Locals call it the Sunshine Tax: the willingness we all have to make certain concessions for the privilege of living in the place that's been branded "America's Finest City."
Baseball players and corporate executives accept less money for jobs that might pay more handsomely in places such as Boston or Minneapolis, figuring that a minor salary reduction is a reasonable price to pay for never, ever having to shovel another driveway. In fact, a 2010 Harris Poll found that San Diego was the nation's second most popular place Americans would like to live in or near (New York City came in number one).
The Sunshine Tax hints at the ethos lying at the heart of San Diego. With 70 miles of pristine coastline and plenty of sunny days, this is a place where play comes first, making a buck second.
Sure, there's industry here. In fact, this is one of the country's leading centers for manufacturing, defense, bio-science, and high-tech. But it's the fun stuff that really gets us going, and that's not limited to our most famous attractions (the beach, SeaWorld, the Zoo, and Balboa Park).
Due in part to its diverse topography, with canyons and mesas slicing the area into dozens of discrete pockets, San Diego's identity is hard to sum up in a word. It's a city of villages, as civic planners like to say, and each neighborhood has its own style.
There are the coastal enclaves that could only be found in Southern California, from tony La Jolla by the sea to funky, counterculture Ocean Beach to sleepy Encinitas in North County.
Then there's San Diego's urban side. Though they may not have been much 25 years ago, today downtown's Gaslamp Quarter and East Village vibrate with big-city buzz, while hip uptown spots such as Hillcrest and North Park deliver edgier fashion and culture.
Thanks to growing cultural and dining scenes, unparalleled outdoor activities, sports franchises, and other entertainment options, urban San Diego can now go toe-to-toe with any American metropolis.
San Diego Today
San Diego is a place of many identities and perhaps defines itself most strongly in terms of what it isn't: namely, Los Angeles. Home to Hollywood and much of California's industry, Los Angeles casts a long shadow over its kid sister to the south, a city that once hoped to be Southern California's dominant metropolis. Today, many natives have come to dislike the City of Angels and all that it stands for. Where career-minded Angelenos have a reputation for wheeling and dealing and superficiality, San Diegans are a laid-back lot who seldom ask, "So, what do you do?"
San Diego's redheaded stepchild identity can trace its roots at least as far back as the 1880s, when the city's sudden and dramatic boom hinged on its hope of becoming the West Coast terminus of the Santa Fe Railway's transcontinental railroad. The city's subsequent cataclysmic bust coincided with the Santa Fe's decision to reroute its line through L.A., making San Diego the end of a spur line and squashing dreams of transforming the city's promising port into the seat of commerce and industry in the Southland.
Just as San Diego is defined, in part, by its northern neighbor, so, too, is it shaped by its sibling to the south. With the world's busiest land-border crossing, San Ysidro, located less than 20 miles south of downtown, San Diego is heavily influenced by Tijuana, and vice versa. Despite nearly 600 miles of fencing and concertina wire running along the southwestern border, language, food, and culture fly back and forth. (People, too: Visitors are often surprised by the yellow freeway signs that caution drivers to watch for families running across the highway.) In fact, the Mexican flag flew over Old Town for a few decades before the Mexican-American War, and for nearly a quarter-century, San Diego was the unofficial capital of Upper (Alta) and Lower (Baja) California.
Almost since the beginning, San Diego's climate and natural endowments have been her principal attractions; today the region's nearly 3 million residents partake in outdoor activities with great gusto. Dramatic topography allows for skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon, making San Diego a haven for board sports enthusiasts. Skateboarder Tony Hawk and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White are but a few who cut their teeth -- and other parts -- in San Diego.
And let's not forget about those legendary waves. Always battling other coastal California towns for the title of "Surf City, USA," San Diego wholeheartedly embraces the surfing lifestyle. The sport's local roots go back as far as 1910; some 50 years later, Tom Wolfe famously documented the scene in his essay, The Pump House Gang, which chronicled a group of surfers at La Jolla's Windansea Beach. Windansea remains a coveted -- and crowded -- surf break, along with the mellow Swami's, which gets its name from the Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage, an ashram housed on the bluff above the beach.
Today, San Diego's top industries are defense, manufacturing, tourism, and agriculture, which are bolstered by growing biotechnology and telecommunications sectors. While locally based companies such as Qualcomm put San Diego's people to work, the city has many other attributes that attract those who love to play. The temperate climate and nearly 100 golf courses have lured retirees; the numerous colleges and universities -- more than a dozen -- and raucous nightlife are magnets for students; and attractions including SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, and the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Safari Park draw children and families from all over the globe. It all adds up to a quality of life deemed worthy of a little Sunshine Tax.