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San Diego: More Than Just a Zoo

America's sixth largest metropolis is positioning itself to become a megacity of the 21st century - and it is drawing on local cutting-edge industries and a cross-border neighbor to do it

At Croce's curbside cafe in the historic Gaslamp district, patrons eat Cajun-style halibut and drink in a steady stream of contrasts: white businessmen alongside Asian families; baggy-panted gang members followed by shirtless surfers; shoeless panhandlers side by side with high-heeled shoppers.

This street-level snapshot captures just the outline of a San Diego that may startle 30,000 GOP conventioneers and national media converging here this week. The still-dominant image of San Diego as a provincial retirement town with a Navy base, a top-rated zoo, and a marine park has long been supplanted by a new incarnation.

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In a word, the new incarnation is diversity - and it salts the atmosphere of this seacoast city with a distinctly cosmopolitan air.

"I used to cry that I was stuck in an insular, military village on the edge of nowhere," says 30-year resident Mary Walshok, associate vice chancellor at the University of California, San Diego. "Now I can hear 70 languages on the street and attend a Japanese koto concert any night of the week."

Poised on the edge both of the Pacific Rim and the 21st century, San Diego is positioning itself to redefine the megacity of the future. To develop its image, the city is drawing on business and cultural ties with Mexico, 20 miles to the south, and the telecommunications savvy offered by a burgeoning high-technology sector.

The symbol of renaissance may be the 16-1/2-block Gaslamp neighborhood, reclaimed from urban blight over the past decade to embrace intercontinental tastes such as Latin jazz, Mississippi blues, and Spanish flamenco.

San Diego is certainly approaching megacity status: In 1990 it became America's sixth largest.

"The most typical response I encounter outside California is astonishment that we have surpassed such sprawling megalopolises as Dallas, Detroit, and San Francisco," says Mayor Susan Golding.

With the rapid growth of the past decade - the city itself now numbers 1.1 million - has come great promise and new problems. The largest municipality on the US border is the busiest land-based point of entry for people and goods in the world, double that of second-place Hong Kong. Spurred by the free-trade promise of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 3,000-plus tractor-trailers now daily transport tons of products via a fragile, cross-border infrastructure of aging highways.

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Local leaders are also trying to embrace the future with formal pushes to become, in the words of Mayor Golding, "the telecommunications hub of the new North American Common Market." Drawing on its developing strengths in high-tech computing, telecommunications, and other information-sensitive industries, the city has been linking industry, education, and government institutions with fiber-optic cable to become the world's first interactive "City of the Future."

"San Diego has realized that the fastest-growing cities in the world are growing because of knowledge- and information-based economies," says John Eger, director of the International Center for Communications at San Diego State University.

Interconnected schools, "smart" libraries, and on-line city and county governments are now accessible to residents through computer-equipped kiosks located in airports, hotel lobbies, and other public gathering places. Several hundred kiosks are expected to be in place by 1998.

In addition, officials are marketing their groundbreaking model to 50 European cities. "They are taking the lead with other pioneers such as Berlin, Singapore, Yokohama," says Mr. Eger.

Still, San Diego wrestles with the problem of illegal immigration. At night, the glistening lights of downtown stand out as a beacon for nearly half of all illegal immigrants entering the US - about 1,500 a night. New federal reinforcements of personnel and technology on the border have helped to stem the flow, but media attention riveted on this issue has perpetuated what officials here say is a myth that San Diego is overrun with illegals in flight.

"For the average San Diegan, illegal immigration is not an issue they give any thought," says Golding. "It's not a burning issue here."

Of far greater importance since 1990 has been economic doldrums brought on by California's worst-ever recession and post-cold-war defense downsizing. The latter has meant the departure of defense giants such as General Dynamics, Hughes Electronics, Rohr, Teledyne, and others.

The recent good news is that those job losses have been recovered with a new emphasis on telecommunications, biomedical technology, and multimedia. In just five years, San Diego has grown into a telecommunications industry center on the same level as the Dallas-Austin corridor, Silicon Valley, and North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. Seventy companies, most formed recently, are trying to break into the market for cellular and satellite communications. Combined, they generated 10,000 new jobs since 1990.

During the same time, a surge in business tied to the booming maquiladora industry across the US-Mexico border has resulted in a tripling of US exports through the San Diego customs district and continued growth in the community's leading-edge biotech industry. The maquiladora program was established in 1965 as part of Mexico's border industrialization program. Designed to stimulate industry in Mexico, generate employment, and attract foreign investment, the idea has become part of the worldwide movement known as global production sharing. The concept involves encouraging firms to assemble or process goods in a developing country to reduce production costs by taking advantage of, in this case, lower Mexican wage rates.

San Diego grew to cityhood during the time when San Francisco and Los Angeles were being forged in the image of liberal, sophisticated cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. But because San Diego was formed and populated by Midwesterners and Southerners, it has always had a kinder, gentler feel of, say, a Raleigh, N.C., or Columbus, Ohio.

"San Diego has become a very nice place over the years because our leaders for a century have failed in all of their major goals to build massive infrastructure," says Neil Morgan, long-time columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Those include failed attempts to become a key railway terminus from the Southwest or a major port city (usurped by Los Angeles-Long Beach), to expand or move its small airport, and to create its own water supplies.

"Because of all of this, we have become a beautiful, uncongested city with 75 miles of public beaches, clear skies, uncongested roads," he says. "And every Friday, freeways are jammed by people living elsewhere trying to escape their environs for ours."

The jobs that fueled early migrations to San Diego are disappearing - in aircraft and military-related industries; in home construction because of California's recent five-year recession; and in a large tuna fleet that has moved offshore. Coming in their place are thousands of low-wage service jobs and Hispanic- and Asian-run businesses.

This change, and the emergence of new sectors in education and high technology, are dramatically altering the migration patterns to San Diego. Once primarily from smaller cities and towns of the South and Midwest, a majority now come from Mexico and Asia. From within the US, those most drawn to San Diego are highly educated refugees fleeing areas that ring older cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston.

Observers trace the beginning of the new San Diego to 1963 and the arrival of the University of California campus here. Because it became a world center for research and education, the area has spawned more than 200 companies that trace their origins to the campus or faculty.

Since then, statistics show that newcomers have come from more educated and economically better off refugees of America's older cities. Harnessing the spotlight this week, Golding and other officials are reciting a list of factoids they say support this picture: more personal computers, PhDs, college grads, and books sold per capita than any of the top 10 US cities.

The Navy presence has dwindled as a percentage of the city's population - most notably with this spring's move of the fighter pilot school known as Top Gun to neighboring Nevada. Still, active-duty military personnel number 420,000, the highest in the country.

That figure is likely to continue to climb. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Center (Spawar) - responsible for contracting electronic and satellite navigation equipment as well as ocean-surveillance technology - formally moved here July 29. That brings 800 direct employees and a $4 billion annual budget. Contractors such as Hughes Aircraft and Booz, Allen & Hamilton announced they are moving operations and hundreds of jobs to San Diego.

"This will provide billions in contracts for San Diego firms and the prospect of hundreds more jobs beyond that," says Howard Ruggles of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

Beyond these harbingers of economic growth-to-come, Republicans and journalists who fan out across the area in coming days will find, for the most part, clean streets, efficient public transportation, nearly smog-free skies, and uncongested highways. Overall, big-city amenities have grown up without the usual concomitant loss of human scale that has dogged other large cities, most notably Los Angeles 125 miles to the north.

"What is interesting about what is going on here is that ideas don't conform to what is now a traditional notion of a megacity," says Ms. Walshok, the UCSD vice chancellor. "Rather, [San Diego] is headed for what great cities will be in the future."

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