I never went to San Diego as a child. Nobody I knew did. Up into the 1970s, Phoenix's orientation was Los Angeles, and even that required a long drive across implacable desert. Part of this was due to geography. The Southern Pacific Railroad turned slightly northwest after crossing the Colorado River at Yuma and headed to LA. San Diego, although founded in 1769 and enjoying one of the finest natural harbors in the world, was initially bypassed by the railroads because of the imposing mountains and canyons to its east.
At the turn of the 20th century, sugar baron John Spreckels financed a railroad to connect the city with the SP at El Centro. It was one of the most difficult lines to engineer and build, including passage through Carrizo Gorge. Eventually, Spreckles was forced to sell the San Diego & Arizona to the SP, but the line never made much money. The Santa Fe Railway built south to the city from Los Angeles.
In high school, we took a couple of choir trips to San Diego. It was pleasant and sleepy, even though it was slightly more populous than Phoenix. Fast forward into the 1980s, and San Diego in the summer had become Phoenix West, with many thousands of Arizonans vacationing there, mobbing the place and not making friends. Advances in automobile technology and Interstate 8 had caused the big shift. By that time, I was living in San Diego and one of the first things I learned was not to tell anyone where I was from. One of my friends who knew the truth would derisively call me "Zonie Boy" when she wanted to get under my skin.
During my time in the city, it was still pleasant and sleepy. I lived in Ocean Beach, a one-of-a-kind neighborhood sitting right at the end of I-8, yet isolated from the big tourist areas north of the San Diego River, such as Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. Accountants and bikers lived side-by-side in OB. My apartment was a block and a half from the beach. At night during the summer, we could watch the fireworks from Sea World to the north. Ocean Beach was, and is, a delightful, dense and walkable district, utterly authentic, very SoCal. Nobody I knew or ran across in OB was visiting from Arizona. And those three years, during which I reported on business and regional issues, I never visited Phoenix. Indeed, I tried not to go on the other side of Interstate 5. A bumper sticker said it: "There is no life east of I-5." Part of this was also for comfort. The beach was cool. Drive "up the hill" and the temp rose. Drive inland, even to the "mesas" where vast suburban sprawl had been built, and it was hot.
My San Diego was foremost a Navy town (it still is). This was the height of the Cold War and everybody knew nukes were kept in bunkers hidden along the Point Loma Peninsula — right down the road from me. A couple of aircraft carriers and much of the Pacific fleet home ported in the bay and the Top Gun school was at Miramar Naval Air Station. (I watched as they filmed part of the movie as I ran beside the ocean every evening). The Marine Corps induction and training base was just north of one-runway Lindbergh Field and Camp Pendleton, just north of Oceanside, saved the last wild piece of Southern California coast. If World War III had come, the Soviets would have rained down many megatons on us.
It was also a Republican town. The Copley Press ran the newspapers. Former Nixon adviser Herb Klein ran local politics. Today's right-wing talker Roger Hedgecock was the city's young, surfer mayor then (the latter being ubiquitous; my managing editor was a body-board man), but his politics were not extreme. More consequential was Pete Wilson, who served as mayor from 1971 to 1983. Although a mediocre senator and disastrous governor, Wilson was a transformative mayor who set in place the progress that made San Diego the great city it is today. He started the first trolley line. He helped save and begin the turnaround of the Gaslamp Quarter, and set the stage for Horton Plaza and tax-increment financing. Downtown redevelopment followed, including a beautiful convention center. I was a Republican then myself and all this seemed in perfect harmony.
Even so, some dissonances were unmistakable. San Diego gave the feel of the most Anglo city in America, even though the city limits touch the Mexican Border. Mexican-Americans were largely hidden away and disenfranchised when I was there, the barrios ignored. The illegals slept in boxes tucked away in the arroyos beneath the mesa subdivisions and La Jolla mansions. A great read of this era is Joe Wambaugh's non-fiction Lines and Shadows. Ninety miles up the road was an alternative universe: LA.
People look at the spectacular downtown now and think it was inevitable. It wasn't. San Diego had plenty of waterfront and was a car-based, California sprawl machine. It abandoned downtown in the '60s and '70s. The newspaper moved out to Mission Valley, reflecting the view of the developers that this was where the city's future lay. The downtown waterfront was seedy and much of downtown was deserted at night and dangerous. Mission Bay was clean, safe and inviting. Hotel Circle, Jack Murphy Stadium and the malls were built in Mission Valley.
Wilson defied the Mission Valley interests, including the powerful mall moguls, to focus again on downtown. He had an invaluable ally in developer Ernest Hahn, who loved the city and believed an urban mall, considered radical at the time, would succeed. He offered to buy the initial bonds if no one else would. But Hahn was right, and Horton Plaza continues to generate the highest sales-per-unit-area in the city. Unlike Phoenix, San Diego started with a better stock of historic buildings and didn't tear them down. Most old structures have been lovingly restored. Nearby is ravishing Balboa Park. The trolley system — San Diegans embrace the term — now encompasses nearly 54 miles. Plus, the beautiful Santa Fe station downtown is home to multiple trains a day to Los Angeles on the beautiful "Surfline."
In the early 1980s, much of the county was still rural and magical. San Diego County encompasses beaches, lagoons, mud flats, pine forests, mountains and forbidding desert, including the Anza-Borrego. North County had beach villages, rich Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar, and the Marine town of Oceanside. Inland it still had plenty of agriculture. Most of East County was looked unchanged for a hundred years, with its small ranches, pastures and empty, hilly terrain. Although sleepy, the city was not without potential, especially with the University of California campus. When I left in 1986, in search of more money because in San Diego employers liked to use "sunshine dollars," it was poised to become the glamorous, high-tech colossus and oh-so-desirable city that it is today. Phoenix has more people, a questionable achievement. Beyond that, in virtually every category, Phoenix can only eat San Diego's dust.
That's my San Diego, and I was so glad to live it, day in and out, rather than just be a visitor. To face the higher costs and, before many neighborhoods became walkable and served by good transit, the hassles. To be a real homey in OB and have, for years, an OB sticker on my car. It was well worth it. But I must admit, another reason I left (and declined an offer to come back in 2000) was boredom. The weather was almost always the same. I loved the "June Gloom" and didn't have the attention span to spend endless hours at the beach.
So every summer, the refugees come from Phoenix, escaping an oven that keeps getting hotter and staying that way longer. I'm not sure they learn much, because Phoenix is stagnant and Arizona is in a retrograde move. But they have a good time. The better off own condos and boats — or the ones over their heads in debt. But remember what the San Diegans, especially the natives, really think of you even as they take your money. Although North County is kooky GOP, the city is much more diverse and progressive. Behind the easy-going vibe, they know about Arizonans and Peak Crazy. Stay classy.
Read more Phoenix history in the Phoenix 101 archive.