So let’s admit / no setting is stable
— Mark Wallace, End of America Book One
port of apocalypto
— Steven Farmer, SEASIDESICK
What am I doing here? How many people wake up in San Diego thinking exactly that? How many wake up thinking, Thank god I’m in San Diego. I grew up in Los Angeles and have spent the last three decades living in the Bay Area, but over the past four years I find myself sifting through the bottom of the bag more and more often, for longer and longer stretches of time. My formerly East Coast, urbanite boyfriend lives here, and he’s not leaving: he’s a writer, he’s tenured. It’s a decent gig, they don’t come often; he could have done worse.
Against my will, and against my expectation, I find I like it here.
San Diego: “always sunny and 72°,” home to 1.4 million people and (soon) 60 percent of the US Naval Fleet, the second largest city in California and the eighth largest in the country, where the median price for a home is over half a million dollars, and the median income for a family of four is $63,400. 1 Yet from end to end it feels like a sleepy village, a hazy dreamscape onto which anything can be — and is — projected. My student tells me if she had to pick a single color to describe San Diego, it would be beige. What hides beneath what sleeps? Something, nothing.
San Diego’s always been easy to malign; but the endlessly unfurling line of sunny boosterism endemic to San Diego’s civic self-image is all wrong also. When it comes to considering “America’s Finest City”, the national imagination sways between two poles: paradisiacal invention of temperate waves, fresh-fish tacos, and soft sand; or, cultureless void, psychologies sun-dulled into a blank embrace of his-n-hers wax-n-tan salons, stucco sprawl, and the artisanal F/A-18 Hornet.
I take hot, quiet walks when I am here, and try to see the landscape. It is not easy. One spends a lot of time blinking against the bright light, shading eyes under hats and behind dark glasses.
Blink. I began by speaking about the city, but what we think of when we think of San Diego, depicted as expanse of beach and military, is more properly the 4,500 square miles of the county, whose edges kiss Orange and Riverside counties to the north, seventy miles of coastline to the west, abut the Imperial Valley to the east — and, of course, meet Mexico at the south. And the 3.3 million people who live in it.
Correction: I am a (white) speck standing inside the San Diego-Tijuana conurbation, a land area of approximately 6,000 square miles, with nearly five million residents, the fourth-largest bi-national conurbation in the world, and the second-largest in the US, after Detroit-Windsor. The San Ysidro Port of Entry at San Diego-Tijuana — where more than fifty million people pass through the border gates each year on their way to work, to shop, to play (in both directions) — is the most-trafficked crossing on the planet. 2
This cross-national fact pervades all aspects of life in “San Diego.” Not just a border town; a border county. (A border country?)
And yet, San Diego’s often referred to as a geographical cul-de-sac, where the high mountains to the east and the border to the south create a physical and psychological lock-in-place. Cul-de-sac: a dead end, a deadlock, literally, the bottom of the bag. Says who?
When I stay in San Diego, I stay with my partner in Golden Hill, on an actual hill above downtown, whose slopes and inclines afford views of the bay to the west and south. Once the home of socialites and philanthropists, then in long decline as haven for junkies, dealers, and of course, artists, Golden Hill is now about one-third of the way through its “urban-revitalization.” It is bordered on one side by largely Latinx Sherman Heights/Barrio Logan, home to Chicano Park, and on the other by picaresque South Park, quiet, expensive, pretty, and pretty white. Bay Area residents would feel at home wandering Golden Hill’s blocks of Victorian mansions, Craftsman bungalows, and multi-decade representations of apartment complexes in various stages of upkeep or decay. The current fashion in building, though, is for high-priced, small-scale condos (“Starting in the low $500s!!”).
I’ve located myself, I know “where I am,” but it feels sensationally, essentially, placeless.
Street names, all called after other places: Arizona, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania. Uninventively named Ocean Beach nests beaches within beaches: avenues called by the names of other beaches. Newport, Narragansett, Saratoga, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Pescadero, Bermuda. Infinite displacement. Signs point elsewhere, the same as nowhere.
Like LA, San Diego’s hot, it sprawls. But not as hot, and the sprawl is uneager, tepidly accepting of, even pleased with, itself. To the west, the sparkling sea, and to the east, waves of expensive tract housing punctuated with low-slung shopping plazas crowded with corporate chains. Post-place USA? Along the coast, each in a string of seaside villages — first increasing and then decreasing in wealth concentration from south to north — has its own distinct flavor of blowsy undercurrent.
This “city of villages” is a net or concatenation of communities built on mesas, regularly separated by canyons, crevasses, the occasional waterway or stream — and often, freeways — and these light divisions create personality and economic boundaries between them. Hillcrest, North Park, East Village (in the city), or El Cajon, Del Mar, Santee (around the county). Traveling between them, or braked for a minute at the top of a hill, I’m always sensing myself on an edge — of something. Shore, skyline, precipice, border, cliff. Of understanding? The views are often grand or sweeping, but they don’t seem to send back “possibility.” The sky in San Diego is just the sky.
But I’m no stranger to this place. I lived in San Diego the year I turned nineteen. We’d drive to the edge of Mexico, park the car, walk through the gated turnstiles, and hail a taxi to a nightclub in the center of Tijuana. It was common practice: flocks of under-twenty-one San Diegans spent weekend nights drinking, kissing, dancing, puking in the streets of Tijuana. I feel sure this is still the same, though it’s been more than thirty years since I was one of them. My earliest notebook — I threw away my childhood diaries — is dated April 4, 1987. The first page says I rode in a car with a kid who’d been stabbed in Tijuana — we were coming back across the border from a party night. Keith was holding him up, carrying him? Keith’d found the kid in the street? Or he saw this kid get knifed and tried to help him? My friends and I saw them on a corner, Keith with one arm under the kid’s shoulder, dragging him forward. We went together like that all the way over the border. We’d gone to Tijuana and been separated. I mean, Keith was one of us. Who was that boy? He was holding his arm across his gut. Did I see him bleed? We all got into a car, how did we? — Who was driving? Who cut him? Did he fight someone? — We drove to an emergency room — where? Across the border. Why didn’t we take him to hospital in Mexico? It must have taken hours to get across and the boy was bleeding. I remember how pale he was in the car, remember Keith cradling him, whispering to him, telling him — something? Hold on? That he’d be ok? The rest of us (who?) stayed in the car, scared — hiding? — when Keith walked him in to emergency. I remember Keith breaking down in the car after, and holding his hand, and I remember we found out later that the boy had died. None of us knew him. And though I can dimly picture Keith, and my notebook tells me that a few weeks on I fancied myself in love with him, I can’t remember who he is anymore either.
I lost my virginity a few months later, also on the other side of the border, in a motel next to a disco in Rosarito Beach, thirty minutes south of Tijuana. Flickering red and blue lights illuminating the room, just like in a movie. I still have the paper tag we hung on the door: Por favor, no molestar.
Shara, a poet and Marine Veteran, says, “I think of San Diego as a shining city. I’ve never lived there but it has this elevated status to me… shining [meaning] opportunities for all and a beautiful harbor with sailboats and aircraft carriers sharing the water. An inspiring combination for me.”
(“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”)
The “shining city upon the hill” — I’d forgotten why it sounded so familiar.
Retirees and invalids, margarita- or beer-drenched drifters, yogis and transcendental meditation addicts, real estate agents, biotech execs, personal trainers, sailors, and a multiplicity of immigrants both international and domestic — and still somehow not a city of dreams. Or, a “city of broken dreams” (Mike Davis). A city of dreamless sleep, with sunny days spent ambulating dream-slow through the enervating heat.
Approximately 110,700 active duty service members (split between the Navy and the Marine Corps) and 118,300 family members live in San Diego, the largest concentration of military personnel in the nation. They make up 7.6 percent of the county’s total population.
The military and military spending accounted for 26 percent of the jobs in San Diego in 2011.
San Diego is home to the second oldest and third largest LGBT Community Center in the US.
Military veterans make up more than 13 percent of the population of San Diego County. There are 240,000 veterans in San Diego.
San Diego veterans are younger and better educated than the national average. Thirty-five percent of San Diego-area veterans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
San Diego County has 492 species of bird on record, more than any other county in the country.
The irony of this no-place place: San Diego’s coming into being was always about a stake in place: the blinking beacon of property, a gate of land in a fist, a giant parcel of Real Estate to be endlessly recut and traded. 3 But landscape capital’s fungible as sand — you hoist a fistful and it runs out your fingers as easily. House-flipping’s a popular pastime here — time-honored hobby, side gig; a perfectly respectable full-time occupation. So is the role of staging-agent: weekender interior decorators lure prospective home-buyers with quality quotidian visions no one will take possession of or live in; the kit always packed up to reinstall elsewhere for the next prospectus.
Even the appellation “America’s Finest City”: an overt, and vengeful, invention 4, dreamed up in 1972 by then-Mayor Pete Wilson’s PR team, when the Republican National Committee reneged on their promise to host the RNC in San Diego. (Nixon was afraid the city was too porous to protesters, so the convention was held in Miami.) San Diego responded with a massive, multi-tiered week-long civic event — including a marathon, a parade, an outdoor concert, Navy demonstrations, and “ethnic festivals” — hailed as a celebration of, yes, “America’s Finest City,” and staged the same week as the RNC, drawing national media attention the Repubs might have wished was theirs alone. Now the sobriquet even graces the masthead, as motto, of San Diego’s major paper of record, the right-leaning San Diego Union-Tribune. (Actually, the masthead reads: “The World’s Greatest Country and America’s Finest City.”)
A long walk. The rose I stop to sniff has no fragrance. Dead hula-hoops clutter the curb, crushed cases of Peachy Canyon in the gutter. Miles inland it still feels like a beach town. The pace is ambling. Cut-offs, board shorts, strappy sandals (on all the genders). Inland? Maybe I meant “downtown.” Itself only paces from the water.
Even the very heart of downtown — still relishing, and on weekends reliving, its iniquitous history as a shore-leave fuck-and-brawl spot — is decidedly un-urban, decidedly not-urbane.
The regularly lamented dearth of “intellectual life” here can’t be entirely true, no matter how often it’s repeated; higher education is big business in San Diego. But any traction around intellectual discourse in public life is somehow difficult to locate, to walk in to, to surface. Worse, it’s difficult to generate. Unlike LA, SF, Chicago, or places like Austin or Minneapolis or Durham, a deepening discourse around the arts, culture — and it might be said, politics — simply does not gain much of public traction here. Not absent, but not pervasive either.
Blink, and the Super Hornet disappears.
Drive-thru banking, drive-thru dry-cleaning. Driving to the camping superstore through a brown summer smog with a friend, I say, Maybe the driving is so bad here because people don’t want to see how ugly it is, so they just don’t look. My friend says, “Maybe they don’t think it’s ugly and they prefer it. Don’t have to walk anywhere, everyone’s white.” But everyone’s not white here, I say. “And they don’t like it,” he says.
City of San Diego: 28.3% Hispanic, 16% Asian and Pacific Islander, 6.9% Black, 4% “Other”. Below 1% American Indian, 44.5% White. 5
San Diego County: 32% Hispanic or Latino, 13% “Some other race,” 10% Asian, 5% “Two or more races,” 5% Black or African American, Below 1% American Indian, Below 1% Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander, Below 1% Native Hawaiian, Below 1% Alaska Native tribes, 64% White. 6
“[San Diego is] still a place that has a very strong, very active activist Chicano community,” Jerrold says, “It’s still a place where one lives under the shadow of the military, but can still not be spiritually subsumed by that.” And, “I notice that much of the complaints about San Diego have to do with shit white people in San Diego do.”
In LA there’s an angry camaraderie when you’re stuck in a traffic snarl, in Oakland there’s traffic chill. In San Diego you sense your isolation. Windows up, AC on. When the traffic sails, same. The sense of “nowhere” to go is palpable. The next place is as non-place as the place you just came from. Is this a bad thing? You float. In a light sea of cars, on a multilane highway skirting the shimmering ocean on a gentle plateau, sky dotted with clouds, or with colored balloons, hills gridded with houses; it’s easy to feel both alienated and at home, the landscape is so familiar, so foreign. Its unfathomability seems closer to reality. We think we can understand the world? San Diego’s diffuseness highlights the impossibility. World as haze. Blink.
Potted plants hanging on outdoor walls — like living walls, but not exactly. More often they’re plastic plants in plastic pots, plastic “living” walls. A friend says, “that’s what we have here instead of culture.”
But. Carefully tended, lush and graceful native gardens, growing palm, manzanita, bougainvillea, narrowleaf milkweed, sugarbush, orange desert mallow, white sage, succulents of every species. And the scrub oak, Yankee point, California fuchsia…
And. On sand near water I remember how extraordinary it is to be in form, a person in a body, alive, right now. And perishing, right now. Like the planet. Blink.
James says, “it’s a city of appearances but nothing substantive appears,” but that’s not quite it. Everything appears, and is immediately swept off, swallowed, simulacra’d. I’d prove it to you, but I can’t. I used to understand, for example, the Hotel del Coronado, where Some Like It Hot was filmed and Marilyn ran jiggily-ly across the sand. The Del had old-ghost appeal, creaking wooden structure listing against the sun, draped in ferns, crystal chandeliers, and wood-paneled ballrooms. But when we take Sue down for a visit, the Victorian resort’s been expanded, exploded, it spills over its pants and fudges down the beach in elephantine restaurants with travertine fire pits and outdoor bars, imitation mini-Victorians for additional nightly rents, paint-n-sip classes spread out across the plastic lawn. It’s so very Death in Venice, but the gentleman’s bar has been torn out and replaced with a golf shirt shop. On the beach someone’s finishing a perfect replica of the original hotel, in sand, just as the tide comes in to lick it. The sun is going down, we buy expensive drinks in plastic cups, turn our backs to the monstrous hotel and forget about it: so fucking gorgeous — sunset is all. “Bring out the fiddlers,” Mark says.
San Diego is the number one destination for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
One quarter of Iraqi refugees to the US settle in San Diego.
There are approximately 60,000 Iraqi Chaldeans living in El Cajon, in San Diego’s east county.
The Women’s Museum of California is one of only three stand-alone women’s history museums in the country. It was founded in 1983 as the Women’s History Reclamation Project, in Mary Maschal’s living room in Golden Hill; recent exhibition titles include Marching Toward Empowerment — Suffrage and the First Wave of Feminism and Heroines in Arms: Women of the American Military.
Snow has been observed five times in the 150 years that records have been kept in San Diego.
Historically Republican, San Diego voted red in presidential elections from 1948 through 2004, with one exception. The county voted twice for Obama. And for Clinton in 2016.
San Diego has accepted roughly half of the Syrian refugees who have settled in California.
The climate is categorized as semi-arid Mediterranean. The highest high: 111°F. The lowest low: 25°.
The median age skews young: 34.9. (San Francisco: 38.5. New York: 35.8. National median: 37.8.)
On average San Diego sees twenty-one days with some precipitation. National average: 110.
But dry does not mean sunny. Many days this world is barely visible under the beige haze of low-lying clouds settling around the middles of the highest buildings, which anyway max at only thirty-four floors, to protect the jet-line into the landing strip cuddling the edge of the bay. Does any other major city’s only airport land its supersonic tourist carts directly over a bustling Little Italy, roaring just inches over acres of residences and craft breweries crowding each other into the sandbars?
“I heard once that San Diego has more NGOs per capita than any other city in the country,” my brother, who has worked in politics here, says. “Tocqueville’s dream. Or is it nightmare?”
San Diego has no cover, no face, or is simultaneously all face. Which?
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and native San Diegan Rae Armantrout famously, unpopularly, wrote that San Diego has no charisma, is blank. That’s put unkindly perhaps, but it’s not all wrong. She also points to the odd quiet, the deep silence beneath whatever aggressive hum. Let’s call it the somnolent subconscious / the deeply sedimented unconscious — the veneer is thin here; you can feel it.
In fact, one isn’t any one here. One’s an atom, roasting in the sun.
“Perhaps living in San Diego prepares you to become a Buddhist,” writes Rae.
Diffuse, fuzzy around the edges, thick. My mind feels like that too, sometimes — it takes longer to shake itself awake. Is it the heat, the sun-glaze, is it in the water?
During a long, overcast afternoon Jeanine takes me on a campus walking tour of “radical UCSD,” showing me sites and narrating both deep and recent history of on-campus protest and activism. The C.H.E. Cafe, with its murals of Angela Davis, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Karl Marx, Malcolm X, and the acre of collectively managed vegetable garden behind it. The plaza at Revelle College where George Winne Jr. self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam War, the Groundwork Books Collective, the Lumumba-Zapata Collective, and buildings occupied during recent wage and tuition protests. And yet the utter stillness of the pleasant stretch of grass we’re standing in. The stones we’re leaning against while we chat are part of artist Richard Fleischner’s La Jolla Project (1984). The blocks of granite are arranged carefully on the grass around “an empty center,” a kind of deconstruction site whose elements “refer to architectural vocabulary […] with allusions ranging from an ancient ruin to the contemporary construction site.”
San Diego’s Latin motto: Semper Vigilans — “Ever Vigilant”.
The whole of the region a soft sign, winking you to sleep. / wake up / to sleep / wake up
In 2016, 34.9 million tourists visited San Diego, spending 10.4 billion dollars.
San Diego is the most biologically rich county in the continental US. And the most threatened, with nearly 200 at-risk animals and plants.
Western snowy plover, coastal cactus wren, California gnatcatcher, least Bell’s vireo, arroyo southwestern toad, Stephens’ kangaroo rat, San Diego fairy shrimp, Quino checkerspot butterfly, San Diego thornmint, Dehesa beargrass, coastal sage scrub, Engelmann oak woodlands…
Seventy-four percent of ex-offenders return to prison within two years of release, in San Diego. The state average is sixty-five.
Autobiography of a Yogi, “the book that changed the lives of millions,” was penned by Paramahansa Yogananda at his Self‑Realization Fellowship ashram and retreat center in Encinitas, in North San Diego County. Ashtanga Yoga, the practice that changed the lives of millions, also had its US nativity scene in Encinitas, when K. Pattabhi Jois arrived here in 1975.
If my thesis is that the city is ungraspable, neither the sum of its parts or possible to glimpse in prism, this not-place-ness must be the prize/prison of manifest destiny become the end of history.
Jim Miller, in Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See: “cul-de-sac also means, finally and most poignantly, a situation in which further progress is impossible.”
On the other hand, says who? At the lift, box, and cycle gym I go to when I’m here, people chat, they say hi. I’m on the floor doing crunches while the Counting Crows song “Mr. Jones” is blasting over the deck. Suddenly I’m experiencing liberation — from every high-urban fantasy I ever had for or of myself.
Near the crest of a hill, up the block from a café I frequent, there’s a large pink stucco apartment building in a vaguely Spanish-modern style, trimmed in white. Someone’s installed a red-letter electronic ticker on the side of this building at its highest point, and programs it to spit out philosophic citations from Lao Tzu, Sophocles, “Anonymous”… From their perch on the hill the flickering banners appear to headline the city. For example: Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall — Confucius, spelled out one letter at a time.
I puzzle a long time over this enigmatic line, dropped out of context and attributed to G.K. Chesterton, poet, theologian, philosopher, overt anti-Semite, and father of the Father Brown mysteries: Do not try to bend, any more than the trees try to bend… Try to grow straight, and life will bend you.
Red-letter warnings, invitations to unsubtle visions, and confusing mandates to the individual overcasting her gaze on the sparkling bay, the seventeen construction cranes hovering over downtown, and the freeways, distantly humming, palm trees swaying in the too-bright light, hand on forehead shielding eyes. Blink, blink, blink.
Compare: Oakland: $685,000/$52,962. Los Angeles: $550,000/$55,909. San Francisco $1.5m/$77,734. (Note: Statistics to follow here have been drawn from a number of online sources.)
For more on cross-border living, especially the view from the Tijuana side, this conversation is excellent.
For a riveting account of the robber/real estate/developer-baron history of San Diego, see Mike Davis’s excellent essay, “The Next Little Dollar” in Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See (Davis, Mayhew, Miller; The New Press; 2003).
According to the Public Relations Society of America, anyway: http://prsasdic.org/about/accomplishments/americas-finest-city/