Saturday, April 28, 2018

Living in San Diego and East County: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We've lived in San Diego's East County for a tad under six years, which marks our second-longest tenure in one area. For nomadic hobos, that's a long time. During that time, we've had the opportunity to fully explore the Southern California area in general and San Diego in particular. As we've been preparing to move to Colorado, Shelly and I have been doing a lot of reflecting on our time spent here.

Harkening back to the shoe review days, I thought it would be fun to "review" the area. Given California conjures a slew of stereotypes, this accurate and honest assessment might be useful for anyone considering a move to SoCal.

Before I begin, it's worth noting this grading is done from the perspective of a slightly introverted, anti-materialistic, redneck-ish Midwesterner who grew up in the sticks of Northern Michigan who loves new experiences and adventures, especially outdoors. As you'll see, my biases obviously shape my assessment. YMMV.

So let's get started!

The Good

Southern California is an amazing place. There's a reason people flock to the area in droves. Over five million people have moved to the state over the last decade. These are some of the reasons the state is so damn popular:

  • Weather - The weather in San Diego is basically awesome 99% of the time. Temps in the mid-70's, low humidity, almost always sunny, and virtually no severe weather. As you move away from the ocean, we have more extreme temperature fluctuations (East County will see temps ranging from a low near freezing and highs over 100 degrees.) Still, San Diego has the most consistently-pleasant weather I've ever experienced. Light rain is treated like a minor catastrophe. Personally I miss the excitement of severe thunderstorms, tornado warnings, and blizzards, but never having to consider the weather in decision-making has been a nice convenience. 

  • Beaches - San Diego has miles and miles of world-class beaches. It's as simple as that. The thongs are a nice additional bonus. This is one of the things I will miss most about living here. 

  • The People - California has an interesting culture. There's a definite detachment; people seem to live in a bit of a bubble and don't usually pay attention to other people. That manifests as an overall friendliness and acceptance... everyone pretty much does their own thing. Nosey and judgmental people really don't exist here, which is a nice change from West Michigan. Weirdness is uncritically and universally accepted. We like that. Also, the area has a ton of cultural diversity, which we love. 
  • Mexican Food - After traveling all over the country including the entirety of the US/ Mexican border, I can confidently say San Diego has the best Mexican food in the US. And it ain't even close. Cheap, delicious authentic Mexican food is available pretty much everywhere, and various incarnations of Mexican fusion cuisine are plentiful. We're totally spoiled; after living here, the Mexican food we've eaten elsewhere is trash. 

  • Fresh Produce - We have a wide variety of cheap, flavorful, fresh produce available all year long. The "off season" produce here is better than the produce available during harvest season in the Midwest. This makes healthy eating exceptionally easy even on a limited budget. I don't think most native Californians appreciate how good the produce here is compared to the rest of the country.
  • Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - Okay, this one's for a limited audience, but it's a reason we've stuck around here for almost six years. We love our gym (San Diego Fight Club), which is just one of close to a hundred legitimate bjj gyms/ schools/ academies here in San Diego County. This area is basically the biggest Mecca outside Brazil filled with a who's who of the sport.

The Bad

Southern California isn't all muffins wrapped in Rainbows. While five million people moved to the state, six million moved away. It's not uncommon for people to move to the area for the reasons listed above, live for a few years, then leave for the reasons listed below. 

  • Crime - Crime statistics, on paper, make the San Diego area seem relatively safe. Indeed, this handy tool indicates our former town of Allendale, Michigan is more crime-ridden than our current city of El Cajon, California. But crime stats only tell part of the story because many crimes aren't prosecuted. There's so much low-level crime here, the local police and legal system is completely overwhelmed. Criminal behavior that just gets ignored here would result in years in prison in Michigan. Theft, burglary, shoplifting, fraud, identity theft, minor assault, stalking, harassment... most of that is just ignored by the authorities because they have more significant public safety issues to contend with. As such, the area's a little bit like the Wild West. You have to take constant steps to protect yourself by always locking stuff up, locking doors, staying off the streets at night, always being vigilant when walking down the street, avoiding dangerous areas, etc. People who like to feel safe without taking precautions will not enjoy the area because you will be victimized in some way. I like that the area has been a good training ground to teach our kids about personal safety, but the constant vigilance is exhausting. 
  • Taxes and Regulations - The stereotypes are real. Taxes and regulations in California are ridiculous, mostly because the state pisses away money on really stupid projects and initiatives. Which results in a perpetually-stressed state budget. Not only are taxes outrageous, the fees for anything and everything are soul-crushing. The state bureaucracy is basically like a irresponsible, needy kid always begging you for five dollars here, fifty dollars there because they can't stop buying new farm machinery in Farmville. This place'll nickel and dime you to death. And starting a business? Fuggetaboutit. The red tape, fees, and taxes will kill your bottom line, no matter your business.
  • All Other Food, Including Beer - The food and beer here in San Diego is, relative to the rest of the country, shockingly mediocre. There are some notable exceptions, but this has been one of the most disappointing aspects of living here. Finding a phenomenal burger or pizza is almost impossible. Italian? Chinese? Thai? Indian? Japanese? All forgettable. Even the fast food and chain restaurants are pretty bad. And the beer? Pretty much all of it is over-hopped and harsh. If it weren't for the Mexican food, this area would be a culinary black hole. The only people who seem to think San Diego has great food are natives who have never traveled to other culinary epicenters. We've acclimated and lowered expectations, but we're reminded of this every time we travel out of the area, especially our vastly underrated former West Michigan home.
The only ingredient in San Diego beers...

  • Public Restrooms - California in general and Southern California in particular have some of the dirtiest, run-down public bathrooms I've ever seen in the United States. It's as bad or maybe even worse than New York City. This baffled me when we first moved here, but it turns out there's a very good explanation. I'll cover that in a bit. If you do need to find decent bathrooms, Starbucks, Walmart, and Target are usually among your best choices. Gas stations? Forget about it. 
  • Customer Service - First, I have to qualify this by saying we frequent quite a few businesses with amazing customer service because of their excellent customer service. Great service does exist in SoCal if you look for it. Need a recommendation on a place with great customer service? Just ask; I'm more than happy to support those businesses. But on the whole, customer service is atrocious. Far too many people in the service industry here are disinterested, unfriendly, and not especially helpful. If you actually need something, prepare to be assertive if not downright demanding and hostile.
  • The People - This is probably a cultural thing derived from being a Midwesterner. The same positives I mentioned above also have a real downside. People more or less live in their own little bubble, which also means they tend to be oblivious to anything and everything around them. When interacting with strangers in stores, on the sidewalk, or when driving, it's not uncommon for people to just wander into your path. It's as if everyone believes they're the only person occupying their immediate surroundings. It's a silly little detail, but gets infuriating after awhile. This is also part of the reason crime is rampant... far too many people are way too trusting and lack basic situational awareness. 

    The other real downside? Southern Californians, with a few exceptions, are soft. They don't experience a lot of adversity. There are no harsh winters. Serious natural disasters hit infrequently. The state provides ample social safety nets. If you're in trouble, someone else is always there to throw you a life preserver. Many residents aren't capable of even the most simple self-reliance tasks other people have learned out of necessity. Leisure is a way of life. This is a major reason all our friends here are martial artists, current or former military, law enforcement, or borderline criminals... we gravitated towards the few people who aren't fragile snowflakes. 

The Ugly

There are a few really bad aspects to the San Diego area, which are the deal-breakers for Shelly and I. The bad stuff above is tolerable, but this is the stuff that ultimately drove us to move. 

  • The Traffic - There are a lot of cars in San Diego. About 1.3 million people drive to work without carpooling. Less than 5% of the population uses public transportation, bikes, or walks to work. This problem is coupled by two "types" of drivers commonly found in San Diego - the overly-cautious and the dangerously-oblivious. Some drivers here are cautious to the extreme. It's not uncommon to see people coming to a near-complete stop to let someone merge on a highway. It's also not uncommon to see people completely ignoring traffic signs. And laws. Finally, traffic is made worse by a weird tendency to ignore the "slower vehicles to the right, faster vehicles to the left" norm found pretty much everywhere else. This results in many drivers passing on the left or right at seemingly random times, which makes them frustratingly unpredictable. Traveling anywhere near rush hour takes forever. As a country boy accustomed to driving at normal speeds to get from point A to point B, this aspect of San Diego royally sucks. 

  • The Crowds - It's impossible to escape the crowds in San Diego. Everywhere you go, there are people. Lots and lots of people. Everywhere. Grocery stores? Packed. Restaurants? Packed. Malls? Packed. Movie theaters? Packed. Museums? Packed. Beaches? Packed. Hiking trails? Packed. The only saving grace? Most people don't get started until about 9:30-10:00 in the morning, so there's a tiny sliver of time to get errands done without having to deal with the masses. Otherwise, every place is busy all the time. It's the only place I've ever lived where there are huge crowds everywhere even in the middle of a work day. People don't seem to work all that much in San Diego. 

  • Natural Disasters - Earthquakes, Santa Ana-fueled wildfires, mudslides, tsunamis, drought, and floods... all are significant dangers here in SoCal. There's even a small chance a hurricane could strike the area. Compounding this problem is a population that isn't especially resilient and is rather complacent when it comes to preparing for disasters. One significant earthquake along the San Andreas could feasibly cut off the California Aqueduct, a huge chunk of the electricity grid, and most landline communications. With few people prepared for days or weeks without water, food, or electricity, the entire region is precariously close to a complete social collapse. The possible dangers from all the potential disasters are manageable, but it's the human factor that scares me. 

  • The Homeless - Before moving here, I was very sympathetic to the homeless. Most homeless people I encountered in Michigan and elsewhere were victims of unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. Unemployed, the mentally-ill, veterans... you know, people like that. Here in SoCal? We have those folks. But we also have tweakers, junkies, petty criminals, sex offenders, and transients among our homeless population. They litter, wander into traffic, shit and piss everywhere (part of the reason our public restrooms suck), steal anything that's not bolted down, cause wildfires, harass kids and the elderly, spear hepatitis A and other diseases, and basically take over our public transportation system. As a school security guard, a major element of my job is patrolling every nook and cranny of our school grounds to make sure homeless people aren't living on our campus. To make matters worse, we have a lot of rich people who live in gated communities (ironically to keep out the homeless) who feed the homeless in places like public parks. That encourages the homeless to form large encampments away from the actual social services which serve their community, which makes most parks and other public lands unusually dangerous.

  • Cost of Housing - I could probably live with everything on this list if it weren't for this one. San Diego is the 10th most expensive place to live in the US. It's about 148% of the national average, mostly because of the ridiculous housing prices. In Michigan, we rented a very nice three bedroom, two bathroom 1,400 square foot duplex for $750. Here in California, we rent a shitty two bedroom 1,000 square foot apartment in an RV park for $1,200. If our apartment were a condo, it would cost around $350,000. In the town we're moving to in Colorado, we could buy two three bedroom, two bathroom single family houses for that price. Needless to say, the positives of living here do not offset the stupidly-expensive real estate prices. We've had a long-term dream of owning acreage for play, growing a garden, and raising animals, but that dream simply isn't possible here in SoCal. 


So... is San Diego worth it? If you're considering moving to the area, would I encourage or discourage you? 

For us, San Diego was a lot of fun. Until it wasn't. Like many areas that aren't great matches for our personalities, San Diego has a lot of fun and interesting things to offer. It also has some serious drawbacks. Despite those drawbacks, I do not regret our decision to live here for the last five-plus years. Aside from the life-changing experiences we've learned from our coaches and gym teammates, this has been a truly unique experience. It's allowed both Shelly and I to grow in a way we probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere else. For that, I'm eternally grateful. But it's time to go.

Would you love it? Maybe. If you have a high tolerance for crowds and traffic, can take care of your own shit, don't mind homeless people and panhandlers everywhere, and you're wealthy, San Diego might be a good fit. Minimally, it's a fun place to live for at least a few years. For single professionals? The place would probably be a blast... at least for a few years.

If you ever have the opportunity, give it a shot. 



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