Monday, November 9, 2009

Beach Towns Are All Alike Except When They're Different

(From the November 12, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

SAN DIEGO—We walked along Harbor Drive, admiring condominiums with a view of the water. We strolled up one one-way street and down another, surveying the options for dining and shopping. We took to the boardwalk, where joggers and walkers enjoyed the nautical scenery while getting in some exercise.

We aren’t in Grand Haven though. We’re in San Diego. I’m here to deliver a paper and attend a public relations conference. My wife is here because, well, because she wanted to come along. I also met up with 13 of Grand Valley’s finest students who are here for a companion conference, and an alumna who is working on a graduate degree here. We were all a little dismayed the other night, while having dinner together, to learn that the weather in West Michigan was unseasonably nice. If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss in West Michigan, it’s the Indian Summer. There is little joy in being in 80- degree weather when it’s nearly as warm back home.

That’s what got me to thinking about the similarities and differences between San Diego in southern California and the Tri-Cities of western Michigan. The weather was supposed to be different this week and wasn’t too much. Maybe there are other aspects that are similar as well, I wondered. It turns out there are.

I mentioned the downtown’s proximity to water, and even the aptly named Harbor Drive that both communities share. This common attribute was enhanced when I glanced up one day and saw a Coast Guard boat and dingy cruising along not far from the boardwalk. I did a double take—Coast Guard boats are a common sight in Grand Haven. I had to remind myself that I was in San Diego.

There are other similarities as well. Both communities have a Harbor Island. We also noticed signs around San Diego about Art Prize (OK, that was Grand Rapids, but it was a regional event). Both communities are distinguished by bridges that enable vehicles to cross over water in such a way that boaters are not impeded. Both have cruise ships, cargo ships, and a fishing industry.

But there are also differences. Unfortunately, these differences make Grand Haven pale like a northerner’s skin compared with this southern California city. Their Harbor Island is accompanied by Shelter Island and Coronado Island, which have sizable communities, a historic hotel and Navy bases. Our Harbor Island has a coal plant. Both here and in Grand Haven the Coast Guard saves lives. But in San Diego they are also concerned with interdiction of drug smugglers and illegal border crossings. In the Tri-Cities, SeaDoos with an inappropriate number of life preservers seem to demand the most attention. In San Diego people can go to a spacious zoo in the hills of Balboa Park to enjoy looking at giraffes, rhinoceros, elephants, hippos and many other kinds of exotic animals. We shoot deer in the city.

In San Diego the cruise ships depart for Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera for adventure in tropical rain forests, coral reefs, and volcanoes. Our cruise ships carry Europeans looking at fall leaf colors and sand dunes. Their cargo ships arrive with containers of fruits from Latin America. Our ships carry gravel and coal from Cleveland. We always used to be impressed at the size of the salmon being cleaned at Chinook Pier. In San Diego we felt small watching swordfish so big they had to be hoisted to the pier with a crane. Moored in San Diego is the U.S.S. Midway, a massive aircraft carrier that now serves as the flagship of naval museums. We have the bell of the Escanaba and a dingy. Grand Haven is called Coast Guard City USA, which is certainly a point of pride. But San Diego refers to itself with a more general and confident self-esteem as the “Finest City.” Maybe this is why if you say you’re from San Diego, no one asks where that is. But if you say you’re from Spring Lake or Grand Haven, Michigan, they most often do.

My wife and I did our part to put Spring Lake/Grand Haven on the map, so to speak, down here in southern California. My paper was named “Top Faculty Paper” at the conference, and my wife won her age group in the Shelter Island 5K that we ran while in town. Our names and hometown were announced at both events, and we proudly explained where we live and boasted of our closeness to Lake Michigan and distance from Detroit. We expressed glowing pride and pointed out the unique features of our beach town. My wife won a sweatshirt and a free night at a local hotel at the race awards ceremony. That means we’ll have to come back to San Diego. By the time we do, I’m hoping people will recognize where we’re from. “Oh, Coast Guard City!” they’ll say. Or, “No kidding, you actually live in the city that has the musical fountain!?”

Otherwise, we might just say we came over the bridge from Harbor Island and let people think what they want.