Tuesday, May 30, 2006 | When he first saw San Diego as a backwater port town more than a century ago, Joaquin Miller described our city as “born suddenly, as if shot from a gun.” His glimpse of San Diego had been of Alonzo Horton’s downtown blocks of empty real estate lots, their red flags flapping gently in the sea breeze despite rock-bottom prices.

Miller was the poet of the California gold fields, author of “Kit Carson’s Ride,” and an adventurer who drew scant public attention until he appeared in London wearing cowboy boots and sombrero.

It took the Gold Rush of 1849 to stir the world’s first wide interest in California. Histories of San Diego, from Smythe to Pourade, lack the color and excitement of those blood, guts and gold histories of San Francisco and northern California. Upstate, it was gold that drew settlers. Aside from a tiny lode at Julian, our lure in San Diego was land.

Southern California lagged. San Diego was early in its discovery, but slow in settlement. Even Los Angeles, a straggler in the south, had identity crises, it lacked a natural harbor. So it was in San Francisco that Californians created the first great universities and pursued cultural arts. For many decades, the University of California meant only the Berkeley campus; when UCLA finally emerged, it was called the Southern Campus of UC.

Despite the soaring growth of Southern California, banks and corporate headquarters still cluster in San Francisco. In this long, long state, no one is startled by contrasts of every kind between north and south California.

San Francisco is closely linked to state government in nearby Sacramento. Its harbor is noted for both its shipping and its play town aura; its club life is legendary. We in the South celebrate the climate, while San Franciscans revel in the fogs that close off the Golden Gate and envelop its handsome bridges. And in San Diego, if such things occurred to us, it would be easy to form a cult of those who revere the artsy blue boomerang in the sky that is our Coronado Bridge.

It was not until World War II that San Diego emerged from the suburban shadow of Los Angeles. Like tens of thousands more who live now in San Diego, I first saw this city during that war.

That war precipitated the surge of in-migration that in 1960 led the governor of California to make an ungraceful salute to density. He urged Californians to blow their car horns and ring their church bells at 4 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon that the population of California would exceed that of New York to become the nation’s most populous.

In the booster spirit of the era, that moment was viewed as an indisputable signal that the Golden State was indeed golden.

While the volume of that in-migration excited business interests, it also meant hasty and often sloppy subdivisions, and unanticipated traffic jams.

At a party on Point Loma, when I was a Navy ensign, recently arrived from North Carolina, a Convair aerospace employee introduced herself.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Brenda! We’re in nose cones!”

Brenda was new in town too, just like everybody else I met. We all felt we were starting out even. Thousands of us anonymous young men and women jammed the sidewalks on weekends, swam at La Jolla Cove, and splurged after paydays in sailor joints or officers’ clubs that pumped beer and pretended glitz.

After World War II, those of us who adopted sweet little sleepy San Diego found some others had stayed behind intending to make it a border metropolis. Here was a perfect port and climate, and there – down the beach – was Mexico.

As America’s war shifted westward, San Diego harbor had afforded the shortest course to the Western Pacific and Japan; but in the postwar, an unprepared San Diego port authority lost valuable years in anticipating and planning the harbor as the city’s front yard. A notable exception: It occurred to John Bates, a maverick port director, that it was unnecessary for dredge boats to continue hauling accumulating silt outside the harbor. Bates began piling it in what later became Shelter Island and Harbor Island.

For San Diego, the in-migration that began with World War II has never stopped. Old-line San Diegans later confessed that in World War II they had been alarmed by the throngs of military people and civilian aircraft workers stepping off trains each day at the foot of Broadway; they had hoped that after the war, we would all go away and leave them again in peace.

But then came wars in Korea, then Vietnam, with more tens of thousands arriving from every corner of America, passing through San Diego on their way to battle; and back home again, the lucky ones, to start life over and for their families to come live in San Diego. In this instance, we were not born suddenly, as the poet had said; but setting down new roots in California, many of us felt reborn.

So now here we all are. Most of us arrived in San Diego from small-town America. Many of us trace our roots to the South and Midwest. Some have done their best to make this city their real home. But an alarming number of San Diegans, in blissful detachment, sense no more civic responsibility than if they were enjoying a resort. We are still trying to get together with each other and understand who we are and what it is we’ve done, and haven’t done, but should do.

For many of us in-migrants, the opportunities of San Diego and the wider world seem infinitely greater than those of an older America we left behind.

But what excites me more are the active questions:

What is it that we should be doing, now that we have settled in and plan to stay?

What should we understand better about our community and our border?

What might Mayor Jerry Sanders ask us as a community to do, to contribute to making ours a notable city? Has he thought about it?

What would the city’s one newspaper like San Diego to become? Has it any idea?

If we want to be part of a brighter, better-managed city that knows who it is and where it’s going, we can’t go on waiting for the other guy. No one has said it better than President John Kennedy:

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country!”

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