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'I Just Wasn't That Stoked on Where the City's Going'

Restaurateur Jay Porter, who shuttered his North Park restaurants late last year, explains why he left San Diego.

Jay Porter and I met up in December to talk about Salsipuedes, the new restaurant he’s opening in Oakland. We wanted to build on the interviews I did with him about his restaurants The Linkery in 2008 and El Take it Easy in 2010.

While my first two conversations with Porter focused on what he and his cohorts were trying to build in San Diego, much of the latest interview was about why he left San Diego. The reasons for him leaving are varied and complex, but our city’s leaders should pay attention when someone like Porter leaves. He’s an intrepid entrepreneur and played an important role in making 30th Street what it is today. San Diego was lucky to have him, it’s better because of him and I’m sad it couldn’t hold him.

Read on for a few highlights from the interview in which Porter explains why he left San Diego and what he’s left behind. The full interview is available on my blog.

On leaving San Diego:

I’m from San Diego. I will always be from San Diego. It will always be part of who I am. But, in the end, in terms of quality of life, I just wasn’t that stoked on where the city’s going, or more specifically, where the city’s not going.

There isn’t much political will to do simple things to make San Diego a good place to live. Obviously, there are people who care, and people who want to make it great, but there’s not enough happening.

It’s in the DNA of the city. Most of the Southern California cities were started as corrupt exercises in expropriating property for private gain, and that creates a tenor that allows the underlying philosophy of the city to become very selfish and focused on taking.

The city doesn’t have a track record of communal experience or urban experience. It’s never existed here. The city’s not informed by a history of great urban experiences. Southern California just wasn’t built on that.

Watch “Chinatown.” That’s the archetypical story of how Southern California was built.

Even when I was a kid, so much of the illusory “prosperity” of the city has been fueled by land grabs. It’s been politicians taking land and selling it to developers at below market value, who in turn pay off the politicians and develop the land for resale. All without paying the full cost of things like maintaining sewer and water and roads far from central areas of the city.

Does anyone really think the money’s going to be there to support the Rancho Bernardo sewer system in 2060? Because I guarantee you it won’t be. But by that point, the people who made the money will have either been elected to congress or taken their money and ran.

That’s the core underlying story of development in Southern California and that’s shaped our communities.

There are people who are trying to change that, but they’re outgunned by money.

A great example of this is back in 2010, when the city indicated that they didn’t want big-box stores and Walmart just steamrolled through the process and got in anyway. Yes, Walmart pushed that through, but the City Council was complicit. It didn’t go to a vote or anything. City Council just rolled over.

More recently you’ve got the thing with Jack in the Box in North Park. The Development Services department, the City Council, and the current interim mayor have all willingly let Jack in the Box just blatantly violate the development laws that any other business person like me or you would be subject to.

Neither of us could go to Development Services and say, “Hey, I want to wildly violate zoning laws.” They’d tell us to get lost. There’s no way in hell.

Now, somehow, if Jack in the Box wants to do it, not only do they let them, but they help them. And now that it’s happened, no one cares. I wish Todd Gloria would look at himself in the mirror and really ask himself if there was anything he could have done to stop this. He could have.

Like I said, I think it’s in the DNA of the city. I don’t want to say that the city can never improve, but I think it’s a really long process. The progress is not very impressive.

So, for me, I want to live in a place that supports the things that city dwellers value. It’s really nice to be in an area that has a history and understands the potential of what a city can be and what urban communities can be.

Of course every place has its challenges, but they can be overcome if it’s founded with an understanding of how a city can be great, with shared responsibilities and shared resources, with public spaces and amenities, with the idea that people have an obligation to their polis. If people can start with that idea, they can work through the challenges because there’s something greater than everyone is driving at.

In that case, even if things aren’t perfect, you’re already ahead of the game. That’s the kind of place where I want to be, where I want to raise kids or run a small business.

I loved operating in North Park, and I love the people I met. I made a lot of my closest friends because they came to this public space that we created. But at the same time, it didn’t seem like a long-term viable option for the kinds of things that my wife and I wanted to do with our lives.

On San Diego’s brain drain:

When I was working in tech, it was an easy decision to come here. I remember specifically turning down a job in Alameda that paid a little more than I’d get paid in San Diego and probably offered better career advancement too.

But it was really easy because you could get so much more for your dollar in San Diego than you could in Alameda in ’99. There seemed to be a lot of potential here. The tech industry was really thriving in San Diego.

I left that industry in 2005, so I don’t know it as well as I used to, but I get the sense that the industry is not thriving the way it was. And I also clearly see now that you get so much less for your money here than you do in Oakland or even San Francisco (with the caveat that you get less housing for your dollar in San Francisco). But you get so much more for your money in every other aspect of your life in Oakland and San Francisco.

The sun tax has gotten pretty steep. Over the past 15 years, the relative cost of living in San Diego has gone way up compared to competitive towns, but without keeping up with infrastructure. Over that same period of time, how many miles of bike lanes have been created in any comparable city, whether it’s San Francisco, Austin, New York, Portland, Seattle or wherever? Many more than have been created here.

It’s hard to say what the impact of the brain drain really is because we don’t have the data to show it. We can only estimate it based on what we’ve seen anecdotally.

What we could see at The Linkery was people arriving from Place X and then leaving to Place Y. We didn’t necessarily see an increase in people leaving town, but we definitely saw a decline in people coming here and moving to North Park, Golden Hill and the areas that had been previously attracting talented people in their mid-20s. We just stopped meeting them.

Part of that might be due to the fact that I got older and married and stopped going to bars, so I stopped meeting those people. But I definitely got the sense, particularly around 2010 or 2011, that we were getting a much smaller influx of people into the city who worked in the knowledge economy.

What he says to someone who’d say that The Linkery and El Take It Easy just didn’t work and that none of these things would matter if his restaurants had been successful:

Obviously nothing’s that cut and dry.

The city’s not a failure. The Linkery wasn’t a failure. The city focuses on some things and does it well. They do a lot of other things poorly. The Linkery had a real clear vision of what it wanted to be. We were able to be that thing to a certain extent, and to another, we weren’t able to be that thing.

At The Linkery, we always took more out of ourselves than we could recover. So it was always inherently unsustainable. We did it with the idea that eventually we would reach a critical mass where the workload and the money would make sense. But we got older and time became more precious.

That trade-off became worse and worse. It takes longer to recover from grinding yourself out when you’re 43 than when you’re 35. We always thought that if we really love this, then it would be worth it. Well, it got to the point that it wasn’t worth it.

I know people are out there who want me to blame San Diego for X or Y. This is my hometown. I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew there was a limited market for the things I wanted to do. But we made a bet that we could expand the market for the kind of food we wanted to have in San Diego. We made a bet that we could get a certain number of seats filled and a certain number of people working for the restaurant. And we got close, but we couldn’t push the market to the level where we wanted to do it.

And someone else might come in and do it. Maybe I’m not the right guy to do that.

On his contributions to the food scene he’s left behind:

Everything that we get credited with is part of a much larger thing. We had our oar and we pushed it, but there were plenty of other people pushing in the same direction. The ideas of farm-to-table were in the air.

I think we were really good at was catalyzing that energy, turning it into concrete things and creating a buzz around interesting food.

I think Michael (McGuan) and I had a really good chemistry in the early days that enabled us to do something that was pretty transgressive in San Diego back then. I think that created some energy in the city and accelerated certain things.

Before the farm-to-table movement really got started in San Diego with Region, there was a sense that a lot of things that are commonplace in Portland or Brooklyn or the Bay Area just couldn’t be done in San Diego. It was assumed that you couldn’t do artisanal stuff and you couldn’t use really good ingredients.

I think a place like Starlite now shows that you can. They use fantastic quality ingredients and they’re good cooks and they’re making things from scratch.

And you see guys like Heart and Trotter and lots of places that are walking the walk in a way that wasn’t all that common 10 years ago.

I think we brought some threads together and did some really cool things, but there would still be great restaurants serving craft beer in the city today if we hadn’t done what we did.

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