Man, was that a big, wet kiss that Parade magazine gave San Luis Obispo last Sunday? Citing a 2008 Gallup-Healthways poll, the article, titled “You’ll Wish You Were Here,” says that Obispans are ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in “overall emotional health.”
Cripes, where do you go from there?
In case you missed it, the article — which Dave Garth and his good folks at the Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have crafted more lovingly — was based on a new book by Dan Buettner called “Thrive.” It noted that Buettner “searched the world for the truth about longevity” and that “One utopia his travels took him to is San Luis Obispo, near California’s Central Coast, where joy seems to be in the tap water.”
Joy in the tap water? Hmmm. I guess that explains at least one odd pleasantry I’ve noted in this space in the past: A jaywalker crosses the street, causing a driver to chirp to a stop; instead of giving the jaywalker the horn or finger, the driver smiles and waves to the jaywalker.
That doesn’t sound earthshaking, yet it is indicative of the niceness level — or joy-induced tap water behavior — of those fortunate enough to call San Luis Obispo home. It wasn’t always that way. As I noted a couple of years ago, in a Dec. 28, 1962, story dealing with the rugged beauty of Big Sur, Time magazine referred to San Luis Obispo as “a well-known eyesore.”
As I wrote then, some little quisling who was far too chicken to put his byline on the piece opined “... alert Big Sureans could discern the beginnings of encroachment: Carmel Highland, just above Big Sur, has been blotched by development, and San Luis Obispo to the south is a well-known eyesore.”
So what happened? How did an eyesore morph into “Lessons from Happy Town, U.S.A.”?
To a larger degree, the answer is in the Parade article. In addition to lauding the city’s support for the arts, hiking and biking trails, open space purchase, sign ordinance, and prohibition of smoking and drive-throughs, there’s mention of one individual, the one person who through sheer dint of vision struck the mote from the eye of San Luis. That person is Ken Schwartz.
Ken was a member of Cal Poly’s Architecture and Urban Planning Departments when those programs got up and rolling in the early ’60s. Using the city as his palette, Ken, other professors and students simply influenced city planning in adding trees downtown (fought by merchants because of potential bird poop being tracked into stores), undergrounding of power lines downtown and creating Mission Plaza (again fought by merchants concerned about losing 18 parking spaces in front of the Mission).
Ken wasn’t alone in his vision, of course. He had the estimable likes of Planning Commissioner and City Councilman Myron Graham going to bat for beautification. But as a councilman and mayor, Ken took his planning ethic to the public and prevailed.
As noted in another column, the truth of the matter is that the San Luis I grew up in during the 1950s and ’60s was neither beauty nor beast. Founded in 1772 as a mission city — which made it one of the oldest cities in the state — it was comfortably tired.
Through progressive planning and city administration, the town is now regularly touted in magazines — and Buettner’s book — as having one of the highest qualities of life to be found on the continent.Parade has a circulation of 32 million with a readership touted as twice as large. Now, before a chunk of those readers decide to relocate based on the magazine’s “You’ll Wish You Were Here,” there are a couple of caveats to chew on: The cost of housing and lack of head-of-household jobs. You can bike around town or hike in the open spaces girding the town to your heart’s delight, but living and making a living here is becoming more of a privilege than an option as the invisible economic fence surrounding the town grows higher.
Oh, and one more thing. Any town that outlaws feeding ducks can’t be seriously considered as one of the “happiest spots on Earth.” Quack.
Bill Morem can be reached at email@example.com or 781-7852.