San Diego’s Beauty Is Only Skin Deep for Many


“You said it Larry, San Diego is the most beautiful city in the country.”

--George Stephanopoulos, senior advisor to President Clinton, on CNN’s “Larry King Live”


From the narrow vantage point used as a backdrop by Cable News Network and the other television networks, it might be hard to dispute that San Diego is drop-dead gorgeous and bursting with opportunity.


A decade of government and private investment has turned a shabby waterfront into a showplace, where a gleaming convention center, silvery hotels, an upscale marina and two grassy parks sit beside San Diego Bay.

Not far away are other delights: pristine beaches, funky coastal neighborhoods, ultra-chic La Jolla, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and neighborhoods that, according to FBI crime statistics, are the safest of any big city in America.

But there is another San Diego that is not visible from tree-lined Harbor Drive outside the convention center or the jazz spots and trendy eateries of the nearby Gaslamp Quarter.

In that San Diego, housing equity and blue-collar job opportunities have declined sharply, and per capita income took a nose dive for several years and only recently struggled back to the 1989 level, once inflation is figured in. The gap between the haves and the working poor is widening. The battle against crack houses and street drug dealers is still underway, and the outcome is unknown.

“I’m the part of San Diego nobody wants to talk about,” said James Watkins, 36, standing at 24th and Imperial avenues, an area known for poverty, crime and blight. Just a quick cab ride away is the Republican National Convention, where the official motto is “Restoring the American Dream.”

“San Diego is no jobs, no help and no luck,” said Watkins. “Nobody cleaned up my neighborhood because the Republicans were coming to town.”

While San Diego has become a center for the rapidly expanding biotech and communication industries, manufacturing jobs--the kind that allow a worker to buy a home and raise a couple of kids--are disappearing, particularly with the demise of the Convair division of General Dynamics.

“That’s the dark underside of the economy that the media doesn’t talk about,” said Peter Navarro, associate professor of business administration at UC Irvine and a Democratic congressional candidate in San Diego. “But in Clairemont, Serra Mesa and North Park, people are feeling real pain.”


More than in most communities, the trend toward an economy tilted toward low-wage jobs in the service, tourism and retail industries continues.

In recent weeks, maintenance workers and food-service workers at a San Diego hospital and the Sports Arena were given a choice: Accept a sharp pay cut or lose your job. It’s a common dilemma as companies “outsource” semiskilled work.

“The middle class is being depleted in San Diego,” said Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. “Biotech is great, but, if you don’t have that kind of education, those jobs aren’t available. What’s available is $6-an-hour jobs, and nobody can survive in San Diego on that.”

San Diego will continue to lag behind the rest of California in overcoming the recession because of its transportation problems, said Alan Gin, associate professor of economics at the University of San Diego and author of a monthly index of economic indicators for San Diego County.


“To broaden your manufacturing base, you need good air, rail and sea transportation,” Gin said, “and San Diego is deficient in all three.”

For a generation, San Diego leaders have been unable to find a replacement for Lindbergh Field, which is too small for the jumbo jets used for cargo flights or overseas passenger routes. Mayor Susan Golding, working feverishly on last-minute details to ensure that the convention went smoothly, lost a fight in the City Council to expand the airport.

There is no rail line to the east. And the San Diego port, an inviting tourist attraction, is a poor second to Long Beach Harbor in cargo-handling.

Nevertheless, Golding, in her welcoming speech to the convention Monday, seized on the theme that San Diego should serve as a shining example to the rest of the country.


“Here in San Diego, we did what Bob Dole wants to do for all of America,” Golding told the convention. San Diego “is a place where Republican ideas really do work and have worked.”

Not all local politicians agree. Rep. Bob Filner, the area’s only Democratic member of Congress, is trying to show reporters and delegates that San Diego, despite its many charms, is not yet paradise.

He said Tuesday that Golding’s glowing assessment of San Diego “is right for half of San Diego. It has worked for them.

“But it hasn’t worked for the other half, where there is high unemployment, health clinics are struggling, people get health care from the emergency room and people have no job opportunities or chance to get a good education for their kids. That’s the reality of the other half of San Diego.”


Roberto Aguilar, 26, who works sporadically as a construction laborer to feed his family of six, said that San Diego should do more for people who need help, not just the tourists who flock to the hotels and beaches. “We live here, but sometimes I don’t think San Diego cares about me,” he said.

Beyond the anecdotal evidence, there are statistics suggesting that San Diego, despite some bright spots, is still in the grip of economic malaise. For example, taxable retail sales, a key indicator of a community’s economic health and confidence, were lower in 1995 than in 1987.

The growth of the homeless population on downtown streets has outstripped the ability, and desire, of the city government to provide assistance.

“For five years, this city has been cutting back on services to the homeless,” said Msgr. Joe Carroll, director of the St. Vincent De Paul Society homeless shelter. “At the same time, the homeless are getting pushed out of the Gaslamp, away from the tourists. Nobody gave an order, but somehow it’s just happening.”


Much is made by Golding and others about San Diego having one of the highest percentages (29%) of college graduates of any city in the country. Less is said, however, about the educational struggles of minority children.

Twenty-two percent of Latino children and 16% of black children who enroll in high school in San Diego drop out. For Anglo children, the figure is only 8%. Three decades of intense effort have failed to significantly narrow the achievement gap between Anglo children and minority children.

“I love San Diego, I do,” said Miriam Williams, 43, whose husband is an unemployed roofer. “But it’s not an easy place to live for a lot of people.”