San Diego is Denver and Other Observations

In the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego, I had a realization: I was in Denver. There’s an Oceanaire, a seafood chain (based in Minneapolis, natch); a Hooter’s, the boobie chain; and a TGI Friday’s, a mediocrity chain. None of this is a dig against SD (but you can suck it, TGI Failday’s) — it just made me think about the goals of travel in a way I’ve never done before.

Balboa Park: totally SD. Downtown: not so much.
Balboa Park: totally SD. Downtown: not so much.

When we travel, we go elsewhere to experience things as they are elsewhere. At least that’s why I like to travel. I’m not a huge fan of traveling around just to see more of the same, the extreme case being that of business travel and being stuck in what I once called the Marriott Archipelago. We go to California to experience California. The Gaslamp Quarter isn’t really California, it’s an urban experience one can have in Denver at the 16th Street pedestrian mall or in downtown Charlotte, NC at the intersection of Tyron and Trade street. It’s not unique to California or San Diego (or Denver or Charlotte) — it’s the result of a common revitalization playbook that many municipalities are running.

To experience San Diego, one must seek out those things that are unique to the area, unique to this little corner of California wedged up against the desert, Mexico, and a smattering of military bases. That’s why we’ve been searching out San Diego fish tacos and taking walks on the beach and observing the surfers. These things we can’t do elsewhere. These things we really enjoy “discovering” on our trip — it just took a trip downtown to realize it.

This sort of Disney downtown isn’t for us. And I don’t think it was designed for us anyway. I think it’s for more local tourists that want a taste of an urban environment, want to walk around tall buildings, want to brush up against a bum or two. Of course, when we were there, we ended up at a bar between a pair of German tourists and a British woman. Maybe they’re the exception that proves the rule. Or maybe they were tired of the beach and just wanted to observe the Super Bowl like us.

So give me your tacos, your hot dogs, your unique landscape. I’ll keep to Mission Beach and Carlsbad and Leucandia and Sunset Cliffs. You can keep your fake downtowns, your big hotels, your national chains. You can have La Jolla too.