Online since August 2002
Culture, Politics and Technology

Dissing San Diego

I've been trying to read the fairly recent "Sunshine/Noir" compilation. Really, I have.

But I just can't get through most of it.

It's the sort of anthology published by academics trying to prove their hipness, desperately seeking artistic street cred. And no wonder. Jim Miller, editor of "Sunshine/Noir," is a prof of English at San Diego City College.


Subtitled "Writing from San Diego and Tijuana," much of "Sunshine/Noir" is poorly written, simplistic, obvious and attitudinally political in all the usual "progressive" ways – i.e., designed to provoke predictable cries of outrage from conservative moralists without any danger of provoking real thought or change.

The promotional blurb on the back jacket of the book describes it as "groundbreaking and innovative" – but it's about as groundbreaking and innovative as a Fidel Castro speech or a Nehru jacket. It's full of the same politically straitjacketed pessimism that has passed for leftist thought in this country since the 1960s.

It all has the feel of a carefully choreographed dance between the polarized left and the polarized right: Trendy little hipsters write/paint/record something angry and defiant, self-appointed moral guardians try to shout them down.

The rest of us wonder whatever happened to the intellectual lifestyle we read about in Stein, Hemingway and de Beauvoir.

It's not all bad, of course. The opening stanzas of Marilyn Chin's "Where We Live Now (Vol. 3, #4): eternal noonscape" are pure magic. Megan Webster's "The Beast" is a powerful, poetic look at the 2003 wildfires that swept through the county.

But if you're going to write an "alternative" history of San Diego, at least get your facts straight. In Leilani Clark's "Fear in the Heart of Golden Hill," she makes the usual claim that racism was behind the decision of a trendy, yuppie art gallery to close after it was robbed by a group of local teens. Clark claims that in her 10 years of working in Golden Hill, she's seen it "colonized" by whites, pushing the previous Latino working-class residents out.

My roots in Golden Hill go back a quarter century, back to when the Latinos and blacks were still the newcomers, slowly joining the whites who'd raised their families there in the 1950s and '60s. From 1979 to '81, I practically lived across the street from the KFC Clark writes of – because my girlfriend (mixed-race, like much of the neighborhood) lived there, and I worked the graveyard shift at the Jack in the Box by City College. A few years later, around '85, I was back, helping a subsequent girlfriend (Jewish this time) move closer to San Diego State. During all that time, I saw none of the "white flight" Clark writes of – plenty of Anglos lived in the homes they'd grown up in; others were still moving in, living side by jowl with new neighbors of different backgrounds. One chicken-shit art gallery owner running off from a bunch of dumb-ass teenagers does not white flight make.

Another note of correction to Clark's wildly imaginative "history": The Turf Supper Club was rehabilitated not just by Casbah owner Tim Mays, but also by Sam Chammas in a partnership. They rehabbed it not as a statement to diversity or to make Golden Hill an outpost of white culture: They brought the Turf Supper Club back to life because it's an incredibly cool piece of San Diego's cultural history. (They make a hell of a Manhattan there, too.)

Which brings us back to the unifying theme of the book, this idea that Miller propagates in his Introduction – that San Diego is a literary and cultural backwater in desperate need of the kind of illumination only a brave visionary like he can provide.

This proposition of his is anything but hip, anything but insightful. It is nothing more than a tired, shopworn cliché. Every "alternative" newspaper, every "underground" theater group, every "progressive" coffee house over the past three decades has played the same sorry song: San Diegans are a bunch of mindless Republican drones and/or military rednecks and only we can save them.


If San Diego has an abundance of anything besides pretentious college professors sucking at the public teat while condemning the same middle-class taxpayers who subsidize said academics' bohemian lifestyle, it's culture.

From the gem of Balboa Park – one of the great urban parks of the Western world – to the world-class theater at the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego REP; from internationally famous music venues like the Belly Up Tavern and the Casbah; from our steadily improving museum scene to the overstuffed shelves of the Wahrenbrocks and Warwicks book stores to the positively dripping in joie de vivre of the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego is awash in culture literary, musical, theatrical, artistic and anything else you want it to be.

This isn't even a new development that Miller et al somehow missed out on. We have a solid, established cultural heritage here for those willing to open their eyes and look. Max Miller was one of the great newspaper men of the 20th Century, his "I Cover the Waterfront" a classic of journalism 80 years after he penned it while working for the old San Diego Sun.

The Playhouse and Globe have been premiering edgy, new plays for decades as well as sending new hits to Broadway; the REP, Sledgehammer and Diversionary Theatres have all provided homes for left-wing political theater – the REP for a quarter-century. And in Lamb's Players, we have one of the few professional-caliber Christian theater companies in the country – talk about counter-culture!

Rob Hagey's Street Scene is the largest musical festival in the western U.S., the Adams Avenue Roots Festival and the Adams Avenue Street Fair are longstanding culture and musical festivals celebrating folk music of all stripes.

And a town that's served as home to as many different political and cultural newspapers and magazines through the years as San Diego has can hardly be indifferent to the letters.

We're even home to one of the best all-jazz stations in the world, KSDS Jazz 88 at Miller's own City College. (Although if you're going to thank KSDS station manager Mark DeBoskey for supporting your book, you might try spelling his name right. He's right there on campus. And while you're fixing the spelling of Mark's name, might I point out that "busses" are kisses; "buses" are the large conveyances that had the political art on them. Likewise, we're all "entitled" to our civil rights, but a book is "titled.")

Ultimately, "Sunshine/Noir" fails because a close-minded attitude permeates far too much of it. There is an overriding presumption that anything mainstream and optimistic is by definition racist, materialistic and without merit.

That may be Miller's point of view, but it's a rather narrow one at that and one not at all representative of an exciting, vibrant town with an active arts and cultural life.

Published January 2006

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