San Diego:
A Pictorial History
Raymond G. Starr

The most crucial fact of San Diego's life and influence is mostly ignored by most of its locals,

military, boosters, and owning corporations. Contiguous to it, a bare twenty minutes to the south, is the second largest city on the West Coast: Tijuana.

No other sizeable American metropolis has such a confluence of "foreign" ideas, language, social roles, society, mind-set, religion and Third World perspective just around the corner. San Diego is part of a huge (three-and-a-half-million population) geographic complex, but it is a very peculiar complex, indeed.

In opposition to San Diego, Tijuana has never suffered under the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that defined 20th Century American cities: "Planning," "Zoning," "Traffic Circulation," and "Redevelopment." Without these, and in consequence, TJ has grown to be one of the richest cities in the northern hemisphere as far as diversity, street life, and liveability.

There are laws in Tijuana --- like north of the border --- prohibiting what a majority of the people want, but there is a simple cure for that governmental miasma. It's called mordida --- the ritual greasing of the palm.

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, by contrast, we've set up a very strict oligopoly on the buying up of local, state, and federal governmental power. We choose to restrict it to those who own the marketplace --- for example --- to those mysterious Japanese, Koreans or Chinese, with even more mysterious names like "Johnny Chien Chuen Chung."

In TJ, it's a veritable democracy of bribery --- everyone, even the poorest worker, is allowed to buy up a bit of the government. If, for example, you want to set up a taller to fix cars in your front yard, you do it. All you do is pay a regular fee to the representative of the city --- your monthly tax for doing business, a permitless business permit, if you will. In cash.

If you want to set up a little grocery store --- you start selling fruit and tortillas and sodas out in the front room. Licensing is handled the same way: no paperwork.

If you want to join the army of on-the-street taco stands, you establish the business, and give your monthly contribution to both the local police, and to the representative of the city licensing dept. (If someone dies from your cooking, then there's real trouble).

And if you get caught for driving without a license, for twenty dollars or so, you are permitted to avoid all paperwork. You sure as hell aren't required to spend the rest of your life in a soul-destroying central computer.

To our knowledge, what no one has done is to examine the structure of a Tijuana to figure out why it is so successful. We see the buses there going up and down hills, spewing diesel exhaust, and we think, in our holy cleanliness, "pollution." What we don't see is a marvellously efficient public transportation system that, for a few pesos, moves people to wherever they want to go.

As soon as new settlers come in from Southern Mexico, they move onto any convenient vacant land, and the local version of the TJ zoning department comes out to complain, and soon enough, he's gone, with his bakeesh, and then a community begins, people build tiny houses out of whatever material is available --- no building department inspectors necessary --- and within weeks, the private bus companies start sending in their eight or ten passenger caláfias to connect them with the rest of the city, and, soon enough, someone sets up a car-repair service in their front yard; and someone else establishes a grocery in their front room, and someone else sets up a taco stand on the streetcorner in front of the grocery. The community grows from scratch: real and diverse (and safe). It's "local land-use planning" without any of those arrogant $150,000-per-year Berkeley School of Planning graduate students coming out in their $40,000 Toyota Land Cruisers to tell you what to do.

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I look at my clean neighborhood here north of the border, and remember six months ago when the old woman in the house right across the street died of congestive heart failure. They didn't find her body for three days. The rest of us didn't find out that she had died for a couple of months --- we just thought she was in there quietly watching TV. In TJ that would have been impossible.

I look at the apartment building built last year down the street from my house, here in my neighborhood, where (with planning department approval, and zoning approval, and building department approval), they tore down a fine old building from 1935 --- without consulting the rest of us --- and built a bargain basement poker-in-the-ass building: eight units into a 40 x 100 lot, with eight parking spaces jammed onto the front of the lot. This building has, in its brief life, been visited with a half-a-dozen burglaries --- because everyone is isolated with their own quarters, their own heating, their own plumbing, their own units, their own desolation. Thieves know, instinctively when there is none of what the real estate brokers used to call, arrogantly, pride-of-ownership.

In Tijuana, they would have taken the old house with its four or five rooms and, without bothering about permits, they would have added on a few more rooms in the back, fit in a few more families --- most likely relatives from other parts of Mexico who have inmigrated, looking for jobs. They certainly wouldn't have put a Berlin Wall of cars out front to cut off communication between street and building and tenants.

It reminds me of when I was in Washington DC, in 1959, they decided to "redevelop" the southeast part of the city. Before, there had been "tenaments," maybe 16 or 20 of them for each block, each one of them facing onto the streets, each one with its own entrance to the street, each one with its own stoop and tiny yard --- steps for people to sit on in the evening, to cool off, easily becoming the "eyes of the street" (in Jane Jacobs felicitious phrase).

With your taxes and my taxes, the blocks were levelled --- the wonderful brick buildings built after the civil war were stripped bare, bulldozed, and the land sold off to "redevelopers," those people who own the city (capitalism is a system where you don't bother with bribes because you own the local government).

In their place, they put friendless, faceless twelve-story bookened apartment buildings that --- even in their early days --- came to be shabby and dark and decaying, smelling of too much cabbage and secret sorrows. That was forty years ago when we were just beginning to crank up the two most fearsome of the Four Horsemen: "Planning" and "Redevelopment."

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Having said all that, we would like to point out to those who have never been here that San Diego is weird in other ways as well. The city's mentality has been shaped not only by local and state corporations --- but, as well, by the military bureaucracy --- Navy, Army and Marines (the latter who, residing in nearby Oceanside, regularly do seek-and-destroy missions on their own wives and children; for more information on this, ask those who work with the area social services and police; the abuse figures are off-the-charts).

San Diego has a local newspaper combine so pusillanimous as to make the other henhearted newspapers of California (The Oakland Tribune, The San Jose Mercury-News, The Orange County Register) look like The New York Times by comparison. In addition, it would appear that this local newspaper monopoly (rhymes with "Copley") has the smallest newsroom West of the Pecos: outside of wire service features, there are a plethora of warm, sunny articles on the newly hatched penguins at the local Friendly Fish Combine, Sea World --- alternating with the he-kept wife-and-daughter as-slaves locked-naked in-the-closet for-ten-years routine, followed by the she's-dying-of-cancer but keeps-up-her-social-life routine. It's a merry joining of Barbara Walters, Jim Bakker, and the National Enquirer. Unkind critics have suggested that The San Diego Union has come to be the largest shoppers' throwaway in the nation.

Twenty years ago, the local mayor was hounded out of office by the three local television stations in concert with this daily journalistic bag-lady. He got vengeance by getting hired on local talk radio as an latter-day Gordon Liddy, having his pay upped many of thousands of dollars in the process. His major contribution to the culture of the area has been to organize the the local noisy Mexico-haters to go to the border on weekends and moon the poor of T.J. who are but trying to get across to work. This shows them what a kindly bunch of people we have over on this side of the border.

Some of San Diego's contributions to the universe have been Gov. Pete Wilson and the KGB Chicken (who are often confused for each other) and the annual South California Championship flea infestation: each summer the fleas return, migrating back, presumably, from the likes of Sacramento and Palm Springs, causing the locals to twitch and jump like victims of syphilitic paresis.

In the summer, San Diego holds an annual "Over-the-Line Tourney" with teams bearing such exotic names as "The Ted Kennedy School of Driving," "The Booger-Eatin' Morons," "Club Baby Seals," and "Roses on the piano/Tulips on the Organ." It claims to be "America's Finest City," whatever that might mean, but, in truth, it is run in the usual way by the usual poltroons to profit the disgustingly rich at the expense of the disgustingly poor.

The photographs in San Diego: A Pictorial History are as heartbreaking as you would want --- showing the pillaging of a once grand downtown; the erection of fifty-seven story glass dildoes; the junking of a more-than-adequate streetcar system (said dismemberment paid for by General Motors); and the phasing out of the Coronado Ferry for a bilious roller-coaster bridge which is now in the most favored situs for suicides. Author Starr's choice of photographs is fine, and the documentation is adequate; only the text is pedestrian --- it gambols along on wooden legs. He must have studied writing at one of the local student factories like San Diego State or the University of San Diego.

--- P. J. Wirth
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