Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.26.6: PANEM ET CIRCENSES, America’s Finest(?) City, Part 1

V026-06_breadcircusW2Even though I have been a resident of California longer than I lived in New York, I have never quite felt like a San Diegan.   Maybe the migrant always holds onto a bit of “home,” even though home blends with reveries of youth and other habits of memory that filter out unpleasant details.   Moreover, San Diego has been a city that my profession forced me to scrutinize well beyond the interests of residency per se .


I believe that I am on safe grounds in saying that if one took a survey that the overwhelming reason respondents would give for their approval of San Diego is that it is endowed with one of the finest physical settings and micro-climates in the world.   Yet I always found it difficult to swallow the local boosters’ hubris that San Diego is “America’s Finest City.”   So, somewhat in paraphrase of former Philadelphia mayor, Frank Rizzo’s statement that “the streets are safe in Philadelphia, it’s only the people who make them unsafe ,” San Diego is not America’s finest city because its government is not the finest.   (If, by extension it can be said that people get the government they deserve, then San Diego’s people are not so great either.)

If that sounds a bit petty and querulous, perhaps it is; but it’s mainly to engage your attention to what I really want to address, and that is the mayoral election and the issues that surrounded it.   Nobody is going around these days trumpeting the “America’s Finest City,” nonsense because San Diego got itself in a bit of a mess.   That’s a long and somewhat complicated story that needs no recounting here.   It became a national story that obliterated all of the years of “finest city” hype with a public enterprise fiscal mismanagement to rival some of the notorious ones in the private sector, a sleazy sellout for campaign funds by three council members, and the tragi-comedy of a mayor who first didn’t want to run again, then did, then lost (by the numbers), then won, by the grace of a judicial decision worthy of Scalia, then resigned (presumable after time enough to vest his pension), leaving the city only immeasurably leaderless than it was with him in office.


San Diego   had always prided itself on its putatively clean and professional council-manager form of government (I believe it was the largest city with that form) until it finally overcame the editorializing of the only daily paper in town that prints “all the new that’s fit to wrap your fish guts in” and for years frightened the politically neutered local populace that any change would give Hizonner Dick Daley and his “political machine” the keys to the city.


But anyplace where there is a buck to be made – and San Diego’s gold is right under your feet and over you toasting your epidermis to that fabled California golden tan – will have a “machine” in operation if you are willing to scratch the surface.   The traditional machine has been the real estate – highway complex; its formula was (and is) as old as John Jacob Astor’s dictum that “landlords grow rich while they sleep.”   Where there is demand make the land accessible and real estate value pops out of the ground like poppies on an Afghan farm.   It makes that 49er gold look like chump change.


There was some “old money” around; San Diego’s location in the lower, left-hand corner of the country put it closest to where the Humboldt Current routed shoals of tuna and other “chickens” of the sea.   There are some neighborhoods of large, fine old houses owned by the Portuguese fishing families.   Then that was eclipsed by what might be called the “Lindberg Effect”:   al those nice flat mesas, those updrafts off the ocean, and the cloudless skies proved ideal for trying out new-fangled flying things.   Toss in the Navy (good harbor), huge aerospace and defense budgets, and you pretty much have the recipe for a rip-roaring (albeit at times booming and busting) metropolis.   As that has abated with some relocations and the “peace dividend” the weather has helped again in seducing Jonas Salk and bunch of Nobel Laureates and now some 150 or so bio-tech enterprises are mining DNA in the latest gold rush (once you get to paradise you expect to live longer).


Hey, he hasn’t even mentioned the Chargers and Padres, you’re thinking.   That’s right, and it’s intentional.   Think of it this way: remember those gold and silver mining towns of the 49er days?   Well, the second thing that moved into those towns after the general store was a saloon with an attached whorehouse.   Too bad if you are a fan, but if the analogy escapes you, you should spend less time at the stadium or the ball park and a bit more time reading.   Whatever they tell you, these enterprises probably eat up as much local wealth as they contribute when all the (legitimate) accounting is in.   They are the fiscal parasites, and they get the sweetheart stadium deals and the new ballparks because, if they don’t, they will unleash the 30 or 40 thousand yahoos they keep off the streets eighty or so days a year on your city council meeting.   Their owners are big egos with bucks to match that know how to play wannabes who want tickets to sky boxes the way a cat plays a sparrow with a broken wing.


Nevertheless, pro sports franchises lend a certain sort of Las Vegasy glitz and glamour to a city, and are an index in the minds of local boosters of having “made it into the urban big time.”   Being the site of a Super Bowl, or a World Series puts a city on the map, especially when there is little else to put it on the map. But they are transient events, a quick jolt of financial crack-cocaine for the economy that is swept away like the programs ad paper cups at the stadium.   They do not make cities great.


And that, in a sense, is what is at the root of San Diego’s self-inflicted fall from its self-constructed pedistal as “America’s Finest City.”   Like a woman (I’m going to hear about this analogy) that has been blessed with beautiful and bounteous physical endowments, and never had much of a tough go at things beyond the occasional brush fire, it really hasn’t proved itself a city worthy of the title, much less that of a “great city.”   Having had things relatively easy it hasn’t, it seems, built much urban “character” or earned much respect.


“Having it all” has also played into the political culture of San Diego.   Its economic blessings have endowed a public purse that could play to the fiscal parsimony of its political culture without having to make many hard choices.   The tax rate can stay low and the streets could get paved.   It has been the perfect domain for the “cheapskate” local citizen, and the politician who can pledge never to raise your taxes.   It was a long, good, and easy run.   San Diego has always been able to have its “bread and circus.”


But that was then.   [To be Continued]

©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.10.2005)