emphasis on solutions. I aim to explore what can be done to address those problems.

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I’ll seek out and highlight new and overlooked ideas and the people behind them — all while maintaining a journalistic rigor that interrogates potential solutions. Some guiding questions: What is being done here and elsewhere to address this issue? Is it working? If it’s outside California, could it work here?

Whoa, that got a bit heavy! Plenty of “essential” news about California is serious, but I also want to have fun. I like fun! (This is something fun people often say.) And there is plenty of joy and sunshine to be had and highlighted in this great big state. I’ll be on the lookout for it.

Although you’ll be seeing my byline a lot in your inbox moving forward, you’ll also notice an effort to elevate other distinct and diverse voices who can write about California from their unique experiences and perspectives.

Given that this is a newsletter, not a news report in the traditional sense, I view this as a conversation about California — and conversations require more than one person talking (or writing).

In that spirit, I’ll strive to include more of your voices, faithful readers. I want to know what delights and inspires you about life in California. What are you curious or concerned about? Email us and let us know (and be on the lookout for questionnaires, polls and other callouts moving forward).

One thing I often tell my CSUN students is that curiosity is our biggest muscle as journalists — but you have to work it out consistently to stay strong. So I’ll stay curious, and I hope you will, too.

I’m betting you can piece together that this newsletter will start looking a little different in the coming months. Some changes will arrive more quickly than others, but through it all, our goal is to continue bringing you important stories and insights that matter to California and the people who, like me, call it home.

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A man in a beanie and glasses stands next to the ocean where waves are crashing onto rocks.
Ryan Fonseca on the California coast, somewhere between Monterey and Big Sur.
(Brittney Rodriguez)

And now, here’s what’s happening across California (including some stories you may have missed last week while we were away).

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

The long-vacant Los Angeles County General Hospital will be resuscitated as homeless and affordable housing. The county of Los Angeles has committed $250 million to start the process of getting the aged Art Deco landmark in livable condition. But that’s just the first step in a plan to create a “Healthy Village” on the Boyle Heights property, with up to 1,400 units with beds for housing and medical care. Expected total price: more than $1 billion. Los Angeles Times

The lifestyles of the rich and famous are supported by an often-hidden workforce. SoCal’s extravagant mansions are kept clean and in salable condition by dozens of maids, gardeners, handymen and technicians for everything from stonework to aquariums. As L.A Times reporter Jack Flemming writes, it’s hard work that can be lucrative for contractors but costly as mansions languish on the market. Main takeaway for me: Leave the butterflies out of your open-house hijinks (RIP). Los Angeles Times

Check out "The Times" podcast for essential news and more

These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

L.A. Mayor-elect Karen Bass received the most votes of any candidate for that office in city history. In total, close to 928,000 Angelenos cast a ballot in the race between Bass and developer Rick Caruso. Take that record with a little sigh, because those democracy-doers account for about 45% of registered voters in the city. Turnout for what? Los Angeles Times

In other mayoral-history-making news, Oakland has elected its first Hmong mayor. Sheng Thao, a City Council member, beat a colleague for the city’s top job. Thao’s parents fled genocide in Laos and settled in Stockton, where Thao was born and raised. Her family experienced poverty, and she later lived in her car with her young son. She said she would draw from those experiences in leading California’s eighth-largest city. San Francisco Chronicle

California’s last remaining nuclear power plant will get more than $1 billion from the Biden administration. The plant at Diablo Canyon represents a dividing line in the arguments for and against nuclear energy as a solution to the climate crisis. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is scheduled to begin phasing out operation of the facility in 2024, but Gov. Gavin Newsom has been pushing for it to stay online another five years. He has argued that the state needs to maintain a source of carbon-free energy, especially amid power shortages and disruptive heat waves. The federal funds don’t mean the Central Coast plant will remain open longer but should allow PG&E to pay back some of a loan from the state. Los Angeles Times

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

An appeals court in San Diego concurred with a lower court’s ruling that school districts cannot unilaterally impose their own COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The 4th District Court of Appeals ruled that only the state can require students to get vaccinated to attend school. In 2021, San Diego Unified became one of the few school districts in California to put a vaccine requirement in place. But a local parents group sued the district, and that mandate was never fully implemented. San Diego Union-Tribune

Hearings this week in a San Diego federal court could lead to dramatic changes in California’s gun laws. Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, judges must now apply a “text, history and tradition” legal framework in gun-related rulings. That test is being characterized by some attorneys as a potential “do-over” for Californians seeking to overturn the state’s strict laws regarding concealed carry, homemade firearms and bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, among others. San Diego Union-Tribune

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A woman in sunglasses, cowboy boots and jeans stands, looking down, in an empty field of overturned earth.
Kim Gallagher stands in a rice field she’s fallowed due to a lack of water in Knights Landing, Calif.
(Max Whittaker / For The Times)

Three years of record drought in California have devastated farmland and cut crop revenue by an estimated $1.7 billion. A new report has found that the state’s irrigated farmland has shrunk by 10% this year compared with the year before the drought (2019). The crisis has also cost farmworkers employment; an estimated 12,000 jobs have been lost. Growers have been tapping more groundwater to survive, but upcoming limitations will leave many out of options. Los Angeles Times

If you’re hoping to dodge the “tripledemic” this holiday season, keep your hands away from your face. That’s the advice from doctors as California braces for a simultaneous spike in cases of coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus and the good ol’ fashioned flu. Although coronavirus is typically spread through the air, RSV and the flu can be transmitted via surfaces, making it risky to touch your mouth, nose or eyes after touching things in public. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

They save horses, don’t they? For the Santa Cruz Island horses, yes! This distinct breed is descended from horses first brought to the island off Santa Barbara in the 1830s by Spanish colonizers. In 1998, after more than a decade and a half of isolation, the feral horses were relocated to the mainland. But those many decades living without predators ruined their flight response, and the horses became easy pickings for mountain lions and other predators. To save their dwindling numbers and preserve the breed, 13 were brought to Hidden Valley in 2014. Through a breeding program, 16 horses have been added to the “heritage herd.” Ventura County Star

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 64, cloudy. San Diego: 61, mostly cloudy. San Francisco: 60, sunny and breezy. San Jose: 60, mostly sunny. Fresno: 61, hazy. Sacramento: 61, patchy fog, then sunny.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Jonathan Mendoza:

When I was living in San Diego, I would go on drives with my mom almost every Sunday afternoon when she arrived home from work. We’d go to many places around San Diego, such as the beaches, Carmel Mountain, Mira Mesa, etc. One of the things I really enjoyed with my mom was the fact that she would take me to some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in San Diego. We enjoyed the local spring rolls and boba, which provided us a cool-off from the warm and sunny summer afternoons.

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If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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