So you want to get to know San Diego and you decide to go whole hog — you buy all three of the paperback guides available in town: San Diego Guide, San Diego On Foot, and San Diego: the Unconventional City. Just what do these booklets tell you about the soul of our city?
1) San Diego Guide (at $1.25 the cheapest of the three) tells you that the soul of San Diego can be bought cheap. As you flip through the pages, you notice a wide array of advertising by a wide array of local businesses: the Bali Hai, Ten Downing, the Fishery, Hunter's Books, Catalina Realty, Bo-Danica, Jo's Flower Shop, Penny Realty. Not so strange. But strange indeed is the fact that the Guide feels compelled, while discussing North Mission Beach, for example, to tell you to drop in the Brookside Winery on Mission Bay Drive, and while you're at it, at the Brookside Wineries in Bonita and Escondido. And strange indeed that below this little blurb you see a nice-sized Brookside Winery ad. And strange it is that though the restaurants included on the chapter on "Restaurants" have all been chosen because of "(1) preparation of food, (2) service, (3) consistency, (4) location and (5) price," none of the restaurants that happen to advertise in the Guide fail to meet these rigorous criteria! Enough said.
2) San Diego On Foot ($1.95) tells you that the soul of San Diego is in the body. That is, San Diego is an outdoors city, conducive to physical exercise. And what better way to reconnoiter an outdoors town than by walking through it; On Foot lists 21 different walks to take in San Diego. The walks vary in time required from a half hour at Cabrillo National Monument or at the California Cliff Walk (along Point Loma) to the three to four hours or the half day the author recommends that you devote to La Jolla's scientific and academic community or to Old Town. The author, Ms. Carol Mendel, who can be seen "jogging near her Point Loma home," gives highly intelligent accounts of both the scenic (she even gives the Latin names for plants — Quercus dumosa is the scrub oak you'll find at Torrey Pines State Reserve!) and the historical (who else will tell you that Helen Hunt Jackson based the character of Ramona on an adopted daughter of the Estudillo family of San Diego's Old Town?)
Another thing On Foot says about the soul of San Diego is that it is fragmented into little satellites. Unlike Boston or San Francisco — two cities of comparable size — in San Diego you can't take one single walking tour and "see the city": downtown San Diego is only apportioned nine of On Foot's 90 pages. There is no practical way to walk from Coronado's Ocean Boulevard (one of the recommended walks) to Sunset Cliffs (another walk) to Shelter Island (another), so even Ms. Mendel, who doesn't believe in seeing the world "from behind a windshield," would have to drive her car between the disparate walking areas. A city divided.
Two major complaints you might have about On Foot. First, if you are a tourist, you might appreciate more use of bold face type and stars to help better alert you to points of interest. Like the green Michelin guides you might have used in Europe. True, the bold type and stars will make the book more cluttered and less pretty, but if you're a tourist you don't care. Secondly, the author doesn't really say much about the flavor of San Diego: what the people are like, why they came here, what their aspirations are, wht they think. Perhaps this is understandable, because Ms. Mendel came here only in 1965 and is too humble to deal with such subjects as a newcomer. Perhaps also she had the feeling that the subject is not proper for a guide to the city. Whatever the reasons, for a more sociological or human approach to San Diego, you have to shell out $3.95 for.
3) Neil Morgan's San Diego: The Unconventional City. Neil Morgan is really corny, he really is. His columns in the Evening Tribune, and this book, seem to be nothing more than a series of anecdotes showing what a "truly wonderful" place San Diego is. "It [San Diego] seems to have the best chance for becoming the city of tomorrow..." Or, from an airplane: "The Coronado Bridge, with its golden lights, is the graceful necklace that its boosters have claimed. San Diego is at its mysterious best from the air at night, and coming home at such a time makes all the restless movement seem almost worthwhile." Or the almost maudlin chapter he devotes to his father's 100th birthday! (What could this possibly have to do with San Diego?)
But it isn't the gushiness in Neil Morgan that tells you so much about the nature of San Diego. It's the gossipy quality of his writing. It's true that many of the anecdotes are about everyday people — a Chula Vista widow who outlived her husband, a Mission Hills woman who stopped her car on Interstate 8 to get rid of her son's pet lizard. But too many of Morgan's references in his columns, and in this book, are sheer gossip about San Diego rich people. I mean, really, what does knowing that PSA President Floyd Andrews sometimes commutes by a PSA helicopter which lands at his home tell us about San Diego, except that the place is fertile for small-town gossip. Just how often can Morgan offer quips he's heard at Coronado and La Jolla cocktail parties and expect to keep a sympathetic audience?
To complement these three guides to out town, here is a list of places you must experience to get the flavor of San Diego:
- The fishing pier at Imperial Beach
- The San Diego Rowing (and old-men-sunbathers) Club
- The Palace Bar (next to the Off Broadway Theater). Remnants of San Diego's burlesque days.
- A walk around Tecate
- Chuey's Mexican Restaurant in Southeast San Diego
- The Sportsman's Palace. Center of the black music scene in town.
- Horton Plaza
- The elevators at one of the major banks downtown on a Monday morning.
- The piers at Naval Station 32nd Street.