Growing up in Los Angeles, San Diego (long known as “America’s Finest City,” but the first I heard of that in my life was Thursday evening from those a cappella singers you see at left) was a place we didn’t go to very often. There was the time we went to Vacation Village and my dad beached the rental sailboat in Mission Bay, and the time I drove down to Rosarito Beach in the 12th grade with a couple of friends in a vain attempt to convince ourselves we were wild American high school kids (I remember drinking a lot of Mirinda orange soda). And a couple of other short, unmemorable visits. (On one of them, when I came from DC — which didn’t have Trader Joe’s yet in those days — a highlight was the Trader Joe’s in Hillcrest.)
But for the most part, San Diego was a place you went through on the way to Mexico, or stopped in for a couple of days without ever really experiencing much of the “placeness” of the place.
So this time, while in San Diego for the Americans for the Arts Convention, I wanted to do things differently. Obviously I enjoyed the trolley and the waterfront convention district. The Hilton Bayfront is one of the most functional and pleasant convention hotels I can remember anywhere, with wide corridors, logical crowd flow, and seating nooks everywhere next to (or just beyond) big bright windows. Things like “natural light” and “crowd flow” may seem unimportant, but they’re not — three days in a convention hotel can easily be marred by a confusing layout, low ceilings, or depressing casino-like interior spaces. Someone told me this hotel is the “jewel of the convention district,” and it’s not surprising
The hotel and its grounds are set in a grand waterfront park, and they’re permeable at the edges, so it’s not exactly clear where the hotel ends and the public space begins; this has the effect of drawing the hotel and the community together, for the benefit of both. From the hotel and its environs, you can see: a soaring highway bridge to the south; the stunning Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge; a working railyard; a working port; and bright red trolleys passing at all hours. And, of course, there’s the bay, and the boats, and the sun and the palm trees, with the fragrance of jasmine everywhere. I’ve been worse places.
Around the edges of the convention, I took my rental car (and the trolley) and got out and about a few times. I saw the central-city entertainment core, Gaslamp and what they’re now calling the East Village, which are much more lively than I remember. (I bought a bottle of artisanal gin at the excellent liquor store in the Gaslamp.) Petco Park (unlike many other cities’ intown baseball stadiums) really does seem to be the center of the action, and the “Park at the Park” (a public park in the mouth of the stadium that’s open every day) opens it into the community.
I stopped to talk to the manager of an arts center in the Gaslamp next to the Broken Yolk, which showcases and sells art and creative merchandise from the community. (I bought the hot-pink rabbit-shaped iPod speaker seen at left.) He said that San Diego’s always had an arts community, but it’s been fragmented, and in the past 10 or 15 years it’s started to knit itself together.
All in all, culturally speaking, San Diego reminds me a lot of Charlotte, in that it’s a city with a large and culturally conservative (in the traditional sense, not the Christianist sense) middle class, a business elite that’s willing to invest and push the boundaries (sensibly), and a motivating sense of competition with larger cities that will capture its young people unless they work to keep it livable. Charlotte, on the whole, has been a cultural success over the past 20 years, becoming much more interesting, breaking new ground in infrastructure and public amenities, and it looks like San Diego has, too.
I could imagine myself living in San Diego, which is the highest compliment I can offer. Really, a city that’s willing to turn half of its old railroad depot into a contemporary art museum is probably doing a whole lot of other things right, too.
While in town, I also got out to Barrio Logan, through the city, to the beach towns, and north along the shore. In Barrio Logan, at Ryan Bros. Coffee, I had one of the best espressos I’ve ever had anywhere, rich with nuance and nuttiness, beside a polished wood bar they brought down from Paso Robles, where Jesse James used to drink at it. Then I drove through the city (along the Cabrillo Freeway, a genuinely beautiful parkway) and north toward Los Angeles.