Monday, April 16, 2007 | We San Diegans often seek ways to excuse ourselves for refusing to behave like the other kids. It’s a pleasant game — the indulgence of forgiving ourselves because we are a 21st century city, inhabiting the edgy worlds of high-tech and higher-education.

Yet San Diego is also a soft-hearted, informal, Midwestern kind of town. The heart of San Diego still bounces around at the beach, not yet quite ready to commit for the future, nor to settle down for life.

So the longer we seek to explain the sudden thrusts and mood swings of this diverse and laidback city, the more difficult the task. It’s awkward because most of us seem to like the way things are in San Diego. And most of us are old enough to feel a little spoiled. Is our city still at the awkward civic age of making excuses for our mistakes and then forgiving ourselves?

This easy mood has long been in style for our laidback city. It may continue for a long time, at least until the tax rate soars to pay off our mindlessness in the pension scandals. That’s when the world had a glimpse of us as the rubes that we insist we are not.

At least we do seem to be outgrowing real estate scams, which long provided a lot of newspaper headlines and made some people think San Diegans were pigeons. Still, we have to be reminded too often to count our change, and not be so fast to open the front door to strangers.

Two hospitable families in my part of town were recently burgled that way. You can go too far with San Diego hospitality. While you are trying to find a chair for visitor No. 1 in your living room, his companion has swept through your house, filled his sack like Santa Claus and disappeared through the back yard.

If we complain too loudly about anything, even dumb decisions at City Hall for instance, some people feel quite free to ask that most unpleasant question: Why don’t we just go live somewhere else?

Of course, that’s the last resort, one that most San Diegans are determined to avoid. But the responsible way to survive in any place across the land is to call in the law when there’s trouble … or, at the very least, to notify your City Council member.

Often, nothing less will help. I promise that going on a talk show, as a friend did last month to talk about rats in his garden, just doesn’t get it done. All that did was kill off the audience for the poor talk show host, who obviously hadn’t been in radio for very long.

I did a couple of pre-dawn interviews on television not long ago, and realized I wasn’t hungry enough to be a successful author pitching his new book. Not even to talk up an early listener about my favorite new media,

What we need to make San Diego a kinder, wiser city is pretty much straightforward. We need more volunteer workers in parts of town who don’t have scenic views.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Mayor Sanders and his City Hall people start a civic revival meeting. We need people and ideas to match our sunshine and sea, our aspirations and ambitions.

Planning for San Diego was once an important department at City Hall. But budgets got tight, and we don’t hear so much about planning. Some City Hall people pass the buck: They say they are not getting clear directions from San Diegans about where and how this city should grow. If that’s true, it’s time for a civic revival meeting across San Diego.

San Diego has tended to spread wherever real estate developers care to take it. It took the Corky McMillin Cos. nearly a decade to get its hunk of the old Naval Training Center, and what happened then was more of the same old same. In any of those years, the city could have put together a non-profit plan for a harbor front park like Balboa Park. We all talked about it for a while and that was that.

The city itself needs to be the leader in land use. Instead, we seem oblivious when we turn away major national developers for a park project of that magnitude. It is sad when a company trades off gems of scarce urban land to an outside, for-profit company. We all would like to believe we have as much to do with land planning in San Diego as McMillin. Maybe he just tried harder. He made the profit. But must we allow profit to be a stronger motive in shaping our city than making it beautiful?

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