Friday, February 17, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

Is San Diego an artistic backwater?

This question overshadows the lives of some of us in America’s Finest City. The place doubtless has shopping malls and multiplexes aplenty, but what about art museums? Why does there seem to be so few bookstores? And with the East Village now a veritable forest of condos, does the city have any district we might call creative, or – dare I ask this in a Navy town – bohemian?

Admittedly, it’s kind of a nebulous question, and it’s certainly difficult to answer. But that’s not because it isn’t an important one – it’s because we’re only beginning to realize its importance.

Enter Richard Florida, urban economist and author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” a bestselling manifesto on the importance of urban culture. Through sophisticated indexes and analysis of demographic and economic data, Florida argues that the city that is most successful at attracting a vibrant, creative workforce will be best prepared to succeed in the information economy. His work links punk-green hair with the piles of green made by new economy entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley and Seattle.

And how do cities attract those people? With vibrant cultural and quality of life amenities.

Florida argues that creative types choose their city of residence based more on these lifestyle choices than the immediate availability of a job in their chosen field – and that’s how the aforementioned cities got all the tattooed techies-cum-millionaires.

San Diego ranks extremely high on several of Florida’s indexes, notably “tolerance” and “creative capital.” But with its young history as mostly a Navy and defense industry outpost, cultural development on the scale of other cities its size still remains elusive – or does it?

Lusting for the tantalizing answer to this question, I set about trying to solve the riddle of San Diego’s artistic capital in the form it most matters to me – local music. Required to undertake some kind of study of the city for my senior research thesis at the UCSD department of Urban Studies and Planning, I decided to use the opportunity to make an inquiry into the state of the scene: Is there really a vibrant music culture in the city? And if so, on what places and people does it depend?

Bypassing all the scholarly disclaimers about assumptions, definitions and methods, what I found is that San Diego does have an extremely diverse, creative, vibrant music scene – you just can’t find it.

San Diego music is a riddle, best summed up in a comment Citybeat music editor Troy Johnson made to me: “[A scene] is happening, but on a level that can never be appreciated by somebody who’s been to a major music city.”

The “level” that he’s talking about is not a matter of having nationally successful pop-stars, a huge rock underground, or a diversity of clubs – because San Diego has all of those.

The all-important difference between San Diego’s music scene(s) and those of other cities is – drum roll please – simple geography. Since it grew up almost entirely in the postwar era of massive suburban development, San Diego’s population is extremely spread out. While the urban core surrounding downtown is the obvious center of density, it does not house a particularly dense collection of the city’s cultural amenities the way the downtowns of San Francisco and (to some extent) Los Angeles do.

This is doubly true when we consider live music venues. Before 4th and B in 1995 and House of Blues in 2004, none of San Diego’s major music venues were located downtown. The Casbah, the city’s flagship rock club, is an island of hip on Kettner Blvd. in Little Italy, surrounded by warehouses, parking garages and upscale condos.

The song of isolation remains the same for most of the rest of San Diego’s important music spots. Dizzy’s, the closest thing San Diego has to a real jazz club, is buried in the gentrified mess of the post-Petco East Village. Sure, the Gaslamp is near, but other than recent-addition House of Blues, the neighborhood is barren of places dedicated to live music. Some of the pricey boozer bars do invite bands in to play, but they definitely aren’t focused on cultivating a scene.

The situation gets direr the farther out into sprawl-land you go. SOMA, the city’s biggest all-ages rock venue, is hidden in a grim stripmall next to the Sports Arena. Sure it’s got lots of parking, but you’re not exactly going to stumble upon it the next time you go for a stroll down Sports Arena blvd. The beach neighborhoods like Ocean and Mission have their own venues like ‘Canes which contribute vital musical diversity while drawing out the web of relevant places even farther.

And the musical offerings of such far-flung spots as the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, the Epicentre in Mira Mesa, and the Che Café at UCSD help create a situation where you have to drive for miles – which, with San Diego traffic, can translate into hours – just to get to a show.

Compare that with San Francisco, where it’s hard to walk down a major street on Friday night and not stop to listen to the jams booming out of bars, clubs, cellars and big venues. In San Diego, you have to either know where you’re going ahead of time or pick one club you like and go there every night – there’s no major center where good, diverse live music just happens.

Geography has other important effects on the scene, too. Consider what kind of people our famously mild climate draws, but having the musical activity spread out into relatively remote corners of the city makes it seem as if there’s just nothing cool going on.

Which really isn’t the case.

You could name nationally successful San Diego artists (Rocket From the Crypt, Jewel, Louis XIV, Switchfoot, Jason Mraz …) all afternoon. And with CityBeat, the Reader, the U-T, Voice, the dozens of local music websites and blogs, and Fox Rox – the only indie music TV show on a major affiliate in the country – all covering the supposedly tepid scene around here, you have to doubt the validity of that classification.

High culture might be another story. But at least as far as music is concerned, San Diego isn’t a backwater – it’s a sprawled-out capital.

Send your own curious tips about San Diego’s public spaces to Ian Port at

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