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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: San Diego

What can one see in a day, armed with two feet, one car, and a Shell road map acquired on your last, equally quick visit, back in 1964--those Dark Ages when gas stations gave maps away?

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The Western United States: San Diego picture 1

Not the palm trees you remember. It's been a long drive from LAX, and the dusk reveals a downtown much more towered-up than you remembered. Well, 45 years is a long time. We'll just pan to the right. Keep your eye on those tower cranes.

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There they are again, behind a mix of office buildings and mostly new apartment buildings. Watch the flag.

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Apparently downtown San Diego is becoming residential. Call it another chapter in the Decline of the Automotive Age or The Quest for Community.

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The land over there with lights would be the tip of the spit growing northward from Imperial Beach and occupied largely by Coronado; beyond it, Point Loma, which extends south.

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The morning view isn't any more inspiring.

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Banks, banks, banks. The grid is perfect, lettered one way and numbered the other.

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All this renewal is odd in the sense that the new buildings replaced ones that weren't very old.

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On the periphery, lots of midrise apartments.

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Grim if not for the color.

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Techno-esthetic.

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The allure of glass.

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Softened by palms.

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The highrise alternative.

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A survivor.

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Move over! You're hogging all the blanket.

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You don't know what it feels like! It's like living under a concrete sword of Damocles.

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Another kind of survivor. What stories could the walls tell?

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The Santa Fe depot was at one time the biggest Santa Fe station on the west coast. It was built to echo the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which opened in 1915.

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Waiting room. Notice the tile on the walls.

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A closer look.

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Something newer, the sculpture, by Niki de St. Phalle, is called "Coming Together" and sits in front of the Convention Center.

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Location, location, location: stretching north from the Convention Center, seen in the distance, is an old commercial center repurposed as an entertainment venue under the name Gaslamp Quarter.

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One of the larger buildings in the neighborhood.

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A neighborhood icon, this former brothel is sufficiently distanced by time to titillate without offending even conservative visitors.

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Color.

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Ex-Bank of America.

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Ex-Woolworth.

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The Balboa Theater, opened in 1924 and, after a long interval, reopened as a live venue in 2008.

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The Spreckels Theater, built by the city's then-wealthiest resident, John D. Spreckels, whose father Claus had come from Germany and built an empire on sugar.

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We've left downtown and driven to the last exit on Interstate 5 so we can take a look at the border west of San Ysidro, where the highway crosses into Tijuana.

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"Show me a 50-foot fence, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." Here you only need a 16-foot one.

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What were Emma Lazarus words?

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Variety is the spice of life, in this case an unusual fence of tightly spaced concrete columns capped with a sharp wedge of metal.

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We've been rebuffed in our effort to get to the border at the beach: the park there was closed, despite published hours. So we'll head up to Coronado, the town at the northern tip of the long spit reaching north and forming San Diego Bay. Here, the contrast between the famous and touristically magnetic Coronado Hotel straight ahead and, on the left, La Playa, one of a cluster of highrise apartments comprising Coronado Shores.

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The hotel's restaurant, the Crown Room (Coronado means "crowned").

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The hotel, entirely of wood, opened in 1888. John D. Spreckels bought it in 1890, and his family kept it until 1948.

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The hotel now is owned mostly by the Blackstone Group.

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The hotel is built around a fairly sterile but oh-so-clean courtyard.

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The town of Coronado itself fills a grid running from A to J and 1st to 10th. Couldn't be simpler. Some of the houses are massive.

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Others are more modest.

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Some evoke forest fantasy.

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Others stick to a southwestern motif.

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Meanwhile, Britain's Tesco has entered the American market. Where? California, of course, where consumers are always looking for something new. (Except that the experiment failed; a battered Tesco gave up and retreated to Albion, where it had more than enough to worry about.)

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The signs spoke to customers who want to avoid chemicals. After all, healthiness has been part of the California mystique since the Santa Fe arrived in the 1880s with trainloads of retirees seeking immortality.

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They don't want to cook.

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Better to play at the beach, here with the soft cliffs north between Del Mar and La Jolla. How the students at UC San Diego, just to the east, find time to study is a mystery.

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"End of the line." La Jolla in the distance.

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High above the water, lifeguards are in radio contact with guards on the beach below.

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Soft cliffs don't deter Californians.

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"We'll sell it before she slips into the sea."

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Maybe groundcover can stabilize the site a bit, though irrigation water is short.

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Entrance to one of these estates. It's on the street (humorously?) called La Jolla Farms Road.

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A couple of miles farther south: Point La Jolla.

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Just back from the water: Scripps Park and the pink La Jolla Inn.

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Housing nearby. No, the "S"s on the awnings aren't crossed by twin vertical lines. That was just your imagination.

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Across the street, a different option: a vaguely European gated community, swept clean of trash and riffraff.

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The realtor calls it "majestic."

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And something just plain nice, so long as you don't think about the price. In fact it's close to what you remember of San Diego from the last time you breezed through, 45 years ago.


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