The Right Side of the Tracks

The longing for status is something we humans share with all social animals, and geography is one of the ways it is expressed. The unseen hand of social hierarchy moves us to places where we think we belong, where we can be separate from people further down the food chain.

High-end folks are pretty open about what they consider the right place to live. I had barely arrived in San Diego when I heard that you shouldn’t live “south of the 8.”

If you’re not from around here, you’ll see the I-8 in my little Cul-de-sac map. It’s the brown east-west line that begin at the “o” in San Diego. North of that line tends to be higher-income and white. South of line tends to be lower-income and black and brown.

And though the gradations are more subtle, San Diego also has an economic dynamic that changes when you travel from west to east. When I was searching for another home a couple of years ago, my realtor made it clear that the further east you go, the more affordable homes become.

In fact, I just spoke to a development executive who said members of the infamous one percent — the really rich people — say you shouldn’t live “east of the 5.” Take another look at the map. Real estate, west of the I-5, is made up of coastal communities like Del Mar and La Jolla; posh fiefdoms filled with million-dollar homes and ocean views.

These admonitions about where members of polite society should live are nothing new or unusual. In small towns they talk about the people who live on the “other” side of the tracks. In my hometown of Grinnell, Iowa the east-west railroad tracks separated the monied part of town (the north) from the poorer part of town (the south).

In San Diego, you can ask people why you shouldn’t live south of the 8 and they will probably say it’s not safe down there. Too much crime. They may say people don’t take care of their homes. Perceptions are hard to contradict because they’re perceptions, not facts. But now that crime has been dropping for nearly two decades, I will say the fear-of-crime factor makes less and less sense.

In fact, I just spoke with a homeowner in Chula Vista — definitely south of the 8 — who was absolutely thrilled to have just bought a new home with more than 2,000 square feet for less than $400K. Trust me. That’s a good price around here!

In San Diego, I have always lived south of the I-8 because I like old houses and integrated neighborhoods. But before you think I’m a white, educated person who is immune to the status trap, know one thing.

Normal Heights, where I lived for 13 years, is cut in half by Adams Avenue. North of Adams was and remains white and educated. South of Adams was low-income. I lived — you guessed it — north of Adams.

So even though I was on the “wrong” side of the tracks, in a citywide sense, I was on the “right” side in the context of my little neighborhood.  I had lots of good reasons for buying the house I bought. But then… so does everyone else who lives on the right side of the tracks.

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