San Diego Culture

Marginal Revolution has a 2013 post entitled “What has San Diego Contributed to American Culture” where Tyler mentions he cannot think of much that San Diego has contributed to American Culture. It stuck in my memory as I had moved from San Diego a few months prior, and it rarely gets articles written about it. Obviously it didn’t inform my decision to leave (that was more Cities and Ambition) but I remember disagreeing with the conclusion without being able to articulate why. 7 years later I think I have an answer.

It may seem weird to pick a fight with a not very famous post from 7 years ago. And even odder to do so with one that me1 and my family2 are so clearly3 fans4 of. But we moved back to San Diego last year so the question of why we’re moving back to San Diego after leaving was one we had to answer. Are we different enough or is the world different enough that our prior reasons for leaving no longer apply.5

When discussing why we moved back we’ve approached it from The Cities and Ambition model of what does the culture of the city encourage and what does it discourage. Having now lived in NYC and LA and having professional success I see that the issue is the post is confusing cultural artifacts6 with culture.

Structural Reasons

Firstly there are statistical artifacts and the geography of Southern California that are structural reasons why San Diego has not contributed as much as you would expect. SD is actually not as large as it seems. It’s the 8th largest city by population, but 17th by metro area population. Hoboken is not part of New York City but is part of New York’s metro area. As a comment puts of SD “it’s one of those sprawling sunbelt cities with most of the people it[sic] its metro area in the city itself”. By square mileage San Diego is larger than New York City. Looking at the metro statistical areas rankings San Diego Metro area is bracketed by the famous cultural Meccas of Minneapolis and Tampa at 16th and 18th respectively. For comparison Minneapolis was mentioned in Tyler’s “My favorite things Minnesota.”, but only because he previously called it boring. He has yet to discuss Tampa.

Additionally the geography of San Diego puts it a 2 hour drive from Los Angeles which is the cultural production capital of the U.S. I’ve heard New Yorkers argue that New York fits the role better, but New York only out produces Los Angeles in literary artifacts such as books and articles and, by definition, Broadway shows. If you’re ambitious in film, music, photo, TV, or fine art there’s no reason not to go to Los Angeles and stay in San Diego. But even given these structural and geographic reasons it’s surprising how few cultural artifacts San Diego has produced.

Cultural Reasons

My thesis is San Diego has produced fewer cultural artifacts than you would expect because San Diego Culture is about doing things and participating more so than consuming cultural artifacts, producing cultural artifacts and discussing cultural artifacts. To create cultural artifacts that are good enough to contribute to the national culture you need to consume, produce and discuss cultural artifacts constantly. And to do that the culture you immerse yourself in has to do that also.

San Diego instead tells you “you should be more active, with friends”.

In the Cities and Ambition model this means that San Diego ‘discourages’ you from producing cultural artifacts. Which means San Diego has fewer cultural artifacts that are legible to people not living here. Its contribution to the wider American culture is instead encouraging people to be more active and social.

A concrete example, a few weeks ago on a Monday I asked what everyone did over the weekend and the answers were:

  1. sailing lessons
  2. jumping from an airplane with a parachute I packed myself
  3. surfing
  4. brewing beer [to share with friends]
  5. “just” hiking [with family]

Some things to note, first that four of those five things involve interacting with other human beings for enjoyment, which is a fundamental part of what we define as culture. “surfing” the lone solitary activity was mine7 the person who created a cultural artifact you’re currently consuming.

Secondly those activities are all ephemeral. The boat pulls into the slip, the parachute opens, the wave crests, the beer is drunk and trail ends. None of these normally produce any cultural artifacts. When they do produce cultural artifacts it’s ones that are aimed at encouraging going out and doing the activity. I’ve watched surfing videos before but only to learn how I could surf better. Similarly I’ve only ever read beer brewing blogs when I was actively brewing.

Thirdly the fifth response was “just hiking” which was 3-4 miles. This isn’t false modesty, hiking 3-4 miles is prosaic, while hiking 30 miles on the Pacific Crest trail is not uncommon. The “just” was to clearly communicate the type and level of hiking. Similarly I’ve hear people say “just a trail run” to distinguish from hashing (trail running while chasing someone and drinking) or a 6-12 hour trail run. When I worked with a team in Boulder they had a similar differences in language to delineate difficulty of rock climbs; climbing a wall is different than free climbing which is different than scrambling which is different from surmounting a peak.

This wasn’t a particularly unusual weekend and it demonstrates the message of San Diego. San Diego tells you that you should be doing things all the times, preferably outside with friends. Not inside producing and consuming cultural artifacts by yourself or arguing about them online. This leads to fewer cultural artifacts which makes it impossible for people outside of San Diego to see the culture.

The impact on the wider American culture is similarly difficult to see. But San Diego is the largest military city in the country, which means people move from it to across the nation. So San Diego instills that ethos of doing in Americans across the country. Even when I moved away I kept trying to be active with friends.

If you’re visiting San Diego and want to experience the culture as opposed to see it I would suggest hiking Iron Mountain swimming La Jolla shores and surfing Pacific Beach. Preferably with friends.

Thanks to Madison, Rich, Lucas and Caleb who helped me clarify my thinking.

  1. Alex’s A Bet is a Tax on bullshit inspired my 5th article You should bet more 

  2. My thoughts on Stubborn Attachments 

  3. My 3 year old’s thoughts on Stubborn Attachments 

  4. What increased investment in software means for regular developers was inspired by Stubborn Attachments 

  5. Yes to both. Even pre-Covid remote work, online communities and satellite offices made good tech jobs easier to find outside of SFBA/NYC/Seattle. With some professional success the quality of life of a city became a higher priority. 

  6. I’m broadly using cultural artifacts to mean music, photography, written works, TV shows, podcasts, fine art, movies, memes or anything that could be considered pop culture. 

  7. Household culture explains it. Being married to an artist means the person you spend the most time with thinks creating is the norm. But even with that benefit I only started blogging after I moved away from San Diego.