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San Diego Has Arrived

This article shared 4176 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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#1 Brad Pitt, Las Vegas, 1994. Photography copyright Annie Leibovitz, from her show in San Diego. #2 At the San Diego Museum of Art: Annie Leibovitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1990. Photo copyright Annie Leibovitz. #3 & 4 Fun at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Tracy Baim. More photos at the link below.


This is not my grandparents' San Diego.

While attending a recent meeting of the National Gay Newspaper Guild, I took an extra couple days to re-visit the San Diego of my youth. What I founded was a city of many parts, including hip places for young professionals, GLBTs, and folks from many diverse ethnic groups. San Diego has arrived as a great tourist destination not just for families of all kinds ( Mickey is still smiling at Disneyland ) , but for singles, couples and more.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I visited several times, staying with my grandparents and aunt, sometimes with my brother and sister, and sometimes alone. My most intense memories are of the San Diego Zoo, and any chance I get, even if in town just for a day, I have made the visit to what always feels like home. When I see those welcoming flamingos at the front, I know I am about to enter other worlds of animals, sad in some parts, invigorating in others. They are, after all, still trapped, something I always am torn about. But the San Diego Zoo is trying to be part of the solution—by showing kids animals they would never otherwise see in person. By sponsoring successful breeding programs and other life-saving projects, they are trying to be part of the solution for the precarious nature of our planet, and exhibiting what might be some of the last few hundred, or few dozen, of some species in the world.

Joe Timko of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau was a great guide for my time in this city of 1.2 million people ( San Diego County has around 3 million in total ) . It's the country's eighth largest city, and it is the birthplace of California. A former East Coaster, Timko has fallen in love with San Diego, a city that boasts incredibly boring weather—it's almost always perfect there. But the San Diego of even 10 years ago could not compare to what the city is becoming. It now has a great arts and culture scene, wonderful restaurants, and lots of music and nightlife for young professionals and GLBTs. There are more than two dozen gay bars ( none appears to be for lesbians but there are some open to the mix ) . The town is hot enough that property values have skyrocketed, following other cities in the trend of pushing folks further out. The heavily gay Hillcrest areas gives way to University and North Park, all with burgeoning arts and nightlife. It is a very horizontal city, spreading out to the north and east, with Mexico just to the South.

The entire Southern California region is popular with GLBT visitors, and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism, San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and West Hollywood Convention and Visitors Bureau have joined together to market to LGBT travelers with the web site . The cities are around 2.5 hours apart by car.

Timko took me the first night to Kemo Sabe, which has a lesbian chef who also operates two other restaurants in town with the Cohn Restaurant group. Deborah Scott is business partners with that restaurant family, and they pride themselves on being a strong part of the San Diego community, including helping GLBT and AIDS causes. Our waiter Petra, from Austria, was helpful in suggesting various Southwestern and Asian fare from the menu.

On my first full day I conquered half of the zoo before lunch. It was pretty much as I remembered it from 10 years ago, although some of the cages and exhibits are more expansive, so much so that often the animals were very well hidden. The big elephants were gorgeous with their heavy lines, the rhino lonely and hot in his corner, the giraffes ready to be fed by squealing schoolchildren. The koalas were unbelievably cute, with one baby posing for the tourists on cue. There's nothing like a zoo to remind us of how insignificant humans really are—and how much damage we have done to the planet.

I met long-time Windy City Times reporter Rex Wockner for lunch by the zoo at The Prado and Balboa Park. Wockner first started writing for me when I had Outlines, in 1987, and he lived in downstate Illinois. He is now the most widely self-syndicated journalist in the gay press, and probably even in the mainstream. From his beautiful home in San Diego, he covers the world of the GLBT community, from celebrity quotes to murders in Iraq and Jamaica. I asked him how he possibly can be motivated in such gorgeous weather, but he says when every day is perfect, you can easily get work done, knowing more good weather awaits. His partner is a business reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune, having recently moved from New Orleans. The restaurant was a great choice, and the service was terrific—and they are part of the same restaurant group as Kemo Sabe.

Next I took the Old Town Trolley Tours, which stops at several points around town, taking two hours to showcase the region, from Coronado to the military ships docked permanently on shore. San Diego is a huge military town, and its influence is most evident by the ocean. Some would also say you can see its influence in those certain haircuts at the gay bars. One stop on the trolley tour is in Old town, where there are traditional shops selling a variety of tourist items. You can get off and get back on the trolley at any stop, but make sure to time it so you don't miss the last trolley of the day.

That night I hooked up with my cousin Dayan, her husband and two sons, and she drove me by the place my grandparents and great aunt once lived with all older people. It is now run-down and occupied by mostly young folks, the neighborhood taking a turn for the worse. We took the kids to Baja Betty's, a hot restaurant and bar in the heavily gay Hillcrest area. It was a mix of ages, straight and gay, and terrific Mexican food. Our waiter David was exceptionally patient with the kids, and provided them with free sombreros at the end of the night. The area also featured some great shops and music clubs. On a Wednesday night, it felt like the weekend.

On Thursday, it was back to Balboa Park. Our group was staying at the Park Manor Suites, a perfectly situated hotel within walking distance of Balboa Park, Hillcrest, and other key areas. The Park Manor is an integral supporter of gay tourism, and their rooms are large, since the place once was mainly efficiency apartments. They also have a restaurant the the 7th floor, Top of the Park, that has great food but also a fun and very mixed ( but mostly male ) Happy Hour Friday evenings.

Balboa Park is an area to be envied even by New Yorkers, who have Central Park to boast about, and Chicagoans, since we have Lake Michigan and a lakefront full of parks. But Balboa Park is different and I would argue possibly even the best of the three. It has dozens of museums and attractions, anchored by the San Diego Zoo itself. A myriad of art, theater ( the Old Globe is internationally acclaimed ) , dining, and just simply relaxing on hundreds of acres of lush landscaping. The zoo alone would be enough to make me a lifelong fan, but walking around you come across one incredible find after another, from the Japanese Friendship Gardens to the Casa del Rey Moro African Museum to the Centro Cultural de la Raza, to the intricate sculpture on the front of the San Diego Museum of Man. Much of the park owes its roots to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which mirrored itself on the World's Fairs.

A wonderful bit of timing meant that we were in town for the San Diego Museum of Art's Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 exhibit, based on her book ( the show ends April 22 and the Web site for the Brooklyn Museum, which organized the exhibit, indicates it is not planned for Chicago ) . It features the intimate portraits of her partner Susan Sontag as she lived with, and eventually died from, cancer, as well as the birth of Annie's daughter, and life with her parents. The show also features some of those incomparable shots of celebrities from Demi Moore pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, to Brad Pitt, the Redgraves, and President Clinton. It's a well-thought-out exhibit, and it is nice Leibovitz is officially out of the closet as a lesbian—many years ago during a Chicago exhibit of her work we tried to get her to come out, and she was still too closeted.

The zoo pulled me back that day for more animal treats, including the playful polar bears, the sunbathing hippos, and monkeys ready for their closeup.

That night, I asked Timko if we could go to The Rubber Rose for a show—my cousin had picked up a flyer for a fetish art show in a hot North Park gallery district, and it seemed to be good timing that I was in town. There is a monthly gallery walk, but this was a special opening featuring a nice talent mix of photographers, painters and sculptors. The show was put on by BigTom productions, and there was wonderful ( mostly male ) erotic art on display, even a live painting being done ON a live male subject. We ate nearby at a small Italian restaurant, then headed to Diversionary Theatre for Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home. This was a puppet play for adults, with some operating childlike versions of their characters. It was entertaining, but moreso because of the great acting and directing. Diversionary's mission is to produce GLBT theater, and this play included a gay man whose life is cut short due to AIDS. Catch Diversionary if you are in town. Energy was running low or I would have tried to make the very late-night homocore slam at the Brass Rail, a racially mixed bar in Hillcrest.

Our meetings were most of the next day, ending with the Park Manor Happy Hour and then a return flight to Chicago. I wasn't able to see all I wanted to see, but the zoo itself provides enough of an excuse to head to San Diego for a trip. There are many more reasons to go, including the Wild Animal Park ( run by the zoo ) , Sea World, Legoland, and dozens of museums, theaters, restaurants and clubs.

San Diego has arrived as an eclectic and diverse tourism destination. Whether with family or friends, it's definitely a spot to consider for your next vacation.

More San Diego photos by Tracy Baim at:

Also see San Diego resources at:

This article shared 4176 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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