Having lived in San Diego since 1980, one would think that I would have long ago gravitated to residence in the northern portion of the county. It seems, by consensus, to be more generally livable an area than other locations in a county (I have recently heard, but not confirmed this) that is roughly equal in size to the entire state of Connecticut. Surely this can’t be, and maybe it isn’t, but I do not reject the notion out of hand, especially when the phrase “North County” follows the idea.
The dreams North County inspires are not limited to novelists or even real estate developers but abide in the hearts of the residents of Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista, Escondido, and San Marcos, to name some of what is included in the two-word phrase. “People who own horses gravitate here,” said one resident of San Marcos, “or people who think about owning horses.”
Not long after moving to this province from New York, I began research on a novel that would be published in 1987. The setting stretched from Tijuana to climactic scenes set in a fictional North County San Diego that, like Africa in the 19th Century, seemed a place so vast that anything might happen there and no one could say for sure it had not. The years and familiarity have rendered this fancy less realistic, though I’m glad it was not before I committed the fantasy, more or less convincingly, I believe, to the page.
Though I am more urban by nature, this northern part of the county struck me happily, back in 1983, as the Wild West if not darkest Africa. And so I set a contemporary and epically scaled gunfight at the O.K. Corral in an unnamed area the novel references only as being within view (from high ground) of the Lake Henshaw basin. Were I to set the same action (describing a small war) in the 21st Century, I wonder if it would fly unquestioned, for one of the accelerating (and more abiding by the day) bywords of this extreme southwestern corner of the country is development. The freeways, the condos, the malls. Everywhere, in fact, one looks, and from wherever one stands this is likely to be evident if not intrusive.
A phenomenon recently observed by the local press (out of Carlsbad), and the national press as well, says much about the durability of the dream in the northern reaches of San Diego’s territory. In a January 18, 2008 edition of Today’s Local News, a prominent regional paper, Steve Mihailovich writes, “Slow Moving: While People Continue to Leave California, North County Residents Stay Put.”
The article reads, “More residents are leaving California than moving in, according to a 2007 residential migration study by United Van Lines.
“…One local moving agent said outbound residential moves from the county in 2007 were down a full 20 percent from 2006. Of those who left, most were from the south and east parts of the county, while North County remained fairly stable…”
If anything, movers have noted, many of those who have moved out of North County San Diego to Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, or Tennessee (among the top destinations for those headed out) have, in fact, moved back. Mihailovich quotes real estate agent Annamarie Dawber: “I had a couple who returned after living in Memphis. They complained about the mosquitoes and the mugginess. They said, ‘Let’s be honest; once you see Graceland, there’s not much to do.”
Tourist destinations are likely far less of a priority in North San Diego County — though to north and south, both SeaWorld and the zoo or, say, Disneyland in Orange County, are within a painless drive. Legoland is right there, of course. Much of North County is, in fact, a long-term tourist destination. That is, an area of the continental U.S. where immigrants, largely having sampled other attempts at long-term residency, have set aside serial homesteading, ultimately a kind of tourism, in favor of a soberly considered “life destination.”
* * *
Evelyn Crowell moved to Vista, California, in 1995 from the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area. Crowell looks back fondly at more urban days but not terribly often. She writes:
“Road kill count on the Creek Road this morning — one black-and-white spaniel, one possum, and one baby raccoon. The spaniel had just ate it, its blood was still bright red and oozing, I wonder if that really loud, really fast car that was squealing around the hairpin curves was the deus ex machina for the little guy’s soul. Last week, I was almost road kill myself when just as I was coming to the turn after the spanking-new, not graffitied yet, Sprinter station when a blue bullet came hurtling toward me, with a crazed man at the wheel, smoke and dirt rose after him, he nearly went into Buena Creek, laying rubber and careening back and forth, then he just avoided hitting me head-on and hit the gas right into a white pickup. Hit him head-on with a heartrending crash. The white pickup was fine.
“Think this is bad? This is nothing!
“Years ago I lived on Curlew Street, a canyon street right on the border between Hillcrest just a hair into Mission Hills. My 101-year-old house, really a Craftsman with asbestos shingles hiding its brown beauty, had a cement block right in front of it; I wondered why when I first moved in. But not for long. About once a week, one after another drunk missed the curve and took on the cement block, or a parked car or trash cans — these drunks were not discriminating.
“The most spectacular of the crashes wasn’t at night at all but in the middle of the day. An elderly lady in a big land-shark of a car lost control at the curve and air-planed right into the little front patch of grass and flowers, which was sunken from the road. She sat there until our tenants, two nurses, gave her first aid, while I called the cops. The car was totaled, she was fine; luckily, [considering] the sherry she had obviously drunk in excess at lunch, she didn’t have a scratch on her. The street gods were kind.
“By comparison, across the street from our house ‘in the country’ [is quiet]. That is to say [that] Vista is an old herb farm; for years trucks ran in and out at 2 a.m. And my street is a little dead-end ribbon of asphalt, not a major artery from Hillcrest to Little Italy. By and large it’s quiet up here, less dense, more malls, fewer homeless, more sky.”
* * *
Bob Talmadge, 57, and an online bookseller, was born in the downtown area, raised on Hermann Avenue and in Allied Gardens. Of his decade in the northern quarter of the county he says: “Vista has more churches than any other place in San Diego. That’s because there are so many evil people. Just kidding! I’ve lived here ten years,” — he shakes his short ponytail — “and don’t even know my neighbors. It’s that isolated up here.”
Litany of the “North County Blues,” as Bob sees it:
“This is the Sahara of the Beaux Arts. No five-star restaurants. Skinny ghosts — you know, eternal and wrinkled adolescents riding their bikes around town with beards, big floppy hats, and empty faces. It’s extremely quiet. Too quiet sometimes.”
The following, he notes, are the area’s saving graces:
“The surf. The beaches. The hills. The birds; more of them and more interesting kinds. The Sprinter, at last. Carlsbad and three-car garages. The quiet.”
* * *
Darren Thompson is over six feet tall with blue eyes. He is in his 30s. Born in Coronado, raised in Imperial Beach and along the Silver Strand, Thompson gradually moved north to Poway and finally to Oceanside. When asked what drove him to make this move, he was quick to point out that there were practical reasons, such as “housing — which is cheaper, with more land and a newer construction — drove me to North County. But the beach and the surf, the space, and the clean air keep me here. With six kids and three dogs, that’s a gimme.”
Do you still relate to anything downtown? What about, say, the Padres?
“Season tickets — go to all the home games.”
Do you feel like a stranger when you go downtown to see them play?
“Naw. Feels like being back at home. Especially since Petco Park is so close to South Bay — you can see the Coronado Bridge from the food court.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Thompson remembers the drive-in movies and the Del Coronado where he saw little Jamie Lee Curtis riding on Daddy’s (Tony Curtis’s) shoulders when he was filming Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. “It was a different life because of the years, but because of geography as well. In North County we may not have the Hotel Del, but we have Legoland and miles upon miles of clean sand with the cool, gray-green Pacific Ocean lapping gently against it. Just south of us you have, of course, Del Mar and La Jolla, what beachfront there is off of the villages there, P.B., Mission Beach, O.B., with all of their attendant crowding and accompanying trash; and then Coronado, the Strand, and Imperial Beach. For miles of clean and pretty beach, North County rules.”
* * *
Kali O., a self-described “nature girl,” wears her blonde hair to her waist. Given her first name, and having, like Thompson, Nordic blue eyes, she might be taken by anyone back East as a native Southern Californian. She is not. She moved to San Diego “about six years ago” and “was surprised that San Diego had ‘more of a city feel with businesses and lots of traffic.’ ”
When did you come to North County?
“About five months ago. Solana Beach. This feels like I imagined San Diego would be like: lots of little beach towns dotting the coast. It’s easier to ride bikes up here, and I noticed that the people are more active; everywhere you go you see runners, walkers, and cyclists — a real ‘small community’ feel about it. Plenty of vegan restaurants.
“North County is removed from a lot of things that are more available to you in San Diego. I miss my friends in North Park, browsing the shops there, especially the Adams Avenue bookstores.
“It’s a little culturally monolithic up here. San Diego is more culturally diverse. I identify with the North Park people; they seem more real, less status-conscious.”
* * *
David Gordon is in his mid-50s, a Vietnam veteran with dark brown hair with a minimum of gray. Though we did not set out to interview solely blue-eyed residents of North County, he is also blue-eyed and an original son of San Diego. The elusive native. He is a current resident of Vista — “the foothills,” he specifies.
“I moved there some 12 years ago after pretty much a lifetime in either downtown, Normal Heights, North Park, Hillcrest, what have you. I lived mostly downtown and worked downtown [and] was pretty much a part of the culture downtown. I was born at Mercy and grew up in North Park. North County is different. It’s not a very friendly place. In the years I’ve lived up here, no one has invited me into his or her house. I don’t really know anybody except the people I’ve thrust myself on. I used to know a couple of the old guys down the street from my house. We would meet out on the road at the edge of one or another of our properties. We would talk. But they died.”
Gordon several times makes use of the word “insular” when describing his community. “Insular maybe because it’s an old Mormon area,” he ventures. “Vista is nice, it’s pretty, but it’s a funny place. It is chaotic; you’ve got ultra-mansions up the hill from working-class homes — it’s one of the few places left in the county where working-class people can afford to buy homes. A working guy can buy a decent amount of land. I think the ethos here is laissez-faire.
“All of the streets wind around up here because of the land. There are no grid neighborhoods. The terrain doesn’t lend itself to grid solutions, so these pocket neighborhoods are maintained — which have a character of their own.” He seems to be talking to himself here, as if weighing the pros and cons of his decision to move years ago. “We can see horses close up from our back yard, we have room to garden…I have a fairly long commute, but the farthest south I get is Del Mar. I go to San Diego for medical stuff. My world is like that old New Yorker cover, you know the one?” He means the cover and poster of Manhattan, which occupies 90 percent of the foreground, with California, almost an afterthought, stuffed in the far corner of the picture. I assume he means North County as the foreground of his world and San Diego the afterthought in the distance.
I do not bother to ask Gordon if he considers himself a San Diegan as he most readily admits that he is. Not so with other residents of the North County.
* * *
Do you consider yourself a San Diegan?
Carla, waitress, 26: “Not really. I live and work here in Escondido. I haven’t been to San Diego in about two years. I went to the museums. My life is pretty much right here.”
Don, customer service representative for Target, 34: “I guess. I moved here from Michigan, but in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve only been downtown a few times. I’ve been to, like, P.B. and Mission Beach more often, but I party in Carlsbad these days and I live in Vista. To me, North County is San Diego, so I guess I’m a San Diegan.”
Paulo, restaurant cook in Oceanside, resident of Vista, 41: “Yes and no. I couldn’t tell you what the city council in San Diego is up to. I don’t care. But, like, if I go back to New Mexico, I feel like I represent San Diego, and I’m proud of it and everything. But when I’m home, I stay up here. I don’t really go down there for anything.”
Jack, 55, a cab driver for Yellow Cab and a San Marcos resident, spoke for several minutes as he drove along San Marcos Boulevard:
“No. It’s a whole different deal. I haven’t been back to North Park for nine years. The answer is definitely ‘Not really.’ It’s more laid-back up here. People are more trusting. You almost don’t have to lock your doors. We don’t have the gangs or the drugs. We’ve only had one cab driver murdered up here in the past 30 years. I don’t think you can say that for San Diego. People watch your back. We want to keep it nice. People in San Diego don’t give a fuck. It’s way safer [here]. There’s tougher law enforcement up here. Bunch of people gathered around on a street corner for no reason? Cops come by and say, ‘What the fuck are you doin’?’ The handcuffs come out. Notice there’s no cages in the taxicabs. We had one driver, years back, had a cage in his cab.” He means a Plexiglass partition separating passenger from driver. “The guy had to get rid of it. It creeped people out. You can feel safe up here; the cops are definitely on it. I do go downtown for Padres games once in a while; I’m a fan. I am always glad to be back here, though. This is where you want to be.”
* * *
Unlike the United Van Lines migration study cited above, the March 20 Union-Tribune declared on its front page:
COUNTY RESIDENTS ARE STAYING PUT
By Lori Weisberg STAFF WRITER
“The sharp downturn in the real estate market appears to be persuading more residents to stay put, as thousands fewer people moved out of San Diego County last year than in years past.
“New census numbers show that while the county continues to see more people leave the area than move in, outbound migration throughout coastal California has significantly slowed since mid-2006 when the housing bubble began to burst in San Diego County.
“Between July 2006 and July 2007, 14,365 more people moved out of the county than moved in. That’s a 60 percent decrease from a year earlier, when the net domestic migration out of the county was 36,282, according to population estimates released today by the Census Bureau.”
If a conclusion is to be drawn, it might well be that San Diegans come and go but North County San Diegans have perhaps dug in a tad deeper.
— John Brizzolara and Diane Clark