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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 P.B. boardwalk, La Jolla Shores, Black’s. I sat in my room listening to the wind howl outside and imagined myself in Seagrove Park at 15th 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 clichéd 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 ambience 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.

* * *

Reentering 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 60 mph 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. Grannies were passing me! Winnebagos! I tried to keep pace, but the old Ghia wasn’t up to it. I gave up at 70, and I was still being left in the dust.

That was only the first shock. I fought my way to I-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?

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 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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