Young, old challenge San Diego's history of civic status quo

By Neil Morgan
SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

March 31, 2002

I welcome the tangy breezes that blow in with your e-mails and letters as we focus on how San Diego will aim higher, and try to mend disturbing tears in our urban comfort blanket.

"I enjoy cynicism and hand-wringing as much as the next person," writes City Councilman Scott Peters, one of the more statesmanlike of our elected representatives.  "And I especially appreciate the guy in one of your earlier columns who called on civic leaders to be courageous without having to give us his name.

"But there are a handful of people in San Diego who really know how to prepare our city for the next 50 years, who are working their backsides off to do just that, and they just don't get any publicity.  How about a column from you in which you describe the 10 civic actors who see a great future for San Diego and can play an important part in getting us there? (None is me.) I will be happy to suggest a few nominations."

Great.

I have my own list of San Diegans who are striving against old San Diego odds to break through the political system with "new" energy and ideas, many of which are already working well in other cities.  Councilman Peters and I have scheduled an urgent work session.  Such a growing and elastic San Diego list can become the hard core of promise for our civic future, gaining strength from all who finally sense that change is possible.

Then there are wise others, like Morris Sievert, who grew and ran Solar Turbines, and has been bristling at San Diego complacency for the 40 years I've known him.  Like Malin Burnham and the much younger Scott Peters, he never surrenders:

"When I read about Malin calling for boldness, I feel an urge to offer my two cents:

"We all seem to agree that this wonderful city has had too many leaders in the past who have had a remarkable lack of vision.

"One example: The fact that Solar still sits on that very valuable land beside the bay is a shame.  That Miramar isn't San Diego International Airport (in a joint operation with the military if need be, as it once could have been) is incredible, and this comes from one who has watched and been involved in the issue and seen so many missed opportunities since arriving in town 45 years ago.

"It's my sense that a major reason such obvious moves haven't been accomplished over time has been that our 'cul de sac' attitude has been strong enough to stop many projects that we now look back on and know we should have done.

"I join your great pride in the marvelous academic institutions and research facilities, and the many assets they bring to San Diego.

"But the infrastructure problems -- the sewers, the roads, and the host of other budget pains we are suffering -- would be much less severe if the tax base included more companies like Solar and what Ryan, Convair and Rohr used to be: High-paying jobs and all that a major corporate presence means to a city.  It's not just the tax base; it's vital to civic philanthropies as well.

"But even now, if we decide to be serious and work on such problems together, we can still do much to improve life for all in San Diego."

Michael T. Lynch of La Jolla does not share my "optimism concerning reforming our present civic doldrums."

"As you point out, our city has carried out such plans in the past.  Now we set the same grand plans, but corrupt or ignore them when they involve any kind of political pressure.

"Nothing will change in San Diego as long as a combination of brainwashing and our civic inferiority complex keeps us believing we must allow large institutions and real estate developers carte blanche to do what they wish, fearing that otherwise they will shut down our economic engine."

Yet for me, one unsuspected joy in this current civic awakening is the people I'm meeting for the first time.  Some come to my newsroom office, spurred by the notion that something may be changing in San Diego.  I see strong, bright faces and sense fast and teeming minds, younger San Diegans who don't intend to be stopped.  We remember from our youth, if we allow ourselves to: Batter down the rotten doors!

"Just let us get inside the door," one told me.

As Ed Wohland writes, "The world is spinning out of control with opportunity.  Consider the (Malin) Burnham challenge to San Diegans with a twist: Tell people about 'opportunity,' and those who will, will show up.  The others will go back to sleep.  That'll be enough to do the job.  We have so little time and so much to do: Let's hurry!"

Neil Morgan can be reached by e-mail at neil.morgan@uniontrib.com.

The San Diego Union-Tribune (Print Edition)
SECTION: LOCAL; Pg. B-3