Anchor ads are not supported on this page.

4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

I thought about San Diego in Antarctica

I heard San Diego was the land of the living dead

Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony.
Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony.

The Native

It was a little over a year and a half ago. I left my old, faithful, beat-up Karmann Ghia stowed in a garage in La Mesa and left for Antarctica. Why Antarctica? The adventure, I suppose. The money. The travel. Why not? I wasn’t leaving forever. Barring nuclear holocaust, San Diego would be here when I got back.

Of course, I thought about San Diego a lot while I was gone. It was hard not to, especially during the austral winter, those long, lonely, sunless months with temperatures low enough to quick-freeze fish steaks. I thought about the beaches in particular: the PB boardwalk. La Jolla Shores, Black's. I sat in my room listening to the wind howl outside and imagined myself in Seagrove Park at Fifteenth Street in Del Mar, spooning up a frozen yogurt and watching the surfers while the sun warmed my face. I missed it all, missed being able to jump in the ocean and lie in the sun afterwards, missed Balboa Park, Mission Bay, Diego’s, Alfonso’s, margaritas, chips and salsa.

San Diego is more than just a unique place, I remember thinking. It’s a state of mind, a lifestyle, all those cliché terms that are constantly thrown at us. It’s an entity unto itself, an oasis on the North American continent, separated by the grace of God and Camp Pendleton from the bloated, foul-breathed goliath to the north.

San Diego, I realized, is a city-beach-ocean complex. Take San Diego and transplant it, all the buildings, parks, and roads, to Illinois or Oklahoma. It becomes just another city in the heartland. Nothing to distinguish it, no special ambiance to call its own. But here, nestled in the southwest corner of the nation, hips next to Mexico, shoulders reclining on the Cuyamaca mountains, feet lolling in the waves, here is San Diego. Here is the wide-open feeling, the easy mood, the small-town atmosphere.

Of all of it, I became convinced that the beaches are what give San Diego this mood. The ocean calms the mind, puts things into perspective. Standing at sunset and watching the colors develop over that vast wilderness on our doorstep helps to slow the rush. The beach life — relaxed, separated by desert, mountain, and attitude from the rest of the country. Our own mellow little fiefdom.

Even the roads feel open, less clogged, the drivers more courteous, the pace slower. Who wants to rush when spring paints the rolling hills a lush golden yellow? Only in San Diego, I remember thinking, growing more homesick by the day.

I left Antarctica in the middle of October and headed north. I’ll admit I didn't pine for home sweet San Diego nearly as much while I was lying on the beach in Australia or while I was traveling through the South Pacific. But the feeling hit me again hard when I boarded the plane in Fiji, bound for L.A. Home at last. There’s no place like home, says Dorothy, and the omniscient “they” repeat it constantly.

They also say you can never go back.

Re-entering society after a year of isolation is not easy. The masses of people can be overwhelming, and the pace seems absurdly frantic. The trick is to take it slow. A little at a time. I broke the old Karmann Ghia out of mothballs and went for leisurely drives. Or tried to, at least. I found it was no longer possible to take a leisurely drive in San Diego. Something had happened.

Something had changed.

Before I left, it had been my practice to cruise an even sixty on the freeways. It may have been pushing CHP tolerance a bit, but as long as I wasn’t passing too many cars, I figured I was safe. The rearview mirror was my best friend. I hit I-8 west and fell into the old mold. Big joke. I was the slowest guy on the road. I thought my speedometer had gone rusty from disuse. Grannys were passing me! Winnebagos! I tried to keep pace, but the old Ghia wasn’t up to it. I gave up at seventy, and I was still being left in the dust.

That was only the first shock. I fought my way to Highway 5 and headed north to live my Seagrove Park winter fantasy. Just past Gilman Drive I almost drove off the road into the bushes. Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony, but I couldn't decide whether they were houses or mushrooms. How did they get there so fast?

Sponsored
Sponsored

I found no solace in Del Mar, just a parking lot. The whole quaint little oceanfront village was a mass of Detroit’s finest. La Jolla was worse, perpetual automotive gridlock.

The list goes on. I’ve been home for a little over four months now, and I still haven’t gotten used to it. Everyone drives faster, but it still takes twice as long to get anywhere as it did a year and a half ago. For the first couple of months, I couldn’t understand why I was always late for appointments. Rush “hour” now lasts from 3:00 to 6:30, and people are on the roads at 5:30 in the morning racing to work. 5:30! I used to see rabbits on the road at 5:30.

If I don’t see them now, perhaps it’s because they’ve been sent packing. The Developer Demon is loose and hungry. Vast stretches of the tablelands in Mira Mesa are turning white under the bulldozer’s blade. The road to Poway is being attacked on both sides. Everywhere a seemingly endless plain of condominiums stings the eye. It is as though every major developer in the nation has descended on San Diego County. Everything is up for grabs. No stopping until every square inch in the area is covered. Scrubland is out, condominiums are in. Wildlife is passé, shopping centers are the wave of the future. The San Diego “lifestyle” revamped and set in concrete. The “broad interpretation” of land use. I still can't believe what I’m seeing.

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 fifteen 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 sixteen 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 Highway 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 twenty 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.


The Tourist

As we glided to a stop at the red light, a gray Mercedes SL sports coupe slid next to our Ford Escort. The beach music blaring from the Mercedes drowned our evening news. We turned to look. She sat there drumming on her gearshift knob, a California blonde with streaked hair, orange skin, white acrylic sunglasses. She turned, however briefly, and gave us a look that revealed nothing more than a consummate, self-confident vacuity. The light turned, she ran her fingers through her hair, shook her mane, and accelerated into the sunset. It was an experience that would be repeated. Sometimes the cars would be Preludes or Mustangs, sometimes the girls would be more or less beautiful, but we knew that we had arrived, refugees from North Carolina in Southern California.

The view of America from an airplane window consists of 1000 miles of farmland, 1000 miles of desert, and 500 miles of Los Angeles. As we landed, I took smug comfort in my prejudices. California — by which we mean Southern California — is a state of mind as much as a place. The land of fruits and nuts where growth is measured not by inches and feet but by human potential. Cuisine means goat cheese and avocado slices arranged on a plate like a Japanese rock garden. Where everybody is from somewhere else, where people celebrate their rootlessness, where conspicuous consumption establishes one's social standing, the trendy mocks tradition, where cocaine is as plentiful as avocados. For those who seek salvation, the spiritual supermarkets are stacked with goods from akido to Zen.

Even James Worthy in the official NBA magazine explained that he hadn’t gotten “into" the California lifestyle. Back home in Gastonia, North Carolina, he wasn’t accustomed to seeing fourteen-year-olds with dyed hair smoking joints on street corners. His values were different.

Of course, everyone tells us that's Los Angeles. San Diego, where we were headed, is different.

The promotional literature presents a more appealing picture. Sailboats silhouetted in a golden sunset. An unspoiled rocky coast.

A home on the hillside with sweeping views of sea and snow-peaked mountains. There’s theater at the Globe, the Spanish baroque museums of Balboa Park, and the playgrounds of La Jolla and Tijuana. Mexico is only a short trolley-ride away. You can ski or surf, roam the desert or climb a mountain. “You’ll love it," I heard time and again. How I dream of returning to San Diego, a young saleswoman told me at Eno Traders in Durham.

I heard other voices. Dissent that San Diego was the land of the living dead, where half the people were in the navy, the other half retired (not to mention those retired from the navy). One friend, who extolled the climate and the theater, did hold one reservation, the possibility of “sudden, unexpected death." He related a gruesome story of a schoolgirl who came home to find her mother murdered. California seems to specialize in bizarre crimes, people on axe-murder trips or into sadomasochism. Gay-bashing is a popular sport among the local marines, and right now- a state highway patrolman is accused of strangling a coed and throwing her body off a freeway bridge. “It's a place without a soul," a Durhamite warned me, and an ex-Chapel Hillian now ensconced in Hollywood compared the character of the place to a Styrofoam cup.

What does it mean to come from San Diego? Think of Chicago, New York, Buffalo, and you conjure images gruff or defiant, but San Diego? The only people who seem to have any organic relation to this place are the surfers, who at least taste the brine and feel the wind; for most others, their commitment to the place follows the vagaries of the real-estate market.

The stereotypes are true. Muscled, golden boys play volleyball on the beach and ride mopeds with surfboards under their arms. Sylvester Stallone look-alikes cruise in vintage Bentley convertibles. We recently espied a two-tone Rolls-Royce with a personalized license plate that read MIDAS. Some local high school kids, attempting to decorate their gym with a peace symbol for a “Sixties" party, wound up emblazoning the place with a Mercedes-Benz emblem.

I recalled the Joad family in Grapes of Wrath. On the wall of their Dust Bowl shack, they kept a calendar picture of a farm house in a California orange orchard that promised a new life. They wound up in an abandoned freight car. That freight car’s probably a condominium now, renting for $1500.

With a horribly inflated real-estate market, the available housing is in one of these endless projects that creep across the landscape like the Blob in a Japanese horror movie. These subdivisions carry names like Hacienda Vista Villa Estates or El Condo Grande Rancheros. One even had a phony stream cascading whitewater past your doorstep. And these look-alike homes command prices that would drive Michael Jordan to a mortgage broker. Rents and real estate run double and triple what you’d pay in Raleigh, Durham, or Chapel Hill. The idea of actually owning land, a couple of wooded acres, let’s say, is simply beyond the capability of any but the hoity toity — but there are plenty of those around.

Where else can you see a Rolls-Royce parked on the street with a For Sale sign and phone number in its window? A friend told us about some out-of-towners who tried to insure their car, a virtual wreck, and were given an astronomical estimate. “It’s not your car," the insurance agent sniffed, “it’s what you might hit."

The weather is “perfect"; everyone says that. Out here they're downright smug about it. Crisp mornings, balmy afternoons. Warm winters and cool summers make San Diego a year-round resort. A waitress at a local cafe greeted an unexpected shower — not a Carolina monsoon, mind you, just a drizzle — with the awe of a Hawaiian contemplating her first snow. She nearly dropped our tostadas.

Perfect weather means no weather at all. Every day is wonderful, but no day is memorable. I don't mean to sound romantic about shoveling a car from under a snow drift or sliding backwards down Glendale Avenue, but, gosh, if Keats had lived in San Diego, there would be no “To Autumn," and Vivaldi would have settled for One Season. (Of course, had Keats lived in San Diego, he might have lived into his golden years, but then Shelley would never have written “Adonais.")

Recreation is the prime cultural value out here. As well it should be. The beaches are gorgeous with dramatic cliffs, and the lush, tropical foliage ensures a constant show of flowers. (Unfortunately, the beach in front of our home is closed right now due to a pollution alert. Besides illegal aliens, Tijuana is the source of a steady flow of pollution.) Parched, Biblical mountains rise as high as the Smokies on the near horizon, and the desert rings the city to the south and east. There's nude hang-gliding at a nearby beach, and surfing and skiing are always minutes away.

All this fun in the sun means that one's body is inordinately on display, and that has spawned a perpetual-youth industry. Good looks carry a premium value. Plastic surgeons advertise their services from wrinkle removal to tushy-tucks. One's body isn't really much different from one’s car; there's a penchant for the latest and most exotic model. If it gets old, the detailers will restore it. Maybe it works; in three months, we have yet to sec a funeral home or a cemetery.

The food, too, carries through the California promise of making it new. Tomato and pastrami omelets, sardines served with apple slices. We ate at a vegetarian restaurant so self-righteous that it didn't even serve beer. A cover story in California magazine begins — really folks, this is no parody —“The primal California eating experience. A gestalt, if you will, of food and place combined with the quality of light and air and, of course, the vibes of the people around you.” (Waiter, I’d like an order of gestalt, please, medium rare, hold the goat cheese.) The real pleasures of local eating are the storefront ethnic restaurants — Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Arabic — but these are best found in the seedier neighborhoods, like El Cajon Boulevard, sandwiched between the topless joints, hot-sheet motels, and auto supply shops.

The wisdom that is commonly repeated is that San Diego is not Los Angeles. This is said mostly in regard to the traffic, but that's really no recommendation at all, like saying the homeless problem here isn’t as bad as Calcutta’s. The freeways inspire rage even when the traffic is moving. Discourtesy is the rule of the road. The freeways force their way through canyons, jump mountains, here leapfrog yet another freeway, there swoop downward to the bay. A fascism of pavement, contemptuous of whatever terrain nature ill-advisedly placed in the way. The freeways' defenders praise them as convenient — “Really, you can get any place in no time at all,” I keep hearing. Mussolini, as we all know, kept the trains running on time. It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters.

Tourism in San Diego is another industry, and there are the traps of Seaport Village and Old Town. The former is a totally boutiqued “reconstruction” of a fishing port landscaped along the lines of a miniature golf course. Here one may sip oversized piha coladas while watching the sun set over the harbor. Old Town contains several buildings dating from the early 1800s, but they have been so successfully restored that they look as though they were built only yesterday. The bazaar offers genuine Mexican handcrafts, Guatemalan fabrics, and the best that Taiwan has to offer.

A seedy downtown, the Gaslamp district, shows promise of character, though gentrification threatens it. Horton Plaza, a vertical downtown mall, is a festive, Fellini-esque stage set of arches and balustrades, promenades and grand staircases. Architectural critics disdain such places, but people love them, though Horton Plaza has attracted among its well-heeled shoppers a Fellini-esque cast of vandals, pigeon lovers, and sailors on leave.

Northwards are the upscale, picturesque communities of La Jolla and Del Mar with their fashionable main streets, where it’s easier to buy a muffin than a muffler. La Jolla, the waterhole of the rich and glamorous in Hollywood’s heyday, has succumbed to overdevelopment but still retains some dramatic cliffs and beaches. Torrey Pines State Park is a haven to man and beast — and endangered flora as well. It’s one place that man in his wisdom has left alone.

The celebrated San Diego Zoo is located near downtown, in Balboa Park. Set on a hillside, it offers an exotic respite with its tropical landscaping and fiberglass rock faces. The animals, however, walk lethargically in circles or curl into corners. The tour guide cracks jokes about the gorilla's ugly mug and offers the beast a cookie if only it will blow her a kiss. The San Diego Wild Animal Park in the foothills north of town is not a conventional caged lock-up for animals, but a natural habitat — in human terms, the kind of prison where they send Reagan appointees.

One popular distraction is whale watching. The California grey whale undertakes a yearly migration from the chilly northern waters to the balmy sea of Mexico. Off San Diego’s coast, they pause for their rites of mating and birthing. Tour boats packed with sightseers pursue them. It’s a kind of cetacean voyeurism, a naturalist’s Forty-second Street. While kids stuff chili dogs in their faces and the seasick heave their breakfasts overboard, a tanned crew of surfers — the ads promised guided tours by marine biologists — play Ahab. A brief plume of mist is sighted. The tour boats circle closer. Two whales barely surface and then slink downward. The boats stay discreetly behind, since the whine of their engines will distract the whales off course. The whale boats, however, draw a flotilla of Sunday sailors from San Diego’s enormous pleasure fleet, and ketches and cabin cruisers crisscross every which way. The whales suddenly emerge a half mile from where they were expected.

The boats give chase. Despite the surface comedy, the whales are, as they say in California, awesome. Two rise and dive in harmony, flipping their tails on the way down. Such size, such grace. One suspects in the whales’ quiet dignity a sensible contempt for the harassing excursionists.

Am I am unfair to San Diego? Of course, of course. The posturing of the Easterner, with his vaunted culture, does make the locals a tad defensive. To demonstrate their couth, San Diego’s civic boosters are constantly promoting the museums, the theater, and the opera, though the symphony just went out of business. (Hey, things aren’t so bad. Doc Watson and the Red Clay Ramblers have been in town lately.) On any frozen day in Raleigh, you’d rather be here on the beach watching the porpoises gambol in the surf than stuffing more logs in your wood stove. But there’s more to life, folks, than scenery and climate. We’ve met several San Diegans contemplating moves to North Carolina; this is no place to raise kids, they tell us. You'll find paradise out here, genuine and ersatz, but it will cost you.

Country roads, take me home.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Best Online Casino UAE 2024: Top 10 Real Money Casinos In UAE

Next Article

Why parrots are so good for San Diego

They like palm nuts, eucalyptus gumnuts, not native plants
Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony.
Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony.

The Native

It was a little over a year and a half ago. I left my old, faithful, beat-up Karmann Ghia stowed in a garage in La Mesa and left for Antarctica. Why Antarctica? The adventure, I suppose. The money. The travel. Why not? I wasn’t leaving forever. Barring nuclear holocaust, San Diego would be here when I got back.

Of course, I thought about San Diego a lot while I was gone. It was hard not to, especially during the austral winter, those long, lonely, sunless months with temperatures low enough to quick-freeze fish steaks. I thought about the beaches in particular: the PB boardwalk. La Jolla Shores, Black's. I sat in my room listening to the wind howl outside and imagined myself in Seagrove Park at Fifteenth Street in Del Mar, spooning up a frozen yogurt and watching the surfers while the sun warmed my face. I missed it all, missed being able to jump in the ocean and lie in the sun afterwards, missed Balboa Park, Mission Bay, Diego’s, Alfonso’s, margaritas, chips and salsa.

San Diego is more than just a unique place, I remember thinking. It’s a state of mind, a lifestyle, all those cliché terms that are constantly thrown at us. It’s an entity unto itself, an oasis on the North American continent, separated by the grace of God and Camp Pendleton from the bloated, foul-breathed goliath to the north.

San Diego, I realized, is a city-beach-ocean complex. Take San Diego and transplant it, all the buildings, parks, and roads, to Illinois or Oklahoma. It becomes just another city in the heartland. Nothing to distinguish it, no special ambiance to call its own. But here, nestled in the southwest corner of the nation, hips next to Mexico, shoulders reclining on the Cuyamaca mountains, feet lolling in the waves, here is San Diego. Here is the wide-open feeling, the easy mood, the small-town atmosphere.

Of all of it, I became convinced that the beaches are what give San Diego this mood. The ocean calms the mind, puts things into perspective. Standing at sunset and watching the colors develop over that vast wilderness on our doorstep helps to slow the rush. The beach life — relaxed, separated by desert, mountain, and attitude from the rest of the country. Our own mellow little fiefdom.

Even the roads feel open, less clogged, the drivers more courteous, the pace slower. Who wants to rush when spring paints the rolling hills a lush golden yellow? Only in San Diego, I remember thinking, growing more homesick by the day.

I left Antarctica in the middle of October and headed north. I’ll admit I didn't pine for home sweet San Diego nearly as much while I was lying on the beach in Australia or while I was traveling through the South Pacific. But the feeling hit me again hard when I boarded the plane in Fiji, bound for L.A. Home at last. There’s no place like home, says Dorothy, and the omniscient “they” repeat it constantly.

They also say you can never go back.

Re-entering society after a year of isolation is not easy. The masses of people can be overwhelming, and the pace seems absurdly frantic. The trick is to take it slow. A little at a time. I broke the old Karmann Ghia out of mothballs and went for leisurely drives. Or tried to, at least. I found it was no longer possible to take a leisurely drive in San Diego. Something had happened.

Something had changed.

Before I left, it had been my practice to cruise an even sixty on the freeways. It may have been pushing CHP tolerance a bit, but as long as I wasn’t passing too many cars, I figured I was safe. The rearview mirror was my best friend. I hit I-8 west and fell into the old mold. Big joke. I was the slowest guy on the road. I thought my speedometer had gone rusty from disuse. Grannys were passing me! Winnebagos! I tried to keep pace, but the old Ghia wasn’t up to it. I gave up at seventy, and I was still being left in the dust.

That was only the first shock. I fought my way to Highway 5 and headed north to live my Seagrove Park winter fantasy. Just past Gilman Drive I almost drove off the road into the bushes. Where once lay an ocean of scrub and wildflowers, there was now a sea of rooftops in escrow. The sign said La Jolla Colony, but I couldn't decide whether they were houses or mushrooms. How did they get there so fast?

Sponsored
Sponsored

I found no solace in Del Mar, just a parking lot. The whole quaint little oceanfront village was a mass of Detroit’s finest. La Jolla was worse, perpetual automotive gridlock.

The list goes on. I’ve been home for a little over four months now, and I still haven’t gotten used to it. Everyone drives faster, but it still takes twice as long to get anywhere as it did a year and a half ago. For the first couple of months, I couldn’t understand why I was always late for appointments. Rush “hour” now lasts from 3:00 to 6:30, and people are on the roads at 5:30 in the morning racing to work. 5:30! I used to see rabbits on the road at 5:30.

If I don’t see them now, perhaps it’s because they’ve been sent packing. The Developer Demon is loose and hungry. Vast stretches of the tablelands in Mira Mesa are turning white under the bulldozer’s blade. The road to Poway is being attacked on both sides. Everywhere a seemingly endless plain of condominiums stings the eye. It is as though every major developer in the nation has descended on San Diego County. Everything is up for grabs. No stopping until every square inch in the area is covered. Scrubland is out, condominiums are in. Wildlife is passé, shopping centers are the wave of the future. The San Diego “lifestyle” revamped and set in concrete. The “broad interpretation” of land use. I still can't believe what I’m seeing.

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 fifteen 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 sixteen 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 Highway 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 twenty 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.


The Tourist

As we glided to a stop at the red light, a gray Mercedes SL sports coupe slid next to our Ford Escort. The beach music blaring from the Mercedes drowned our evening news. We turned to look. She sat there drumming on her gearshift knob, a California blonde with streaked hair, orange skin, white acrylic sunglasses. She turned, however briefly, and gave us a look that revealed nothing more than a consummate, self-confident vacuity. The light turned, she ran her fingers through her hair, shook her mane, and accelerated into the sunset. It was an experience that would be repeated. Sometimes the cars would be Preludes or Mustangs, sometimes the girls would be more or less beautiful, but we knew that we had arrived, refugees from North Carolina in Southern California.

The view of America from an airplane window consists of 1000 miles of farmland, 1000 miles of desert, and 500 miles of Los Angeles. As we landed, I took smug comfort in my prejudices. California — by which we mean Southern California — is a state of mind as much as a place. The land of fruits and nuts where growth is measured not by inches and feet but by human potential. Cuisine means goat cheese and avocado slices arranged on a plate like a Japanese rock garden. Where everybody is from somewhere else, where people celebrate their rootlessness, where conspicuous consumption establishes one's social standing, the trendy mocks tradition, where cocaine is as plentiful as avocados. For those who seek salvation, the spiritual supermarkets are stacked with goods from akido to Zen.

Even James Worthy in the official NBA magazine explained that he hadn’t gotten “into" the California lifestyle. Back home in Gastonia, North Carolina, he wasn’t accustomed to seeing fourteen-year-olds with dyed hair smoking joints on street corners. His values were different.

Of course, everyone tells us that's Los Angeles. San Diego, where we were headed, is different.

The promotional literature presents a more appealing picture. Sailboats silhouetted in a golden sunset. An unspoiled rocky coast.

A home on the hillside with sweeping views of sea and snow-peaked mountains. There’s theater at the Globe, the Spanish baroque museums of Balboa Park, and the playgrounds of La Jolla and Tijuana. Mexico is only a short trolley-ride away. You can ski or surf, roam the desert or climb a mountain. “You’ll love it," I heard time and again. How I dream of returning to San Diego, a young saleswoman told me at Eno Traders in Durham.

I heard other voices. Dissent that San Diego was the land of the living dead, where half the people were in the navy, the other half retired (not to mention those retired from the navy). One friend, who extolled the climate and the theater, did hold one reservation, the possibility of “sudden, unexpected death." He related a gruesome story of a schoolgirl who came home to find her mother murdered. California seems to specialize in bizarre crimes, people on axe-murder trips or into sadomasochism. Gay-bashing is a popular sport among the local marines, and right now- a state highway patrolman is accused of strangling a coed and throwing her body off a freeway bridge. “It's a place without a soul," a Durhamite warned me, and an ex-Chapel Hillian now ensconced in Hollywood compared the character of the place to a Styrofoam cup.

What does it mean to come from San Diego? Think of Chicago, New York, Buffalo, and you conjure images gruff or defiant, but San Diego? The only people who seem to have any organic relation to this place are the surfers, who at least taste the brine and feel the wind; for most others, their commitment to the place follows the vagaries of the real-estate market.

The stereotypes are true. Muscled, golden boys play volleyball on the beach and ride mopeds with surfboards under their arms. Sylvester Stallone look-alikes cruise in vintage Bentley convertibles. We recently espied a two-tone Rolls-Royce with a personalized license plate that read MIDAS. Some local high school kids, attempting to decorate their gym with a peace symbol for a “Sixties" party, wound up emblazoning the place with a Mercedes-Benz emblem.

I recalled the Joad family in Grapes of Wrath. On the wall of their Dust Bowl shack, they kept a calendar picture of a farm house in a California orange orchard that promised a new life. They wound up in an abandoned freight car. That freight car’s probably a condominium now, renting for $1500.

With a horribly inflated real-estate market, the available housing is in one of these endless projects that creep across the landscape like the Blob in a Japanese horror movie. These subdivisions carry names like Hacienda Vista Villa Estates or El Condo Grande Rancheros. One even had a phony stream cascading whitewater past your doorstep. And these look-alike homes command prices that would drive Michael Jordan to a mortgage broker. Rents and real estate run double and triple what you’d pay in Raleigh, Durham, or Chapel Hill. The idea of actually owning land, a couple of wooded acres, let’s say, is simply beyond the capability of any but the hoity toity — but there are plenty of those around.

Where else can you see a Rolls-Royce parked on the street with a For Sale sign and phone number in its window? A friend told us about some out-of-towners who tried to insure their car, a virtual wreck, and were given an astronomical estimate. “It’s not your car," the insurance agent sniffed, “it’s what you might hit."

The weather is “perfect"; everyone says that. Out here they're downright smug about it. Crisp mornings, balmy afternoons. Warm winters and cool summers make San Diego a year-round resort. A waitress at a local cafe greeted an unexpected shower — not a Carolina monsoon, mind you, just a drizzle — with the awe of a Hawaiian contemplating her first snow. She nearly dropped our tostadas.

Perfect weather means no weather at all. Every day is wonderful, but no day is memorable. I don't mean to sound romantic about shoveling a car from under a snow drift or sliding backwards down Glendale Avenue, but, gosh, if Keats had lived in San Diego, there would be no “To Autumn," and Vivaldi would have settled for One Season. (Of course, had Keats lived in San Diego, he might have lived into his golden years, but then Shelley would never have written “Adonais.")

Recreation is the prime cultural value out here. As well it should be. The beaches are gorgeous with dramatic cliffs, and the lush, tropical foliage ensures a constant show of flowers. (Unfortunately, the beach in front of our home is closed right now due to a pollution alert. Besides illegal aliens, Tijuana is the source of a steady flow of pollution.) Parched, Biblical mountains rise as high as the Smokies on the near horizon, and the desert rings the city to the south and east. There's nude hang-gliding at a nearby beach, and surfing and skiing are always minutes away.

All this fun in the sun means that one's body is inordinately on display, and that has spawned a perpetual-youth industry. Good looks carry a premium value. Plastic surgeons advertise their services from wrinkle removal to tushy-tucks. One's body isn't really much different from one’s car; there's a penchant for the latest and most exotic model. If it gets old, the detailers will restore it. Maybe it works; in three months, we have yet to sec a funeral home or a cemetery.

The food, too, carries through the California promise of making it new. Tomato and pastrami omelets, sardines served with apple slices. We ate at a vegetarian restaurant so self-righteous that it didn't even serve beer. A cover story in California magazine begins — really folks, this is no parody —“The primal California eating experience. A gestalt, if you will, of food and place combined with the quality of light and air and, of course, the vibes of the people around you.” (Waiter, I’d like an order of gestalt, please, medium rare, hold the goat cheese.) The real pleasures of local eating are the storefront ethnic restaurants — Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Arabic — but these are best found in the seedier neighborhoods, like El Cajon Boulevard, sandwiched between the topless joints, hot-sheet motels, and auto supply shops.

The wisdom that is commonly repeated is that San Diego is not Los Angeles. This is said mostly in regard to the traffic, but that's really no recommendation at all, like saying the homeless problem here isn’t as bad as Calcutta’s. The freeways inspire rage even when the traffic is moving. Discourtesy is the rule of the road. The freeways force their way through canyons, jump mountains, here leapfrog yet another freeway, there swoop downward to the bay. A fascism of pavement, contemptuous of whatever terrain nature ill-advisedly placed in the way. The freeways' defenders praise them as convenient — “Really, you can get any place in no time at all,” I keep hearing. Mussolini, as we all know, kept the trains running on time. It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters.

Tourism in San Diego is another industry, and there are the traps of Seaport Village and Old Town. The former is a totally boutiqued “reconstruction” of a fishing port landscaped along the lines of a miniature golf course. Here one may sip oversized piha coladas while watching the sun set over the harbor. Old Town contains several buildings dating from the early 1800s, but they have been so successfully restored that they look as though they were built only yesterday. The bazaar offers genuine Mexican handcrafts, Guatemalan fabrics, and the best that Taiwan has to offer.

A seedy downtown, the Gaslamp district, shows promise of character, though gentrification threatens it. Horton Plaza, a vertical downtown mall, is a festive, Fellini-esque stage set of arches and balustrades, promenades and grand staircases. Architectural critics disdain such places, but people love them, though Horton Plaza has attracted among its well-heeled shoppers a Fellini-esque cast of vandals, pigeon lovers, and sailors on leave.

Northwards are the upscale, picturesque communities of La Jolla and Del Mar with their fashionable main streets, where it’s easier to buy a muffin than a muffler. La Jolla, the waterhole of the rich and glamorous in Hollywood’s heyday, has succumbed to overdevelopment but still retains some dramatic cliffs and beaches. Torrey Pines State Park is a haven to man and beast — and endangered flora as well. It’s one place that man in his wisdom has left alone.

The celebrated San Diego Zoo is located near downtown, in Balboa Park. Set on a hillside, it offers an exotic respite with its tropical landscaping and fiberglass rock faces. The animals, however, walk lethargically in circles or curl into corners. The tour guide cracks jokes about the gorilla's ugly mug and offers the beast a cookie if only it will blow her a kiss. The San Diego Wild Animal Park in the foothills north of town is not a conventional caged lock-up for animals, but a natural habitat — in human terms, the kind of prison where they send Reagan appointees.

One popular distraction is whale watching. The California grey whale undertakes a yearly migration from the chilly northern waters to the balmy sea of Mexico. Off San Diego’s coast, they pause for their rites of mating and birthing. Tour boats packed with sightseers pursue them. It’s a kind of cetacean voyeurism, a naturalist’s Forty-second Street. While kids stuff chili dogs in their faces and the seasick heave their breakfasts overboard, a tanned crew of surfers — the ads promised guided tours by marine biologists — play Ahab. A brief plume of mist is sighted. The tour boats circle closer. Two whales barely surface and then slink downward. The boats stay discreetly behind, since the whine of their engines will distract the whales off course. The whale boats, however, draw a flotilla of Sunday sailors from San Diego’s enormous pleasure fleet, and ketches and cabin cruisers crisscross every which way. The whales suddenly emerge a half mile from where they were expected.

The boats give chase. Despite the surface comedy, the whales are, as they say in California, awesome. Two rise and dive in harmony, flipping their tails on the way down. Such size, such grace. One suspects in the whales’ quiet dignity a sensible contempt for the harassing excursionists.

Am I am unfair to San Diego? Of course, of course. The posturing of the Easterner, with his vaunted culture, does make the locals a tad defensive. To demonstrate their couth, San Diego’s civic boosters are constantly promoting the museums, the theater, and the opera, though the symphony just went out of business. (Hey, things aren’t so bad. Doc Watson and the Red Clay Ramblers have been in town lately.) On any frozen day in Raleigh, you’d rather be here on the beach watching the porpoises gambol in the surf than stuffing more logs in your wood stove. But there’s more to life, folks, than scenery and climate. We’ve met several San Diegans contemplating moves to North Carolina; this is no place to raise kids, they tell us. You'll find paradise out here, genuine and ersatz, but it will cost you.

Country roads, take me home.

Comments
Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

CRSSD Festival, Art & Design Workshop: Floral Arranging

Events March 2-March 6, 2024
Next Article

Sitting On Stacy, Matte Blvck, Zack Oakley, Hexa, Jakobs Castle

Rock & roll, record release, flood benefit, and Sublime’s new lead singer
Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox Movies@Home — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close

Anchor ads are not supported on this page.