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Commentary : San Diego Looks Good, From L.A. : Life Style: A former San Diegan tells what he misses about the city, and a few surprisingly pleasant things he has found in Los Angeles.

<i> Richard Kipling was city editor of The Times' San Diego County Edition from 1984 until July of this year, and before that he was an editor at the San Diego Union. He is now assistant hiring editor for The Times in Los Angeles. He grew up in Kansas</i>

On a typical winter morning in the foothill suburbs north of Los Angeles, the air is mountain-crisp and clear as I start my drive to work. Descending into downtown, whizzing past Glendale, Eagle Rock, Echo Park, the smog appears--first out there, then gradually enveloping the landscape, my commute, my workday.

No more kidding myself. This isn’t haze or coastal fog; no more promises of San Diego burn-off by noon. It’s S-M-O-G.

It has been more than five months since I left San Diego; five months of living in this sprawling megalopolis I had spent almost 25 years in Southern California avoiding.

After nine years of living and working and surveying San Diego as a newspaper editor, moving away--especially to dreaded Los Angeles--has brought out in bold relief what I like and miss about San Diego, what hold it has over me.

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I’ve found that, while some of the things I miss are predictable, others are more curious, unexpected. And I’ve found a few things that I don’t miss, and a few positive surprises in Los Angeles.

Here’s a catalogue:

* Water. I expected the ocean to remain a part of my life when I moved here. Wrong, how wrong, and how I miss San Diego’s water-closeness.

From the moment you enter San Diego County on Interstate 5, water becomes a major part of the landscape. Past San Onofre, Pendleton, then the coastal communities and right into downtown San Diego, water beckons.

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And the city itself? San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, the Pacific--the city is built around water. The downtown crawls right to its edge, on two sides. Many of the neighborhoods have wonderful views of it. San Diego and water are not separate entities; there is no San Diego without water.

Now, conjure up L.A.--workaday L.A., not the public-relations version. It is emphatically not a water city. The downtown is almost 20 miles from the water; it might as well be Phoenix with higher buildings. No L.A. freeway offers a surfside view. Except for the utterly unaffordable far Westside, most of the neighborhoods--even many wealthy ones--are 30, 40 minutes from the water, and sans ocean view. No, San Diego wins the water derby hands down.

* Downtown. This one surprised me. I expected downtown Los Angeles to be an “L.A. Law” kind of place--vibrant, high-energy, filled with cafes, restaurants and shops vying to attract downtown workers like me. Instead, I found a disjointed, spread-out downtown, broken up by freeways and fast-traffic streets and inconvenient, uncultivated hills.

Until I arrived in Los Angeles, I took San Diego’s convenient, coming-alive downtown for granted. Now I recognize its charms: the short blocks that bring all of downtown within easy walking reach; the burgeoning cafe/restaurant scene; the outdoor food carts and proliferating coffee bars; the bayside open space, views of water and breezes that cool the downtown air. I would never have guessed this a few months ago, but I’ll take San Diego’s downtown over L.A.'s any time.

* Traffic. No surprise here. Take the height of morning rush-hour traffic heading into San Diego from North County, multiply by three and then watch it stay at that level all day long. That’s Los Angeles. Some nights I leave work at 8 and there are still tie-ups on the major freeways. The logjam has gotten so bad that, on surface streets, drivers routinely run the first seconds of red traffic lights. No one expects to be cited, and they aren’t. Los Angelization? Hey, San Diego’s not in the same league--yet.

* Pace. Life in San Diego is less frenetic than it is for the average workaday Angeleno. So much time is spent getting to and from anywhere here in the Basin that there’s little time left to do anything. And the crush of people at the places you do go makes any expedition daunting. By comparison, San Diego is a marvel of accessibility.

* Smog. I never considered the psychological impact of the stuff. It’s a prime cause of grouchiness, edginess, depression. So not only do I wheeze and cough and rub my eyes, but I yell at my wife, my car and my computer. You can get used to it, I suppose, but at what cost? Maybe San Diegans won’t have to get used to it. At least that’s what you want to believe.

Now to the things that I haven’t missed, and a few things about Los Angeles that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.

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* Boosterism. In five months here, I’ve yet to hear a city official talk about how L.A. is really No. 1, or try to persuade its citizens to vote for spending X to build Y because a “world-class” city needs one. No, L.A. seems to go about its booming business without reducing its elected officials to hucksters.

It seems to me it’s time San Diego did the same, and stopped using the self-congratulatory civic rhetoric: “America’s Finest.” Let the beauty and amenities of the nation’s sixth-largest city speak for themselves, and get its elected officials to spend their time on its problems, not its P.R.

* Foliage. I’m shocked when I visit San Diego these days at how denuded it appears in comparison to Los Angeles. In most of the L.A. metropolitan area that I frequent, there are wonderful, mature shade trees as well as Southern California’s trademark palms. The foliage not only offers relief from sun and heat, but also lends a sense of tradition, of permanence to the communities that have cared for them.

In San Diego, by contrast, most every community has palms, a few other light-limbed species, and very little else. Drive through North Park or Kensington or Normal Heights or Clairemont or San Carlos or even Mission Hills and Point Loma and you see more sky than tree. Perhaps San Diegans don’t like trees and love open sky. But when I compare the two, Los Angeles simply comes off as more lovely, more gracious, more permanent.

* Development. Whether it is threatening views along the downtown bayfront, slicing away mountains or plowing under flower fields, development in San Diego is becoming ugly. Each time I make the drive down I-5 toward San Diego, I see hillsides being mowed down, houses going up just off the lagoons; formerly wonderful, green vistas increasingly are being replaced by views of rooftops.

Curiously, I find it even uglier now than I did as a San Diegan, perhaps because I now know what it will look like in five years; perhaps because now I expect San Diego to be my respite from the relentless sprawl of L.A.

San Diego still offers that wonderful, physical sense of freedom or freshness or openness. Whatever it is, I don’t think I’m the only one to experience it when I dash south across the Orange County line. But that feeling is diminishing because of the pressures of growth and the inability of the various governmental structures to control it. No one who has lived in San Diego, left it and returned can fail to be shocked by the way growth has changed the feeling of the area.

I haven’t been quite fair to L.A. in all this. People here are friendly. We identify with neighborhoods instead of the whole. Most of us Angelenos don’t spend time in the glitz of Beverly Hills or on Rodeo Drive; it’s as foreign to us as it is to most San Diegans. We survive the sprawl by settling for activity pockets--areas nearby that offer recreation, food, drink and cultural and entertainment possibilities.

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Plus, we have relatively easy access to those wonderful things that San Diegans and others flock to L.A. for--its wide variety of big-time sports, music, stage, shopping and, yes, glitz.

Still, the quality of life in Los Angeles does not equal life’s quality in San Diego.

But when I drive south down I-5, I find myself wondering about San Diego’s future, and all the yelling about Los Angelization. I think that when San Diego’s freeways really get crowded; when smog becomes truly intolerable; when no one can point to an open field or a mountain without a flattop--well, don’t blame Los Angeles. Seems to me, San Diegans will have done that to themselves.


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