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Living Downtown

Living Downtown
Close to 35,000 residents now call downtown San Diego home. We'll explore the benefits and challenges of living in an urban setting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): There was a time, not all that long ago, when downtown San Diego was where you lived only if you had to. Now, downtown is a prime upscale location with gorgeous new condo towers and bay front complexes. In the past ten years, San Diego's downtown population has more than doubled, and it's expected to triple again in the next 20 years. But for Southern Californians used to sprawling suburbs, lots of driving and a backyard barbeque, what's it really like to live downtown? As part of the KPBS series about San Diego's changing downtown, we've invited three downtown-living guests to talk to us today. First of all, Gary Smith is president of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group, and welcome, Gary.

GARY SMITH (President, San Diego Downtown Residents Group): Thank you, Maureen. Good morning.


CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Caryl Iseman is past president of the East Village Community Action Network. Hello, Caryl, thanks for being here.

CARYL ISEMAN (Past President, East Village Community Action Network): Thank you very much for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Patricia Cué is professor of Graphic Design at SDSU, who lives in downtown San Diego with her six-year-old daughter. Patricia, welcome.

PATRICIA CUÉ (Professor of Graphic Design, San Diego State University): Thank you for inviting me.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that we would like our listeners to join the conversation. If you live in downtown San Diego, we’d like to hear about your experiences. Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Gary Smith, let me start with you because I think you’ve been living downtown longer than any of the other guests. How – I heard that close to 35,000 people live in downtown San Diego today. What was the population back in 2000?


SMITH: It was just over 17,000. So we basically doubled in the last 10 years.

CAVANAUGH: Does it feel that way to you?

SMITH: As each neighborhood fills out, it really doesn’t. It feels homey.

CAVANAUGH: Aha. What are the neighborhoods of downtown San Diego?

SMITH: Oh, you’ve got the Marina neighborhood, which is basically south of Broadway and west of the Gaslamp. You’ve got the Gaslamp Quarter. You’ve got Cortez, which includes Cortez Hill. You’ve got Little Italy, and you’ve got the East Village. All in all, it’s a pretty diverse bunch of communities.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how long have you lived downtown?

SMITH: I’ve been here off and on since ’70. And I bought my condo downtown in 1985.

CAVANAUGH: And what was it like then?

SMITH: You had to go to Point Loma to get groceries. There was one place you could go out to eat other than the hotels. It was pretty barren.

CAVANAUGH: And, Caryl, when we were talking about the neighborhoods of downtown San Diego, you wanted to add something.

ISEMAN: I don’t think I heard Gary say Gaslamp, which is a neighborhood in itself as well.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Now there’s more housing downtown and you do have supermarkets. What else has changed downtown since you’ve been living there, Gary?

SMITH: We like to kid now that within a 10 minute walking radius there are 200 restaurants, there’s 6 or 7 legitimate theatres. It’s really a walking environment that is a real great community. My car gets out of the garage twice a month to go to the golf course and the rest of the time it stays parked.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. That’s a different lifestyle for a Southern Californian. You say you’re retired military?

SMITH: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: And are you originally from Southern California?

SMITH: Yeah, I’m a native of Los Angeles.

CAVANAUGH: Nobody walks in LA, Gary.

SMITH: That’s why I love San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Let me speak with you, Caryl. You represent the East Village Community Action Network. And the East Village has undergone an amazing change in the last 10 years. Tell us a little bit about that transformation.

ISEMAN: Well, 10 years ago, is about the time that I actually moved into East Village and lived in a property one block from what is now the ballpark but at that time the only residential neighbors I had were homeless people. And we didn’t have what we have now; there are restaurants and condominiums and a neighborhood that has totally changed. The dynamics of East Village are changing further but as all of downtown has, we have some challenges.

CAVANAUGH: Now you now live in the Marina District, is that right?

ISEMAN: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, are there different sort of qualities to the different neighborhoods in downtown San Diego?

ISEMAN: Every neighbor – every neighborhood has its own flavor. I think that when – because I do have to say I’m a real estate broker, so I have a feeling of each of the neighborhoods. For instance, Marina is considered more the upscale neighborhood. You have predominantly the higher highrises all within the Marina area. Little Italy has a more of a homey, very youthful type of feeling to it. The East Village is just trying to find its dynamics. It has many different flavors but of course it also has the most area of the homeless, consequently that is also because we have all the social service agencies in the East Village area or predominantly. Cortez Hill, again, is really heavy residential, and your core area, which is now starting to get residential in there, still predominantly is your business sector of downtown. And your Gaslamp area where there is residential area, a lot of residents in the Gaslamp area, that is your business – your entertainment and dining area. So each area depends on where you want to live and what really makes you feel good in downtown.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about living downtown. My guests are Gary Smith, Caryl Iseman. We’re going to be speaking with Patricia Cué in just a moment. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. All of my guests live downtown, and there are a couple of people on the line who live downtown, too. I want to share their stories. Let’s take a phone call. Tamara is calling from downtown. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.

TAMARA (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Hi. I’m glad to be on your show.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

TAMARA: Well, I just wanted to say that my husband and I have lived downtown for several years. We started out living in a residential hotel and we’re now living in a cost-controlled highrise for senior citizens and people with disabilities. And the main problem we’re running into is parking.


TAMARA: We don’t drive ourselves but for certain trips we like to have people come pick us up. And places where they can park to pick us up are in short supply. But we live close to a supermarket and within walking distance of a lot of restaurants and, all in all, I’d say that we enjoy living downtown. And as has been mentioned, it is a good environment for walking.

CAVANAUGH: Can I ask you, Tamara, where you moved from to move downtown?

TAMARA: Well, we lived in Hillcrest for a while.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And was that a big transition for you?

TAMARA: Yes, it was.

CAVANAUGH: And why is that?

TAMARA: Well, I really didn’t get out much when we lived in Hillcrest. And I find myself getting out more now that we live downtown.

CAVANAUGH: I appreciate your call. Thank you so much. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Patricia Cué, I want to ask you – I want to bring you in the conversation because your story is just a little bit different. You have a young child and you decided to move downtown. How long have you lived there now?

CUÉ: A little bit shorter than a year.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And why did you decide to move downtown?

CUÉ: Well, we are new to San Diego and the contrast is a little bit radical but we moved from southern Ohio, which is a rural area. And in coming into San Diego, we found that the cost of housing was very, very high. We wanted to live in a house. We couldn’t afford it if we wanted to live in a good neighborhood, so this was a good balance. We could live in a good neighborhood and in a very nice place, so that’s why we picked downtown. I also was very, very attracted to the fact that if I lived in a condo, I wouldn’t have to do yard work and repairs and…


CUÉ: …painting…


CUÉ: …so that has turned out great. I love that part of my life.

CAVANAUGH: You know, if I’m correct, you used to live in Mexico City.

CUÉ: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder how that experience compares to living in downtown San Diego? Is there something of the same element of vitality?

CUÉ: Yes, very, very much so. And maybe that’s why I find myself such at home in downtown. My daughter and I walk pretty much everywhere. To – On the weekends, we don’t use the car. We go to Balboa Park, we go grocery shopping with our little cart. We go out a lot to eat. And we have a chance to see and meet a lot of the characters and people who live downtown, including the homeless people. My daughter and I have great conversations about why people are the way they are and why they live the way they live, and it’s a variety that if we were somewhere else we wouldn’t have. It’s very palpable also to be downtown and see how the environment changes, and that’s something that we’re very used to from Mexico, too. We see people improvising, old buildings that are turned into something else, how rules are implemented, how we move around them. So that is very, very comfortable for us. It has a lot of flavor, too.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it is somewhat traditional for people to move from an urban setting into a suburban setting when they have young children and yet you did the opposite. What is it like for your little girl to live downtown?

CUÉ: She likes it a lot because she enjoys, as I said, walking around. I pick her up at school walking. Very often she comes back on her scooter. She enjoys having the park. I have to say that she’s more of an indoors kind of child. She’s not so much of a rambunctious running around kid. Maybe it wouldn’t be that appropriate for her if she weren’t like that. She loves the elevator in our building and is conducting practically a social study on personalities of who gets in the elevator and how they greet each other. It’s been challenging school-wise for her because we didn’t have a lot of choices and I think that for families that is still a big impediment in moving downtown. We were very, very lucky to be – to find out through a friend of ours about a charter school that has just been formed downtown, Urban Discovery Academy, and it’s on Sixth Street and the playground for the kids is literally Balboa Park. So they very carefully and bravely cross Sixth Street and have their break time, their recess time, at the park, and she loves that. She just gets in touch with so many things that she would be isolated from if she would be in a more suburban area.

CAVANAUGH: Caryl, what is the situation of schools in downtown San Diego?

ISEMAN: Lack of.


ISEMAN: We have, of course, schools like the Thomas Jefferson School of Law that is just about to be completed. There is Amici Elementary which is close to the Little Italy area. We don’t have a school close by that really addresses middle school so the teenage – for teenagers, that becomes an issue of where they’re going to go to school unless they go to a private school. We’re loving the idea of these charter schools that are opening to accommodate people being able to live in downtown that have children that want to live in downtown but need to properly school their children. And, of course, San Diego High is the closest high school. And you may have heard, the discussion that is going on about the library also being – a school being built with the library and that would be a high school. I was hoping they would look at doing a junior high school because we don’t have one in the area but even that would be a big help. We need schools.

CAVANAUGH: Gary, I wonder if you see the lack of schools in downtown as something that’s going to, if it’s not addressed, is going to kind of stop this expansion of population.

SMITH: Probably not stop the expansion of population but it does make it really difficult for some people. For instance, almost 30% of our housing stock is affordable in one way or another and those are mostly families. And when you have families, you have children and the children have to go to school. And so it gets tough. If you have to go very far to go to schools, it adds to the transportation problems, it adds to the parking problems, all those kind of things. The second big one is parks, of course.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Well, there is huge Balboa Park right in that vicinity.

SMITH: Except that I-5 cut us off rather succinctly from access.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, well, yes, there is that, yes. So does the city have the idea of building parks downtown?

SMITH: Actually our community plan has several parks in downtown and we actually have funding to acquire the land and build them but the city doesn’t have the maintenance funds to operate them so we’re still trying to work on a solution to that.

CAVANAUGH: I see. We are taking your calls. Our conversation is about living in downtown San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call right now from Doreen in downtown. Good morning, Doreen, and welcome to These Days.

DOREEN (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Good morning. Thank you. Yeah, I moved downtown about eight years ago. I lived the first six years in Little Italy and I’m currently in East Village, and I’d have to say that Caryl is absolutely correct in that each little community has its own flavor. And I guess one of my comments or concerns is, I didn’t realize how clean Little Italy was until I moved out of it. I mean, the streets are clean, there’s no homeless people. Even what you purchase in 7-Eleven is higher caliber. They’ve got fresh fruit, they have sushi, they have really quality choices. In East Village where I’m at now, it seems like even basic city ordinances aren’t being policed. I walk outside of my building and there’s not only a huge number of homeless but everybody seems to be smoking, which I thought that was kind of – you couldn’t do it within like 50 feet of a business or a doorway. And I don’t know, it’s just amazing that the comparison between the two areas that are literally less than a mile from each other. So I don’t know who the agencies are that maybe help clean up certain communities so that they all can be pleasant communities.

CAVANAUGH: Doreen, thank you so much for the phone call, I really appreciate it. I want to talk more about the homeless population in downtown but first, Caryl, is what Doreen is talking about largely what happens when a section of the city is emerging into a residential section?

ISEMAN: Well, there is something called Clean and Safe and one thing that Doreen should know, that she probably needs to contact them if there’s some extra problems right in her area there and they’re supposed to keep all parts of the city as clean as other parts. But I do know what she’s talking about and East Village is a challenge in keeping it clean. And so I think that’s one of the things that has to be looked at. There really needs to be some more pressure put on the Clean and Safe and, as a matter of fact, the group which I’m involved in, the East Village Community Action Network, that is one of our priorities, that we are going to start to address, is the lack of cleanliness that we have despite the fact that all the taxpayers and property owners in the East Village area and businesses are paying the same thing as all the other areas.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a break and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation about living in downtown San Diego and continue taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And as part of the KPBS series on San Diego’s changing downtown, we’ve invited three people who live downtown to talk with us today. Gary Smith is president of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group. Caryl Iseman is past president of the East Village Community Action Network. And Patricia Cué is professor of Graphic Design at SDSU. She lives in downtown San Diego with her six-year-old daughter. And we’ve been asking our listeners to join the conversation. If you live downtown or you’d like to live downtown, if you have a question or a comment, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. Let’s talk now about the people that you share your downtown living with, the people who don’t have homes. I’d like you, Gary, Caryl and Patricia, perhaps all of you to tell us your experience with the homeless downtown, starting with you, Gary.

SMITH: Back when I first moved downtown, Pantoja Park, which is over in the Marina neighborhood, was wall-to-wall homeless. But as the neighborhood grew up, the people gradually moved off to the east. It’s a function of the density of other people on the street that makes the homeless less comfortable except, of course, when they’re out panhandling because then they go where the people are to try and maximize their returns. The numbers have been fairly steady when you look at the surveys. The perception changes though because the people move from place to place and the biggest concentration is especially over in East Village because of all the social services that are concentrated there, over concentrated in most people’s opinion.

CAVANAUGH: And, Patricia, you live near Cortez Hill, right?

CUÉ: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: What is the homeless situation like there?

CUÉ: Well, I – my experience has been that it’s very concentrated to certain areas. So Cortez Hill is pretty clean. We don’t have homeless around our place at all and our building has really strict security and I think is maybe a by product of that. And we have learned to – which are the areas that have most of the homeless people and we either avoid them or we carefully go around, and we have learned to live with it in a way we have realized that most of the homeless people are not aggressive or hasn’t – haven’t been aggressive to us and there are times where we encounter them more than others. But I guess that as residents, we have come to the point where we see them as part of our life and as part of our package of being there.

CAVANAUGH: And, Caryl, as I said, these – the people who don’t have homes, who congregate in downtown San Diego, you share downtown San Diego with them, and I’m wondering what – how that sharing is going on and what plans are in progress to perhaps make life a little bit better for the people who have to live on the streets.

ISEMAN: Well, the sharing part is difficult. Part of the reason is with being homeless the one thing that the homeless people really don’t have is a place where they can relieve themselves without doing it on somebody’s doorstep or – and that really becomes the problem, and they do congregate in empty storefronts, which East Village does have a fair amount of businesses that have moved out. And so sharing the streets is very difficult. And although maybe Patricia has not run into it, there is aggressiveness on the – with the homeless that are on drugs and really inebriated; they may not mean to be but they are, so sharing is a difficult thing especially in the East Village. The city is looking at what can be done. One of the things that has been established was a task force, of which I am a member, that is looking at siteing a one-stop shop. Matter of fact, Gary is also a member of the same task force. And, hopefully, we will have a recommendation coming quite soon. The city council also did vote to look at starting where (sic) we’re going to be doing with temporary shelters which still may be needed in the time to come. I think the big thing that downtown residents feel is they should not be the ones handling the entire burden of the homeless population, that there has – it is a regional issue and other areas need to step in and handle some of this. And possibly the only way some of it’s going to happen is some of the social service agencies may need to look into be moved outside of the downtown area so that will lessen some of the homeless population. Touchy issue, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We have a lot of people who want to join the conversation. Our number’s 1-888-895-5727, and if you can’t get through on our phone lines, you can post your comments at Let’s take a phone call from Carlos in Hillcrest. Good morning, Carlos, and welcome to These Days.

CARLOS (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning. I have an interesting perspective as that I both lived and had a small business in East Village for about five years up until about six months ago when I just was fed up and had to get out. In fact, three businesses on the same block that we were on, they were all kind of high-end, more boutique style businesses have all left since then. And we just kind of got really kind of fed up with no one doing anything about it and, therefore, I moved my business to Hillcrest and have been much more prosperous and that way more of my customers come. The biggest problem was getting customers down to the East Village because of the way it looked and the amount of the homeless. So I just wanted to talk to that and that’s my perspective both living there and having a small business there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate the phone call. Thank you very much for that. Let’s move on to Igor in Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Igor. Welcome to These Days.

IGOR (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Yes, good morning. I just wanted to comment on your downtown discussion. I am recently moved from Europe and there is a kind of a tradition in Europe to go to downtown especially during Sundays or Saturdays, take a stroll, look at the shop windows or go to the coffee shops and so on. But in San Diego, I notice that the downtown area mostly caters to restaurants and residential so there is really – when it comes to a singles scene so there is really very little reason for people with families to go downtown and take a stroll. I was wondering whether there are plans to improve this retail offer in the downtown area?

CAVANAUGH: Well, that – thank you, and surprisingly, those two calls were linked by the idea of businesses in downtown San Diego, small shops setting up and making it an interesting sort of an atmosphere downtown. Gary, do you see more of that happening? Or are there impediments to that happening?

SMITH: There’s always a few impediments but, basically, you have to look at your audience. Many businesses are successful, many neighborhoods are successful. Some people got off to an early start in East Village and they were there before the criticality of population comes along. But if you go stroll along India Street in Little Italy, for instance, or even in the Gaslamp on a Sunday morning, I mean, they’re wonderful places to go. And if the North Embarcadero plan gets through, there’ll be an excellent destination downtown for people to come and spend the weekend.

CAVANAUGH: And is that basically the long walkway that extends into the Gaslamp area?

SMITH: It extends all along the waterfront from just south of the stadium and it’ll eventually extend all the way up to the airport.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. Let’s take another call. Mack is calling from the Gaslamp area. Hi, Mack, and welcome to These Days.

MACK (Caller, Gaslamp District): Good morning, Maureen.


MACK: My name is Mack Bacta (sp), and I’m a resident of the Pacifica Hotel in the Gaslamp.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for calling.

MACK: Yeah, we owned this historical building since 1972.


MACK: Long time. And I have only positive thing to say except the loud noise and the other lady say a lot of secondary smoke, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Secondary smoke because a lot of people smoke downtown.

MACK: A lot of people smoke. And the noise, believe me, it’s unbearable, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to talk more about that. Thank you, Mack. I want to talk about some of the noise and especially – Well, where does the noise come from, Caryl, primarily?

ISEMAN: The noise is, I would say, primarily out of the Gaslamp District…


ISEMAN: …and that is why he is – I know where his hotel is. You can’t help it. There’s a lot of clubs right in the Gaslamp and the young, enthusiastic people who participate in going to the clubs, when they come out of the clubs, especially, they are loud. But just bustling, I think, you know, I was born and raised in New York City and when you go back to New York City even people just walking down the street and talking and laughing and having a good time are going to generate a lot of noise. We also find that in the downtown area, you have more events going on. Like next week starts Mardi Gras and that, you know, for a day, that noise will continue and be loud. So with all of that, I believe the noise is part of the downtown and I think living in downtown, that’s part of the urban environment and that I’m not – I don’t have a problem with. I do have a problem with the train noise, the horn at three o’clock in the morning, that doesn’t have to be and waking people up, but the rest of the noise is environment, it’s downtown, it’s life, it keeps you young.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another phone call. Timothy is calling from Oceanside. Good morning, Timothy, and welcome to These Days.

TIMOTHY (Caller, Oceanside): Thank you for taking my call. Just a few minutes ago in the conversation there was talk about living in downtown with the homeless population and some of the challenges of how that can – that exists particularly for some middle, upper middle class residents. And I was a little upset about how the homeless were characterized as a problem rather than as people, naming the issue of homeless euphemistically as uncleanliness and safety when the homeless are not lepers. They’re not the unclean. They have rights and San Diego needs to be for everyone there so when there’s problems with your nation and things like that, that comes as much from not having good facilities or permanent longterm shelters and transitional housing. I worked as a chaplain at a homeless shelter in Ft. Worth once and demonizing the homeless rather than finding ways to improve their quality of life in downtown is really important.

CAVANAUGH: And, Timothy, do you live downtown?

TIMOTHY: I do not. I live in Oceanside. Love the idea of living downtown, love going to and looking and visiting downtown and I know that it’s – there’s a different experience there but having people, new housing facilities that bring in new people while pushing others further and further out seems – I’m uncomfortable with that from a justice perspective.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Timothy. Thank you for that call and thank you for your insight. Patricia, I’m wondering, because it sounds as if you, as well, have a feeling that you are, indeed, sharing your space with the people who were there before you.

CUÉ: I do. I do, and I have to agree with the caller that I don’t see the homeless as a burden. Of course, I haven’t been suffering or a victim of violence from any of them and just as the noise and other characteristics of downtown, I find that they were there before me, that they are a problem in society that we all need to work with somehow, and it’s a space that I’m sharing with them. It doesn’t…

SMITH: Maureen?

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes, thank you, Patricia, and Gary, yes.

SMITH: Yeah, I didn’t want to let that last comment from the caller go by because we have more affordable housing, we have more transitional housing, we have more supportive housing than any community in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, and…

SMITH: And we do a very good job of trying to get the problem under control and to help people.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, fair enough. Let’s take another phone call. Oh, well, our phone call is gone, so let me just ask you, Gary, you know, you said earlier in our conversation that you don’t drive much anymore.

SMITH: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, is it a problem for people who come down to visit you because they don’t want to deal with the traffic and the parking?

SMITH: It’s a perception that people have and that’s mostly because of the city’s still archaic two hours, dollar and a quarter an hour parking system. With better control and better capabilities, we can make it such that people would be – have an easy time finding parking. Also signage, we have over 52,000 parking spaces off street in downtown but they’re hard to find for somebody who’s not familiar with it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I think more people are – will be coming familiar with that as time goes on. Gary, I want to thank you so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Gary Smith, president of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group. Caryl Iseman, with – past president of the East Village Community Action Network. Thank you.

ISEMAN: Welcome. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Patricia Cué, professor of Graphic Design at SDSU. Thanks so much.

CUÉ: Thank you, Maureen, for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And you can see more in our series about downtown San Diego at our website, or if you’d like to make a comment about this segment of These Days, go to You’ve been listening to These Days here on KPBS.

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