Saturday, May 06, 2006 | If you have a question about the evolution of our city, or our slightly larger northern neighbor, Steve Erie likely has an answer (or at least an opinion). Erie, 60, is a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. He’s the director of its urban studies and planning program.

The walls of his third-floor office are decorated with framed satellite images of two of the cities he’s studied most: San Diego and Los Angeles. He grew up in Eagle Rock, and has split his life between the two cities.

The shelves of his third-floor office are lined with titles that could appeal to only the most die-hard urban studies aficionado: Regulation and its Alternatives, The Federal Budget and Social Reconstruction, Public Policy and Politics in America. Add another book to the shelf. Erie recently completed “Beyond Chinatown,” which focuses on dispelling some myths conjured by the 1974 Roman Polanski movie “Chinatown,” and investigates the history of water rights in this parched region.

We sat down with him to talk about how San Diego and Los Angeles compare, how the neighbors evolved and what makes San Diego an “adolescent” city.

How do you characterize this time period in San Diego’s history?

San Diego is really at a crossroads. Look at the politics. This is the last Republican big city on the West Coast. If the Republicans lose San Diego, then the consolation prize is Anaheim. Look at the money that was thrown into the Frye-Sanders race by the Republican Party.

The nearest analog in Los Angeles is the first (Sam) Yorty – (Thomas) Bradley mayoral race in 1969 where the race card was played after Watts. Los Angeles was an overgrown version of San Diego in the late 50s and early 60s. Heavily Republican. A very WASP, downtown-business controlled, weak labor, weak minority city. Look at it today. It’s arguably the most liberal city in the country. It is ground zero for the immigrant rights movement, Justice for Janitors, the living wage, the Latino-labor alliance. L.A. and San Diego were peas in a pod politically in the 1950s and yet the last 50 years the developmental and political trajectory have been radically, radically different. The underlying demographics of San Diego are like Los Angeles, but just 20 or 30 years later. The Latino population is growing, but it’s not a share of the population that it is in L.A. The power of labor has grown. And in L.A. it was a peaceful transition from Republican to Democratic rule – partly because the business community was so traumatized by Watts. You won’t get a seamless transition in this town. What you will get is the trench warfare of World War I. And finally if there’s an armistice, there will be a very draconian Treaty of Versailles imposed on the losers. This is contested terrain. The fight down here will be bitter.

We frequently hear decisions in San Diego compared to decisions in Los Angeles. The term Los Angelization rears its head. Can the comparison be made? Is San Diego turning into Los Angeles?

It’s unrequited hate. There’s been a second city complex in San Diego since the 1870s. [Los Angeles] got the railroad, and then they got the harbor, and then they got the water, and then they got Hollywood! There’s always been sort of a civic inferiority complex that they stole our place in the sun. But understand, I’ve never met an Angeleno yet that doesn’t like San Diego. Where do I go for the weekend? Where do I retire? The crown jewels of Los Angeles are their infrastructure: their port system, their airport system, their water and power systems. Our crown jewels are our beaches and our parks. We chose a different developmental path early on. Los Angelization. The problem is, it’s already here. Traffic congestion now in San Diego is getting to be almost as bad as Los Angeles. The growth is here, the suburban sprawl.

How did that happen despite the two separate evolutions you describe?

This is a town that has always been friendly to business and the real estate industry and the building industry. And because there are too many people chasing too few homes, there are enormous pressures for further development. City government basically didn’t say no … throughout the region. But I could’ve told you this would happen. You hate to say the future, but it is Los Angeles. … I don’t see in San Diego government the level of professionalism I see in L.A. government. It’s almost like it’s a suburban government down here. There is an amateurish quality. I see the same thing with water, power, airports. What you have in L.A. going back 100 years is, I call it, the “culture of Mulhollandism.” The bureaucracies were capable of thinking of big, vast, heroic public works projects. We never had to do that here, in part because we were a Navy town. So we sort of had stunted bureaucracies. Now we’re being called upon to develop our own infrastructure, and we don’t have a great track record for doing that. I know of no other major city as dependent on the infrastructure of another city as San Diego is in Los Angeles. Can you imagine Philadelphia hooked up to New York’s airport system, port system and water system?

Your next book is going to focus on San Diego City Hall and its financial woes. What’s the greater lesson to be learned here?

I think we’re like the canary in the mine. The pension crisis is sneaking up on a lot of cities, it just hit us first. It’s like an early warning. San Diego was the first to experience the energy crisis. San Diego was one of the first to experience the pension crisis, which a lot of cities are going to be facing in the next 10 years. So in a sense it’s a cautionary tale to other places, particularly places that have some time to do something about it. But it’s also going to be a comparison of San Diego and other cities. On the fiscal crisis, clearly I want to compare it to New York City and Orange County. I still don’t know where we’re going to be fiscally, whether (Mayor) Jerry (Sanders) is going be able to float the bonds. There’s going to be one history chapter that takes us up to 1990. Originally I was going to call it “From Navy Town to Boomtown.” Now I’m calling it “Never-Never La-La Land.” It is a paired comparison with L.A. And it is a stunning comparison in terms of why they turned out so differently.

If you look at a lot of East Coast cities, the sense you get as a visitor is that there are 200, sometimes 250 years of history in their evolutions. When you come to San Diego, you don’t get that same sense. We’re still wrestling with whether we want our airport downtown on the harbor. How do you characterize that sense? Is it that San Diego hasn’t grown up yet?

It’s a new city. Remember San Diego only had 150,000 people in 1930. Think about that! L.A. already had a million. San Diego really only comes of age with World War II – because of the military. People came to San Diego and said: Hey! We’d like to stay here. But San Diego in many ways – and I don’t want to say this pejoratively – is an adolescent city. It’s still like in its late teens or early 20s. Los Angeles is a young city, too, by eastern standards. But remember, L.A.’s great leap forward is before World War II.

You write in “Beyond Chinatown” of San Diego’s “quixotic independence drive” and the “local water rebellion” to diversify the region’s water sources. Is there a bit of mockery there?

Yeah there is a little bit of mockery. Here’s the thing. The drought of the early 1990s was real. And we were probably more traumatized by it than L.A. was because we’re dependent on imported water. But the mockery is that we can’t be independent of [Metropolitan Water District.] The only reason desalination pencils out in Carlsbad is because MWD is giving us a subsidy. We depend upon subsidies, we depend upon the infrastructure, so there are limits to the independence.

How much leverage has the “Chinatown” legacy had in the public’s perception of water projects over the last two decades?

A lot. When we were out there in the Imperial Valley, you know how many times “Chinatown” [was brought up]. I was one of the pundits that talked about the “Chinatown” syndrome. “Chinatown” is supposedly what happened in the Owens Valley. And if you read my chapter on it, it’s a little more complicated story in terms of what did or didn’t happen. Every time we’ve tried to do an agriculture-to-urban water transfer, “Chinatown” and the Owens Valley have been brought up. It’s almost as if this is the public’s understanding particularly of L.A. water.

We’re not sure, but Roman Polanski could read this interview. What do you tell him?

I tell him it’s one of the greatest American films. I don’t buy many DVDs. I bought “Chinatown.” What I tell Robert Towne, the screenwriter, is that it’s lousy history. It’s a great movie. There’s none better. It’s got everything. Sex, power, greed, you name it. It is American gothic. But as an understanding of how L.A. grew, it plays fast and loose with the facts.

The airport authority agreed to a June 5 deadline for concluding the site-selection process. How do you see things playing out in the next six months?

The question is what options do they have? Are they going to put Miramar on the ballot – even though it’s firmly in military hands – with the hope that if there’s a favorable vote in November that that will be bargaining leverage in terms of getting the military, as things wind down in Iraq, to at least consider joint-use or giving it up. I suspect that probably still is the line of thinking. The community outreach is still among high-propensity North County voters outside of the footprint of Miramar. Economists call it revealed preferences. You look at behavior and infer intent. But in conversations with Steve Peace, his intent in creating the regional airport authority was to decide the issue once and for all, whether it was Lindbergh or something else. He wanted us to research everything. Once we’ve thoroughly researched it, if we decide Lindbergh is our airport, then we’ve ended The Great Airport Debate. And I almost got the impression listening to Steve that may be the final answer: it is Lindbergh, and we just have to make do with what we have.

– Interview by ROB DAVIS

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