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Thursday, March 30, 2006 | I can’t quite look back 40 years at San Diego, but I can get close.

I first arrived in 1969, bound from Texas for Jamul, where my wife’s family lived. It was the last of the old days of U.S. Highway travel. There were plenty of wide-open miles on the new interstate highway system, but Interstate 8 had not yet penetrated through the East County mountains. It ended east of Jacumba, at the base of the grade down to the desert. From there to El Cajon, it was the old Highway 80 rule of the road: any motorist could go only as fast as the slowest truck (or bus).

In El Cajon, we turned left onto Second Street, which after a mile of shops and businesses, emptied into open country. We meandered south for what seemed like forever and at one point passed an airstrip known simply as Johnny Lamp’s airstrip, just south of where Valhalla High School now stands. We turned left shortly thereafter, onto a country road that soon began a winding climb into foothills. I was starting to doubt the existence of Jamul when my wife pointed ahead, up a last stretch of hill, and said, “There’s the house.”

From Jamul, it was a two-lane drive on Highway 94 through open country to, and through, Casa de Oro, where 94 turned into a freeway at Spring Street. East of Casa de Oro, we crossed a two-lane steel bridge, as narrow as when it was built in the 1920s. I must have driven across that bridge 10,000 times, every one of them a white-knuckler.

There was a photo of that bridge in the paper several weeks ago. A modern multi-lane concrete bridge replaced it, but the old “steel bridge,” as it was always called, was saved as a landmark. It is now popular with hikers and bikers, which was the reason for the photo and story in the paper.

Looking at the photo, I thought about San Diego 40 years ago, and I thought about San Diego 40 years from now. When you are wondering about what an unknown future might look like, it is always instructive to have a look back at a known landscape in the past. The steel bridge triggered that memory for me. I couldn’t go back the entire 40 years, but close enough.

We are in 2006. What did San Diego look like in 1966, 40 years ago? My gosh, has it only been 40 years? How could so much happen, in so little time? My old focus is East County, south of El Cajon, where I have lived since 1972. There was another photo in the paper recently, of a plywood wall, several miles long, built along the south side of Jamacha Blvd. as a noise buffer to protect an endangered bird species from construction noise as Jamacha is widened to accommodate the commercial and residential sprawl that now stretches clear to the rim of the foothills where, in a countryside void only 37 years ago, I turned left onto a dusty road on my first drive to Jamul, that my wife insisted was only a few miles farther on.

Whatever section of San Diego County you call your own – north, south, or east, or downtown – focus on it, and picture it 40 years ago. What did it look like? With that picture in mind, make a comparison to what your part of the county looks like now. In East County, land for homes, business and services has become so precious that they closed Johnny Lamp’s airport.

There’s an irony: growth closing an airport, when the big topic in 2006 is building an airport to ensure growth. I read a recent commentary endorsing airports as magnets for growth. The example was Dulles International, built 40 miles east of Washington, D.C., out in the forested nowhere. They also built a wide highway from D.C. to Dulles, which now is crowded with commerce. In the commentary, this was seen as a good thing.

But the same thing has happened in San Diego County, without having to build a new airport. In East County, it was the highway, not an airport, that was the magnet. Jamacha Blvd. is only 20 years old, and recently a miles-long plywood wall was built along its south edge, to protect an endangered bird species from construction noise as the boulevard is widened to accommodate the citizen armies who live and work in what so clearly in my memory was groves of oak and manzanita only yesterday.

Is that a good thing? Or, let’s ask the question: in a span of 40 years, how much growth is a good thing? All across San Diego County, look back 40 years, compare that to 2006, then look forward 40 years, and plan accordingly.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at

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