And here’s another surprise. Mayor Lewis belongs to the Sierra Club. “I believe in recycling. We are the only city in San Diego County committed to zero waste. I used to have a green pickup with the license plate ‘BADMAN.’ Now I have a Toyota hybrid. My plates read ‘CPT TRSH.’ Captain Trash. Because that’s what they call me. We’re very proud of our trash. We have Waste Management, the world’s largest recyclers. They were an $11 billion company in ’06. We create 110,000 tons of trash in this city each year, and they recycle 50 percent. Maybe 55 percent. We’re aiming for 80 percent by 2014. We profit $3 million a year from them. We started on this in 1994. The City of San Diego started only two years ago. We’re looking at food recycling, putting in line systems to recycle C&D — construction and demolition — because you know what, recycling does make us money. We have 110 City trucks running on natural gas — the second-largest fleet in the nation after L.A.”
We’re standing at the window, looking down at the artificial creek and ponds in the park that link the government buildings and the Performing Arts Center. “There’s my mother duck,” he says, pointing down the five floors to a tiny, distant duck coming out of the water. “See? She’s a good mother. She’ll stop traffic to usher her line of ducklings across. People, drivers understand. That’s El Cajon for you.”
Mayor Lewis has lived in El Cajon since 1950, when he arrived at the age of three months. Has it changed? “Oh, yes,” he says. “I graduated from Granite Hills High. I remember walking down Broadway between orange groves on the right and grapevines on the left. It was rural. The ’50s and ’60s were the fastest-growing. Now it’s slowing down because, well, we’re built out. But we’re trying to bring the country back. We plant trees. Lots of trees. We’ve been designated a ‘Tree City USA’ for the past 12 years. For every tree we cut down, we always plant two or three. For a start, it cools the streets. And the work we’ve been doing to make downtown more livable — and that was with SANDAG’s [the San Diego Association of Governments], not our taxpayers’ funds — is making a difference. We have the makings of a walkable city now. We narrowed the streets, widened the sidewalks, planted magnolia trees on Magnolia, installed fancy lights, put drought-resistant trees all the way to the freeway. But this is a 30-year job, and soon, we’re going to be hurting. If the state would stop taking money from us — they took $1 million last year — we wouldn’t be hurting so much. We’ve been cutting back these last three years, cutting staff. But we’ll get by. We’ll do whatever our bosses say.”
“The people of El Cajon. They’re the bosses. That’s what I love about living in the Box, it’s about family, friends, the warmth of the people, being 15 minutes from the ocean, 15 minutes from the mountains. Hot? It can be. But it’s the best weather in the world. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
Does he have critics? You betcha. Take that Performing Arts Center, for starters. The theater, which, according to some, had the best acoustics of any in the county, has largely languished. Mayor Lewis might have added that El Cajon is also a mere 15 minutes from Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan, all with stages and budgets to lure top entertainment talent from anywhere. Right now, the mayor has leased the center of the city’s cultural pride to the Christian Youth Theater. They do safe kids’ productions like Willy Wonka. El Cajon, the home of the famous and forgivably cute Mother Goose Parade — yes, largest parade west of the Mississippi — has allowed its cultural icon, the Performing Arts Center, to become terminally cute. Still, I come away liking the mayor, a lot. You can’t help it. He’s easygoing, approachable, funny, modest. This guy is no stuffed shirt. He’d fit in instantly — and probably does — down at the Grand.
And yet, downtown, you can see what one candidate for the city council, Robert Isham, a registered nurse, meant when he told me during his campaign, “The pulses on a lot of my patients are better than the pulse of downtown El Cajon.”
Back outside after my interview with Mayor Lewis, I wander up Main and instantly see what Isham was talking about. Yes, there’s that sun-baked, spacious, unpressured feel of the country town, but that’s the problem: all that space. It’s like, what if they had a war and nobody came? That wide grid has no “there” there, when you get there. It was originally made to welcome traffic more than people. As I walk down Main, I see where they’ve tried to humanize it, especially with street-narrowing and sidewalk-widening, so that cafés can spread onto the streets between Magnolia and Ballantyne. Still, dead, empty shopfronts are sprinkled depressingly among the living. And the out-of-scale pretentiousness of the city hall complex, this great brown monolith sticking up in the middle of the valley like some monster termite mound adds to the feeling that this city has a problem. It has outgrown its How Green Was My Valley phase and isn’t ready for big-city prime time. And because of its fixed granite-wall mountain perimeter, maybe it never will be.
That very ’70s idea of rolling city hall, performing arts center, and courts and holding cells into one complex, with its ideas of concentration of power, has long since been eclipsed in urban planning. Actually, the complex is still most famous for maybe the easiest jailbreak in history, after prisoners held in the upper-floor, million-dollar-view jail above the mayor’s office discovered that the walls were made of, uh, polystyrene. “That was before my time,” he told me. “I would have issued them paper towels, not cloth.”
This Place Demands Respect