“Where there’s a music shall be comin’ out of every car
There is a silence all over downtown” — Gogol Bordello, “Tribal Connection”
Tucked away in the recent edition of Newsweek is a less-than flattering description of San Diego by the noted poet (and Allied Gardens native) Rae Armantrout. “A city without charisma,” she argues, a town of “blankness.” As a born and bred (though admittedly first generation) San Diegan whose college years were also spent in the Bay Area, I have found myself returning to Armantrout’s vivid though unvarnished depiction of our hometown.
To illustrate San Diego, Armantrout relies on the useful foil of San Francisco, whose relative compactness, mass-transit utilization and ardent liberalism (among other characteristics) contrast starkly with our geographically vast, car-dependent, and publicly conservative civic image. Moreover, that sense of place and of purpose felt in San Francisco regardless of neighborhood or specific locale is what Armantrout strongly emphasizes. Her life in San Francisco was “serious, important, real.”
How then, does Armantrout distinguish San Diego from San Francisco? Its silence. The passage stopped me abruptly mid-essay. That silence, which I grew up around and have since returned to, is something as part and parcel San Diego as a languid summer day or the Chargers underperforming under Norv. Sundown in northern suburbs, late night wanderings through a hushed Balboa Park, a.m. in a still waking downtown (forget that fact it may be past 9) — amidst the fighter jets and snaking freeways, there is a stillness in this town that is at once both solitary and serene. If this sounds dubious, I invite you to swim a hundred feet past the shore break at Marine Street and just float. Everything goes quiet; the beach goers fade away, leaving the sunshine and a fleeting second of sheer tranquility.
This stillness in a city of 1.3 million is very real, I contend, but why is this the case? Perhaps San Diego’s “lack of grandiosity,” one of Armantrout’s claims about the city, is part of the explanation; a “nothing but the dead and dying in my little town” argument that is worth further reflection. Maybe San Diegans want to be left alone from politics and controversy (and Zonies), to privately revel in the region’s high quality of life. Whatever the cause, Armantrout is wise to highlight this facet of the city.
But Armantrout goes further, arguing the silence is actually at the very heart of San Diego. My explorations have led to an alternative conclusion. San Diego, like other big cities, is an aggregate of varied and diverse communities. Yet given our expansive geography and the lack of a strong citywide mass transit system, the city can seemingly exist not as a singular entity but rather a confederation of disconnected neighborhoods bound tenuously by interstates, cheap Mexican food and distaste for the cold.
Instead of a singular city core dictated by silence and blankness, there seems to be a series of distinct nodes that cut across these fiefdoms that help define the city of San Diego in its present form. La Jolla Boulevard is as integral to our civic makeup as Chicano Park; Market Creek Plaza is as important to this town as 30th Street and the hodgepodge of Convoy says as much about us as Del Mar Heights. The silence at the heart of this city may not be the absence of movement or dynamism, but merely of several different communities moving quietly and independently of one another.
That is not to say that this absence of a citywide zeitgeist should be accepted. While as dismayed as any resident over the recent damage at Balboa Park, I hope that such a similarly widespread and collective outcry could call attention to weightier issues facing our region (depleted public services, supporting local schools, open space preservation, mass transit expansion, for example).
The silence Armantrout rather elegantly points out, along with those soft, almost silken hues of dusk (her ability to “gaze into the distance” should be a familiar scene to us all) add a richness and beauty to San Diego. However, this city need not always be so quiet.
Zack Warma lives in University City, though is moving to Bird Rock next week and is curious to see if his argument holds up.
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