Before I moved to San Diego in 2007, I spent the majority of my life waiting for summer. Spring would have been fine, too, except that spring in every place I’ve ever lived is mostly inconsistent, an unpredictable combination of sun, rain, and occasionally snow as late as May. In Boise, Brooklyn, and rural Japan, summer was the only time when I was guaranteed sun, and lots of it, from one day to the next for three solid months. Back in Brooklyn, the first time I considered relocating to San Diego I chose not to in part because the average temperature never reaches 80, even in the summer. But when I finally did arrive, I discovered that I love San Diego most when I come upon a magenta-colored bougainvillea vine on a 65-degree Christmas Day, especially (and I hate to say this) when the rest of the country is hip-deep in snow.
We are, however, an adaptable species, and every now and again, I find myself caught up in the magic of HGTV’s House Hunters, a show that makes it clear how much more house my money will buy in other parts of the country. I watch the show with my iPad in my lap, browse Realtor.com, and drug myself on photos of acreage, excessive square footage, guesthouses, and exercise rooms. And then I pester my husband to make a list of where he’d be willing to move: Atlanta? Charlotte? Indianapolis? Minneapolis? Akron? Reno?
Inevitably, as my vision begins to crystalize, I can see myself in my huge master bathroom in Minneapolis, weeping because it’s January and the average high is 24 degrees Fahrenheit. Why did we leave San Diego? Why? Why? I picture myself downsizing to a studio apartment with my husband and child, our saved income going to a Get Back to San Diego ASAP fund.
In other words, when it comes down to it, on most days, I’ll take the perpetual sunshine over square footage. But over the years, I’ve run into people who are packing up and getting the hell out of San Diego because the weather isn’t enough to keep them here. Some find themselves unable or unwilling to continue paying the “sunshine tax.” Others have more surprising reasons why San Diego is no longer a place they want to call home.
Everything is nine miles away.
Goin' back to Bremerton
Mindi Post and her family talk about life in San Diego versus life in Bremerton, Washington.
In 2011, Mindi and Trey Post moved to San Diego from Bremerton, Washington, with two of their daughters, Kaylee and Madison, who were 17 and 14 at the time. Before the move, Trey worked as a shipfitter waterfront supervisor at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. When he saw that a three-year position for a shipfitter trade instructor had opened up at the North Island Naval Base in Coronado, he decided to apply. As soon as word came that he got the job, the Posts packed up their two youngest daughters, their belongings, and their two dogs and headed south.
“We took the job for the sun,” Mindi Post tells me.
We’re seated at the kitchen table in the La Mesa home the family has rented for the past three years. A large Dutch oven filled with roast beef simmers on the stove, permeating the house with the scent of beef broth and French onion soup.
Mindi sits across from me in jeans and a v-neck shirt bearing Caribbean colors that rival the bright blue of her eyes. A grandmother at 43, at first glance, Mindi bears the tired posture of a woman two decades her senior. But after a few minutes with her in her home, details begin to emerge that suggest a barely concealed wild side. One: the dainty eyebrow piercing on her left side. Two: the sticker hanging on the refrigerator alongside handprints and scribbles from her two-year-old granddaughter. The sticker reads: “Polite as Fuck.”
She also makes a mean cup of coffee.
Back in Bremerton, Mindi had some trouble with depression and psoriasis, both of which she and Trey figured could be diminished, if not eliminated, by the San Diego sunshine. Mindi looked forward to the change, but the girls weren’t happy about leaving their friends.
“At first, the girls were really upset. They were, like, ‘God, you’re so mean to us,” Mindi says, dramatizing the moment with a hiss and a sour face. She follows it up with a smoker’s laugh that fills the small kitchen. Kaylee, their middle child, now 19, who has the day off from her job at SeaWorld today, pads into the room barefoot and hushes us. She has just put her two-year-old niece down for a nap. Then she grabs a water bottle from the refrigerator, leaves the way she came, and settles down with a book on a couch just beyond the kitchen doorway.
After the girls settled into their new lives at Grossmont High, the family made the most of the move, taking advantage of the weather as often as possible.
“We probably went [to the beach] three or four times a week,” she says. “We explored everywhere we could.”
Trey’s new job had its advantages and disadvantages. Although the position normally paid less per hour than what Trey made in Bremerton, he was able to keep his hourly supervisor’s rate. On the other hand, as an instructor, he did not have the option of working overtime, whereas back in Bremerton, he was worked as many as 20 overtime hours per week. So, even though his hourly rate remained the same after the move, his take-home pay decreased.
And the money didn’t go very far. The Posts pay $1700 a month to rent their 1100-square-foot house in La Mesa.
“For $1700, in Bremerton, I could get a 2400-square-foot house. You can get way more there,” she says. “And your cost of electricity is way higher here than it is there. When we first moved here, we didn’t even have air conditioning, and we were paying, like, $125 a month. At home, in the summertime, electric is, like, $20, $25, and gas is, like, $50. Here, it’s $100-plus every bill cycle.”
The money Trey brought home had to go even further when Hannah, their oldest daughter, moved down with her now–two-year-old daughter Teagan. Mindi shakes her head and half in jest, says, “We need people to grow up and get out.”
Kaylee leans in from the couch and calls, “Hey! I work. I contribute!”
Mindi nods in reluctant affirmation, and when I make a comment about Kaylee’s cute and bubbly personality, Mindi whispers conspiratorially, “It’s a lie.”
After the first year, the novelty of living in San Diego wore off, and despite sunshine and access to the beaches, Mindi’s daily life began to feel more cumbersome than she was accustomed to.
“Here, the joke is that everything is nine miles away,” she says. “Where we used to live, it’s a small town, you drive three minutes to the store and all your shopping was there.”
In May this year, Trey’s three-year contract ended. He applied for a supervisor’s position at North Island, one that would keep the family in town indefinitely, but he was turned down. And although he could probably have filled a similar opening with the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center, it was a contract position, and he didn’t want to risk leaving his federal job for a potentially less-secure employer. So, he applied for, and secured, a position back in Bremerton. So, the Post family will head back to Washington within the year. “We’ll have more money there to actually do things,” Mindi says.
She’ll also be glad to get back to her family and friends. She has found the social atmosphere in San Diego less friendly than back home. In the past three years, she’s made a couple of good friends, but she doesn’t have much of a relationship with her neighbors.
“In Bremerton, people come out of their houses and meet you in your driveway to chitchat. You see them in the grocery store, at Costco, wherever. It’s more friendly,” she says. “Here, it’s a lot more self-absorption, I want to say.”
Mindi has a list of things she’s looking forward to on her return to Bremerton: a renewed social life (“I want to get that niceness back.”), dinners out with the whole family rather than the occasional sneak-away with her husband because they can’t afford to take the whole family out, “go[ing] to Costco and not have to stretch everything out,” and eventually buying a new house.
“We can’t afford to buy a house here,” she says. “I mean, your little tiny houses are going for $350,000 to $400,000. There, you can still get something you like around $250,000.”
The sunshine will be hard to leave, but Mindi has a plan to address that particular issue.
“I told my husband, ‘If we go back, you have to take me once a year somewhere hot, sunny, and warm,’” she says.
So, does she imagine that any of those vacations will land her back in San Diego?
Mindi smiles at me non-committedly.
“She likes Hawaii,” Kaylee calls from the other room.
“Yeah, I do,” Mindi admits, and though she doesn’t say so, I get the feeling that her love affair with San Diego is officially over.
The biggest hurdle the Post family faces regarding the move is how and when to tell their youngest daughter, Madison, who will not only have to leave in her senior year of high school but will also have to part with her first-ever boyfriend.
I never thought I wasn’t hot.
Like the Posts, when my sister-in-law Asante came to live in San Diego in 2005, she did so with visions of living an easy life in the sunshine and possibly reenacting a summer she’d spent here in 1998.
That first time, Asante had come from New Orleans to take an intensive massage course. She was in her 20s at the time, living on money she had saved, and she spent those carefree weeks residing in Mission Beach, riding her bike to and from massage school. It was, she tells me over the phone, “a massage beach life.”
When the class ended, she went back to New Orleans for a while, spent some time in New York, and bounced around for a few years. She was just getting settled in New Orleans and commencing a time-to-get-a-serious-job search when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke. That was August 2005. Asante evacuated with eight other family members and watched the city flood from a hotel room in Alabama.
From there, she headed to Southern California with her brother.
“I knew that Atlanta and Houston were going to be hell on earth. I wasn’t going to go north because I’m a sunny girl,” she laughs. “So, Southern California. I’m going to the beach.”
For the first few months, they floated around, untethered by long-range plans and uncertain whether they’d be happier in Los Angeles or San Diego. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, they chose San Diego in late September 2005.
“We were house-sitting in L.A. thinking, It’s just too intense here, and Venice Beach was ridiculously expensive,” she says. “We were just mentally traumatized, and we wanted low key.”
They lived rent-free for about two months in an apartment on A Street in Golden Hill before they put down a deposit on a two-bedroom condo rental in City Heights. In addition to working part-time managing her author/activist father’s readings and speaking engagements, she worked temporary part-time jobs at FedEx and the convention center until, in the early 2007, she landed a full-time gig as an event planner at the Thomas Jefferson Law School. It paid somewhere around $35,000 per year (she doesn’t recall the exact number).
“It started going downhill from there,” she says. “I hated my job at the law school, for various reasons. Let’s just say I didn’t see a future for myself there.”
It wasn’t only the job that made this second stint in San Diego the ugly-sister version of the “massage beach life.” When her brother’s soon-to-be wife (me) moved in to their place in City Heights, Asante moved out and got herself a little one-bedroom ground-floor apartment somewhere in the gray area between Hillcrest and University Heights.
“The apartment that I could afford by myself on the job that I could get was just nasty,” she says. “Tan and ugly, and the shower wasn’t draining properly. It was infested with ants. It was the kind of stuff that’s built for rental and not for experiencing joy.”
Although she doesn’t recall the exact amount she paid in rent, she does remember it was higher than her half of the $1600 rent she’d paid in City Heights. She estimates it between $950 and $1100.
In the spring of 2008, Asante went back to New Orleans for a visit, and when she returned to San Diego, she gave 30 days’ notice to her landlord and her employer and jumped ship. Today, she lives in a comparably sized (and better kept) apartment on the West Bank in New Orleans, for which she paid $750 a month for six years. The rent recently went up to $800. She also has a $53,000-a-year job managing outreach for the mayor’s office of cultural economy.
But Asante makes it clear that even more than the crappy job (she could always find another one) and the disgusting apartment (again, temporary), what eventually drove her out of San Diego was the social scene. As a vivacious single woman with no children and no family nearby, her social life was an important part of her well-being. But the “village” she sought to create for herself proved elusive in San Diego.
“I don’t think ever in my time in San Diego did I feel socially at home,” she says.
She made “great job-friends,” at all three of her jobs, found a friend outside of work who also liked to go salsa dancing downtown, and even hit it off with some people originally from New Orleans, a connection that eventually led to her participation in an art show in Hillcrest where she sold $3000 worth of her own work. But those disparate relationships neither grew legs nor spread to encompass a network.
Granted, she was only here two and a half years, and it would be unfair to compare that brief experience here to decades spent in her hometown. But Asante doesn’t believe it was just a matter of time. She makes it clear that she’s comparing her experience to time spent not only in New Orleans but also in New York City and Santa Fe.
“I had a village experience in Santa Fe. Yes, it was white and isolated, and I was, like, I need more urban activity in my life, but I didn’t leave for lack of village,” she says. “And in New York, I didn’t create a new village, but I could find enough places on my own where the village was clearly alive and well, and I knew that if I invested in it, it would happen.”
But here in San Diego, she got the feeling that if she ever did find it, her “village experience would always be watery and unfulfilling.”
And the dating scene? A drag.
Asante once went on one of those you-should-date-my-other-black-friend blind dates.
“[The date] told me I was the first black woman he had been on a good date with, and he had to be in his late 30s,” she recalls. “I was, like, ‘Are you f*ing kidding?’”
During her time in San Diego, Asante estimates that she had three dates, “And that might be stretching it.” Since she’s been in New Orleans, she won’t even attempt to count the number of dates she’s been on, but they have included three semi-serious relationships. “I mean, it’s not raining men or anything, and it’s not like I’ve met ‘the one,’” she says.
But leaving San Diego was not just about the number of dates she got. It was also that the experience she had here lacked a general sense of visibility and connection to the community. “The general aesthetic is a skinny white bleach-blonde girl, and I’m not the hot aesthetic in San Diego,” she says. “I was not necessarily happy with my life in New York, and I was not thrilled necessarily with my life in New Mexico, but I didn’t feel in those two places that I wasn’t hot.”
She tells the story of how, when she and her brother first arrived in town, they had a joke between them that the people who would speak to them must not be from San Diego.
In New Orleans, she says, engagement is the way of things.
“It starts at the airport, even when I haven’t arrived completely,” she says. “Hotness is not just about guys coming on to you; it’s about how babies flirt with you, it’s just the interpersonal dynamic of things in general. I always felt like, sure I could find a date in San Diego, and it would be real nice and nothing wrong, but not comfortable.”
Can’t stay. Can’t stay away.
Recently, I had girls’ night at my house. My girlfriends and I drank and laughed and gossiped about Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Bill and Hillary, and, yes, I admit, Kanye and Kim. We cooked, ate, played games, and got loud. I thought about Asante when, at one point during the evening, my head swimming with drink, I looked at my girlfriends and thought, proudly, It’s about damn time. I don’t invite just anyone into my inner circle, and it took me several years to assemble a posse worthy of the term “posse.”
In the first few years of my new life in San Diego, I used up a good deal of energy wishing for two impossible things: 1) that my husband would make more of an effort to be my loverman and simultaneously fill a void that’s since been filled by my girlfriends; and 2) that I could move the San Diego sunshine to other parts of the world, so I could have my bougainvillea-filled Christmases as well as all the edgy Brooklyn or jazzy New Orleans I desired.
Sure, yes, there are those who get to have everything they want by living part-time in one city and part-time in another. And while that may be ideal (I’d spend winters and summers in San Diego, springs in New Orleans, and, what the hell, autumns in Paris, if I could), it requires quite a bit more dough than most of us can save with a combination of San Diego income (12.3% above the nation’s average) and San Diego cost of living (29.2% higher than the nation’s average).
I’m sure there are others like me out there who spend at least a little bit of time creating imaginary mix-and-match cities in their minds, but there are also populations of people who create mix-and-match lives between San Diego and Tijuana.
For Gaby Escobedo, where she resides at any given time is a matter of shifting priorities. Sometimes it’s about money or accessibility to family. Other times, education takes center stage.
In 2012, when Escobedo was my daughter’s preschool teacher, she moved back to Tijuana after 13 years in Chula Vista, where she and her family had been living since the 1999 kidnapping of her brother.
Escobedo’s youngest daughter, Natalia, attended Sacred Heart Parish school in Coronado since kindergarten. Her oldest daughter went to Coronado High School.
“It’s really expensive to live here,” the 43-year-old teacher tells me, her soft-looking round face bedazzled with bright red lipstick.
Escobedo and her husband and youngest daughter (the oldest had gone to law school in DC) traded their three-bedroom, three-bath home in Chula Vista for a tight apartment in Zona Rio, a move that saved the $1800 a month in living expenses. “At first it was kind of scary for [Natalia] because she was raised here,” Escobedo says. “At first she didn’t like anything. She said, ‘I don’t like TV in Mexico. I don’t like this. I don’t like that.’ But then a month later, she was different. She was, like, ‘Wow, I love it here.’”
Escobedo isn’t sure if Natalia loved being in Mexico in particular or if she’s just an adaptable child who, after a transitional period, went back to her old happy ways.
As for Escobedo, she enjoyed living in Mexico again, particularly because of the people, whom she describes as “more like family.” But the move added a new layer of stress to her life.
“We had less time,” says Escobedo, who kept her job at the private pre-school in Eastlake and kept Natalia in her private school in Coronado.
Every morning, Escobedo had to be up by 5:30 to get to the border by 6:10, where her SENTRI pass helped her cross within 15 minutes, although the occasional delays caused 45-minute waits. From there, she’d drive Natalia to Coronado and then drive the 19 miles to Eastlake for an 8:00 a.m. start time. In the afternoons, Natalia would catch a ride to Eastlake and they’d head back to Tijuana together at 6:00.
That routine lasted a year.
“It was ridiculous,” Escobedo says. “It was so time-consuming. It was killing me. I was so tired. It was too much for me, and I didn’t have time to spend with my daughters.”
The family now lives in San Diego again.
They found a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Coronado, within walking distance of the public high school Natalia will attend this fall. This time, they’ve traded a $300 rental apartment for an $1100 rental. And, contrary to what one might think, the other costs of her living haven’t changed that much.
“To tell you the truth, I think I get cheaper stuff over here than I do in Mexico because they have better sales over here,” she says. “In Mexico, you don’t have that many sales, even going to the department stores. You never get a deal like a three-dollar shirt. Never. Or the quality. For groceries, it’s just about the same.”
Restaurants, however, are a much better deal in Mexico, she says. “They have nice restaurants, and they want to be on top with everything, it’s really nice, and it’s cheap. Better prices.”
To offset the higher cost of housing, Escobedo and her family do much of their dining out in Tijuana.
Escobedo grew up in Tijuana, and San Diego has been a part of her life since childhood. The whole mix-and-match thing is nothing new for her.
“Half of our life is done here,” she says. “In Tijuana, everyone does that. Half of their life is done here.”
Each city has its own pluses and minuses. Tijuana has the familiar community she grew up with, as well as the cheaper restaurants. And in San Diego, Natalia can walk to school on her own, which Escobedo would never be comfortable with in Tijuana.
In San Diego, she says, “Everything is more clean. And people respect traffic lights, stop lights. Over there [in Tijuana] it’s just crazy.”
But Escobedo didn’t come back for the respect of traffic lights. In truth, she came back for the schooling. She wanted Natalia to attend Coronado High School, but she had to be within the district to do so.
“A lot of people think that the schooling over here is not as good as it is in Mexico, which I don’t believe,” she says. “My daughters have both excelled better than the kids I know in Mexico — in everything.”
In four years, when Natalia graduates, Escobedo plans to move back to Mexico. Her parents are in the process of doing so now. Last year, they began to build a house in Hacienda Agua Caliente.
“They can get help for way cheaper there,” she says. “For instance, my dad is getting old, so they’re going to hire a nurse.”
Escobedo does not envision herself staying in Coronado after Natalia graduates. She plans to follow her parents, not only to be near family, but also because she’s tired of renting.
She plans to build a house in Tijuana, which she hopes to have paid off in five to ten years. But that doesn’t mean she’ll stay in Tijuana for good. Ideally, she’d like her future grandchildren to attend schools in San Diego, and if that means moving the family back across the border, even temporarily, well then, so be it.