San Diego is large city in Southern California positioned right on the border with Mexico next to Tijuana. San Diego is one of the largest cities in the United States, and if you include the population of Tijuana as well then it is part of an urban sprawl of about five million people spread around the meeting point of California and Baja California. But good luck getting over what is the busiest land border crossing in the world: the Mexicans will wave you through but the U.S. leave you queuing for up to five hours at times.
Although it was the first point on the West Coast settled by Europeans, San Diego has long since been overshadowed by its better-known neighbours in the Californian north, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Locals will tell you that the city is more laid back and less pretentious than either of the other two, even if an only slightly-masked inferiority complex lurks just below the surface. San Francisco, of course, is well known for its accessible European feel and - more recently - for the tech industry, whereas LA boasts Hollywood and a style of living which seems to encapsulate in exaggerated form all of the positive and negative aspects of a civilization based on the automobile. San Diego has never broken into the national (or international) consciousness in the same way.
Whatever the locals might tell you now, the city's growth and success has actually been based not on a lack of pretension but on a quite dedicated campaign of boosterism by city leaders. The city is now home to the majority of the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet, and by some (rather dubious) estimates a third of the jobs in San Diego County are linked to the Navy in some way. This didn't just happen by accident, but was the result of assiduous courting by major investors and businesspeople in the early twentieth century. They mercilessly lobbied. They collected donations from local citizens to buy land and then gave it to the Navy. When Navy vessels first went through the Panama Canal on their way to San Francisco, cheeky local civic leaders went out in their boats to intercept them and bid them stop off in San Diego first. They did, and the relationship only grew from there.
In World War II, San Diego finally received an influx of federal investment which allowed it to overcome some of the major problems that had been holding the city back. The feds dredged the much-touted harbour (often praised as one of the "best in the world" but actually heavily silted) and invested in the city's transportation infrastructure. They also invested heavily in the water system, which had been a major growth impediment for a city which sits on the westernmost point of a large desert. Nowadays most of San Diego's water comes from the Colorado River and other sources to the north, something that wouldn't have been possible without this influx of outside expenditure.
Washington did all this because it valued San Diego as a Navy base. Some historians have even gone so far as to describe San Diego as a "federal colony". Like so many other places in the American West which like to tout a spirit of self-reliance and self-help, the city's growth and existence has in reality depended on sizeable help from the East. Nevertheless, locals managed to capitalize on the investment and the city has been growing and diversifying its economy ever since. Throughout the twentieth century, San Diego has been at the cutting edge of the military-industrial complex, from serving as the base for the development of naval aviation in the 1910s to hosting Project Orion - an ambitious attempt to propel a spacecraft by exploding a nuclear bomb under it - in the 1960s. Combined with the large Navy and Marine presence - and copious quantities of retirees - this legacy has given the city a slight Republican edge which is lacking in other major Californian urban areas.
If one visits San Diego today then one finds an extremely spread-out place which can often feel more like a collection of contiguous towns rather than a major city. It boasts a wide variety of neighbourhoods, from the hipster-riddled and earnest North Park to the laid-back beach communities of Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach. Although the previous noder decries the city's lack of "urban culture", this isn't the case today at all - San Diego is simultaneously the craft beer capital of America, home to some of the finest Baja cuisine around, and a cultural melting pot with all the artistic, linguistic and culinary benefits that come as a result. It's also home to a large LGBT community centred on the neighbourhood of Hillcrest. Oh, and beaches - lots and lots of glorious beaches.
San Diego also has a high cost of living, but somehow it doesn't feel quite as bad to be paying a lot to live in glorious sunshine and open space as it does shelling out the equivalent (or more) only to bask in the rain and snow of London or New York City.