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Something About San Diego

San Diego is often associated with Sea World, the world famous zoo and LEGOLAND, but beneath the tourist attractions and perennial sunny weather is a lively arts and cultural scene on par with any city in America. This week L.A. Letters highlights a few important San Diego locations, two anthologies and a local small press that help contribute to a quietly thriving community arts scene in what its boosters call, "America's Finest City."

Before discussing San Diego's literary community, there are a few important historical details to note. First, as any true California history buff knows, San Diego is the oldest city in California and the first place the Spanish landed on the West Coast in 1542. Further specifics on Spanish colonization and the area's gradual growth until Mexican, and eventually American, rule are widely published elsewhere. There was a time at the turn of the 20th Century when San Diego was battling Los Angeles to be the dominant city of Southern California. Some prognosticators at the time even thought San Diego was going to prevail in the competition because of its natural and superior deep water harbor.

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The city of San Diego is 372 square miles -- almost the same geographical size as New York City. But the hundreds of small canyons and mesas in San Diego keep the city at a much lower density because in between the developed pockets is lots of liminal, uncut natural space, complete with hiking trails and small parks. Compare the almost 8 million people in NYC's municipality, to the 1.3 million who call San Diego home.

It is this hilly topography that also caused San Diego to grow much slower than L.A. during the first half of the 20th Century. There are other factors as well that contributed to the slower development, but the many hills of San Diego made it much more difficult for developers to build homes at the breakneck speeds seen in both Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Another fascinating story is the San Diego River. At 52 miles long it is a mile longer than the Los Angeles River, and it also changed its course a few times in the 19th Century. Descending from the Cuyamaca Mountains east of city limits, the river eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean close to the entrance of Mission Bay. In 1877 early city leaders feared the river would silt up San Diego harbor, so they constructed a dam to help control the waterway's path. For the most part, their early efforts remain in effect to the present day.

Bi-weekly open mic Train of Thought in North Park | Train of Thought Facebook

Over the last decade I've done a number of poetry performances around San Diego, at both UC San Diego and in the local spoken word scene. Ant Black and Christopher Wilson are two poets and community activists that have hosted many San Diego poetry events over the years, including the well-known reading, Elevated. Gil Sotu is a prominent San Diego poet who hosts the bi-weekly open mic, Train of Thought. Serving the local hip-hop and neo-soul communities, these events are reminiscent of open mics in Los Angeles, like A Mic & Dim Lights and Da Poetry Lounge. The first time I performed at Elevated in 2005, the nearly 200 people in the audience let me know that San Diego was much more than just a tourist and military town.

City Works Press is San Diego's own small press; their publishing roots date back to an annual literary journal first published by San Diego City College in 1994. After producing the journal for a decade, the editors decided to expand and create their own publishing house. After a group of City College professors and local writers formed the San Diego Writers Collective in 2003, the infrastructure began to take shape.

The following year the American Federation of Teachers and a local jazz radio station both contributed funds to help get the press afloat. One of the first books they published was the 2005 volume, "Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana." Featuring fiction, nonfiction and poetry, the anthology, edited by Jim Miller, includes Jimmy Santiago Baca, Marilyn Chin, David Reid, Mike Davis, Steve Kowit and more than 35 other authors. Miller writes in the introduction that the anthology

... explores San Diego and Tijuana's border culture; San Diego's multiple identities and lost history; the city's natural beauty and endangered ecologies; its role as a center of the culture of war; and San Diego writers' attempts to explore the meaning of place. By using a multicultural, multidisciplinary, pan-artistic approach, this anthology offers the reader a fresh look at a city yet to be explored in such a fashion.

Though the press is devoted to San Diego, City Works Press has published a book by the important Los Angeles poet, Marisela Norte. Norte's bilingual poetry epitomizes border writing, and is a perfect match for their publishing sensibility. In next week's column her book will be discussed at greater length.

"Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See," published by the New Press in 2003, is another book that explores the hidden history of San Diego. The anthology, co-edited once again by Jim Miller, along with Kelly Mayhew and Mike Davis, is more of a pure historical account. The editors write in their Introduction:

... building on a rich local tradition of underground journalism and muckraking investigation, we offer an alternative, people's history of San Diego (from the dual perspectives of its elites and their opponents) as well as autobiographical portraits of some of the 'other' San Diego's everyday heroes.

The book dispels the myth of forever sunny San Diego and shows the city's little-known but dark history of corruption, racial injustice, and economic inequality. Effectively addressing the binaries that help define San Diego, the book offers an alternative civic history to the booster mythology presented in the guidebooks. For example, they comment on the transformation of the Gaslamp District into its current status as tourist mecca:

once, this side of downtown belonged to the fleet, but the locker clubs, peep shows, clip joints, and chow mein palaces have been redeveloped into wine bars, nouvelle restaurants, and million-dollar condos. BMWs and Hummers cruise past the corner of Fifth and E, where radical orators once exhorted San Diego toilers to throw off the shackles of John D. Speckles plutocratic rule.

The book is over 350 pages and gives an in-depth historical account that leaves no stone unturned. An important point the editors make is, "this is not an expose for expose's sake. Shooting holes in booster stereotypes can be an enjoyable pastime, but we are not engaged in mere target practice. The authors, rather, count themselves to be part of San Diego's large and growing progressive community."

Thanks to the efforts of these authors and the poetry hosts that have invited me down to San Diego over the last decade, I have been slowly discovering the city's large and growing progressive community. Locations like Chicano Park and the artistic communities of North Park, Hillcrest, San Diego City College, and Mesa College form important nodes in the city's cultural matrix. The New School of Architecture & Design, located downtown, is also known for its progressive ethos. The San Diego Booksellers Association has a great online map of the city's many bookstores, and they have sponsored bus tours in the past that link some of the most well-known bookstores. And though Balboa Park is known for being the site of the San Diego Zoo, it also contains a collection of important museums, all designed in the Spanish Baroque Revival style at the close of the Gilded Age. There's much more to cover and say about San Diego. Future installments will continue this exploration.

There's no question San Diego is a beautiful city, and its boosters were not too far off with their claim of it as "America's Finest City." Nonetheless, like all cities, San Diego has a complex history much deeper than the surface reveals. As noted above, further detail will be addressed in future columns. This edition of L.A. Letters salutes its southern neighbor and the emerging progressive community of poets and artists. San Diego like Los Angeles plays an important role in the framework of California letters.


Top: Balboa Park. Photo: flickr/Enrico Carcasci/Creative Commons

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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