I wondered for a while if it were all my imagination, if perhaps I had invented an idealized fantasy concept of San Diego in the icy darkness. So I made a few calls. According to the County Department of Planning and Land Use and the San Diego Association of Governments, 63,667 people moved to San Diego County in 1985. There were even more in 1986, but those exact figures aren’t out yet. The year 1985 also saw a net gain of 34,222 housing units. That is 15 percent more than 1984, and three times more than 1983.

Statistics publishers R.L. Polk & Co. gave me the skinny on cars. In 1985 there were 86,211 new car registrations in San Diego County. In 1986, 90,365. So between the time I left, in August of ’85, and the time I returned, in December of ’86, roughly 100,000 people, 55,000 homes, and 135,000 cars were added to San Diego.

To say it’s not the same place is to exaggerate understatement. But the thing that confounds me most is the speed with which these changes occurred. A mere 16 months has completely transformed the town in which I was born and in which I have spent most of my adult life. Where did it go, our “unique San Diego lifestyle,” that elusive commodity so enthusiastically touted by all the TV news anchors? Methinks it is in somebody’s pocket, on its way to a Swiss bank.

* * *

Trying to make some sense of it all, weighing the rush of impressions and emotions, I’ve realized something very disturbing. There’s been another change in San Diego during the months I was away. A sea change. A change more fundamental than even the glut of cars or the amber waves of condos. It’s a change in mood. I believe our coveted small-town atmosphere is finally gone.

I see this mood change most clearly reflected in the way people drive. It’s been said that you can tell the mood of a city by its drivers. L.A. drivers have either a keyed-up, too-much-caffeine-and-sugar wildness in their eyes, or else a look of depressed resignation, aware that they are confined to automotive purgatory. New York–New Jersey drivers have an intense stare, a dog-eat-dog predatory grimace. The old “I’m getting where I’m going and nothing’s going to stop me from getting there faster than anyone else and if you get in my way you’re dead meat” kind of look.

I used to consider San Diego roads relatively sane, compared to L.A. Now the freeway is full of lunatics. Everyone’s trying to go faster than the next guy. People used to glance at the scenery now and again, take in the pleasure of 163 through Balboa Park, or enjoy the spring wildflower bloom along I-5 through La Jolla. Now they stare intently straight ahead, glaring at the road, which is their enemy. They seem greedier, more competitive. They drive more aggressively. They’re less friendly, less courteous. The lifestyle is different. San Diego seems to have finally entered the rat race.

Perhaps there are advantages to all this growth and change. The economy seems to be booming. And even though the symphony just died, the arts in general seem to be getting more attention. Maybe it takes a certain level of population and hustle and bustle for a city to get “culture.”

Is it worth it? Four months I’ve been back, and I’m still disoriented. Almost every day I run into some new construction, road, or stop light. I’ve been reluctant to drive into North County for fear of what I’d see. Did it take leaving and coming back to notice these changes? Like planting an acorn and coming back to a huge oak 20 years later. Only this tree’s been fed growth hormones.

I know San Diego is still orders of magnitude better than anywhere else, in terms of what it offers. But where will it end? Perhaps the explosive, unbridled, unregulated head-over-heels development will finally come to a halt when there is no longer any open space on which to build, when the sewers all back up, when there is no more water.

Do I sound upset? I feel as though I’ve gone away on vacation and returned to find that my home has been burgled. Worse, the burglar is still here, stuffing his bag of loot and thumbing his nose at me. n

— Jim Mastro

Originally published in the Reader on May 21, 1987

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