City of the Living Dead

by on May 23, 2011 · 2 comments

in Labor, Under the Perfect Sun

An art project funded by the National Endowment for the Art the City of San Diego, COMBO and Art Matters, Inc. 1988, that was placed on the back of city buses. (Photo by Patty Jones of artwork from Frank Gormlie's collection. Click to view larger image)

Back in 1942 the narrator of Jim Thompson’s seminal noir account of San Diego, Now and On Earth observed that:

San Diego, prior to the establishment of the aircraft factories, was not inappropriately dubbed the “City of the Living Dead.” There were no industries, there was no construction; the town’s one asset was its climate. If you were young and wanted excitement and had a living to make, why, the town wouldn’t want you and you wouldn’t want it. If you were old and had a small income or pension, you couldn’t have found a more attractive place to live (or die) in.

Well, when the defense boom struck, the town just couldn’t throw off its lethargy. It did ultimately, but for a long time the city’s fathers idea of taking care of a 100 per cent increase in population was to up the price of rents and other living incidentals by a corresponding increase. Living isn’t cheap here now, or even moderately reasonable.

Flash forward to 2011 and Thompson’s take on the city is more reality than fiction for many San Diegans. As the Center on Policy Initiatives has noted, 30% working age San Diegans live below self-sufficiency. That means those people don’t make more than $13.13 an hour or $27,733 a year. And if one factors in race, the numbers are much worse with 54.1% of Latinos and 42.7% of African Americans falling below the self-sufficiency threshold.

Keep in mind that the self-sufficiency standard only includes essentials such as food, housing, utilities, childcare, transportation, and health care. No cable TV, toys, or nights on the town. Indeed when one considers how many people in the neighborhood of that 30% are right on the edge, perhaps one paycheck away from that level, you begin to grasp one of the essential truths of life here under the perfect sun: we are a tourist paradise for some and a tourist plantation for others.

In Thompson’s novel, the narrator makes his living in an aircraft factory down by Pacific Highway and his take on life in America’s Finest City is far from sanguine:

It’s hard to say how I feel about the place. I’d like to be disinterested but I can’t and hold my job. And, as jobs go, it’s no worse than any would be that I had to hold. It’s just something to endure, something to live through, numb yet painfully aware of what is going on around me.

And when he leaves work he’s dead tired and just can’t seem to get clean:

When I got home that night, Roberta took me into the bathroom and soaked and scrubbed me. She cried real tears. And after supper she was still so sad for me that we went over to Balboa Park and sat until we were sure everyone had gone to bed.

These are the faces I see at night waiting for the bus in Golden Hill or standing in line at the neighborhood taco stands, counting the change from their pockets. They are hard working people with uncertain futures. For them, the weekend is a picnic in the park or a six-pack in the backyard. I see the same strain of work and worry in the faces of the single mothers I teach at City College as they struggle to keep it together. It’s in the eyes of the folks who work the night shift and show up for their morning class. It’s what drove one of our students to jump off the top of a building on campus to his death this spring. The world is too much with us.

Indeed, it’s not just the stuff of noir fiction or the stray example. As Dan Walters recently pointed out in the Sacramento Bee, we are heading toward a two-tiered California where the pleasures of the life are not doled out fairly. As the economic gap between the rich and poor has grown, so has the well-being gap (as measured by education, income, and health): “data from ‘A Portrait of California,’ a 170-page statistical study from the Social Science Research Council, reveals a growing gap of personal well-being between a relatively small white and Asian overclass and a largely black and Latino underclass.”

More specifically, Walters notes that, “The research council’s study, backed by foundation grants, developed a 1 to 10 index of well-being and applied it to communities and to ethnic, gender and geographic subgroups. It concluded that there are five distinct strata. At the top, 1 percent of Californians live in ‘Shangri-Las’ in and around Silicon Valley and portions of Southern California with an index of 9.35. They’re followed by 18 percent in a ‘metro-coastal enclave’ (7.82), 38 percent in ‘Main Street California’ (5.91), another 38 percent in ‘struggling California’ (4.17), and finally, ‘the forsaken 5 percent’ in central Los Angeles and rural areas (2.59). The analysis reveals that some Californians are enjoying the highest levels of well-being and access to opportunity in the nation today, while others are experiencing levels of well-being that characterized the nation decades ago.”

The well-being gap is just as present here in California’s southernmost region as it is in the rest of the state for the many workers living below the self-sufficiency line in low-paying service sector jobs in the tourist industry. It’s a long way from La Jolla to City Heights. The hands of today’s working San Diegans may not be tired from making airplane parts as Thompson’s narrator’s were, but they are equally weary from changing sheets in luxury hotels or scrubbing dishes in the kitchens of a chic bistros.

Thus, as we head into another endless summer full of carefree days and postcard sunsets, it behooves us to remember that, for a growing number of Californians, even those here in sunny San Diego, the city of the living dead lies beneath the veneer of our self-promotion. As someone once said, this easy life knows no pity.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar annagrace May 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm

And the race to the bottom continues. Yesterday I saw a table outside of Target with a sign to “The Right to Hire non-Union Workers.” Somebody earlier in the day had petitions that could be signed to this effect. The people walking in and out of that particular target were the same people who are already left behind in the equity equation. This would be mere irony if it weren’t for the way this particular ideological battle is being fought- convince the screwed that it is in their interests to get screwed even more.


avatar Matt Bokovoy July 8, 2011 at 6:24 am

Great column, and much needed! Once you factor in “military poverty” which plagued service families throughout the Middle East Wars, San Diego surely stands as a testing ground for neoliberal privatization and the retraction of the State as an engine for economic development, particularly key projects such as infrastructure. Kem Nunn’s “Tijuana Straits” could be added to the regional noir tradition, it was well-done.


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