Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hillcrest Parties as Blackout Brings Out the Stars

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D.

Copyright © 2011 by Leo L. Laurence for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved                  

While KOGO Radio was broadcasting gloom and doom as total darkness enveloped San Diego on September 8, people in Hillcrest took to the streets and were in a festive mood, albeit totally unprepared for the reality of the potentially radical lifestyle difficulties looming back in their darkened homes.

The famous Georgia Street bridge over University Avenue just a block east of Park Boulevard is usually deserted even on a bright sunny day, but certainly at night.

But as the sun slowly set in the west and it became obvious that we were soon going to have absolute, total darkness in a few, short hours, the sidewalk on the bridge suddenly became filled with people.

As it started to get really dark, I saw only about a dozen candles burning in open windows throughout the whole Uptown neighborhood, mostly in the apartments of seniors in the two tall Grace Towers buildings that are landmarks at Park and University. The red warning lights on top of the Grace Towers, put there so planes flying into Lindbergh Field don’t hit the buildings, had their own power source and stayed lit throughout the blackout.

I found three guys last night on the Georgia Street bridge who had small, hand-held radios tuned to KOGO AM radio, broadcasting continuously on the crisis – though missing the festive mood of the public: a Marine, a little old lady and a teenager, all well-informed on the developing emergency.

After the sun set completely and neighborhoods were swallowed up by darkness, the sidewalk along University Avenue in the Uptown District became crowed with people in a festive mood.

“WOW, this is historic.  It’s wonderful,” said Daniel, 32, of Hillcrest.

“It’s great!  You can actually see the stars added John, 23. “I love it,” walking barefoot in the bright moonlight wearing only shorts.

The festive mood on the streets may be generational, as many in the Uptown District were largely young people.

The sky was totally clear and a brilliant three-quarter moon was high in the sky bright enough to create strong shadows on the ground.

The very bright moon meant that the thousands of people out walking didn’t even need flashlights to get around outside, and few used them.

Looming inside their darkened homes, however, was a tougher situation. Even if you were lucky and had a candle, simple tasks like getting a glass of water were challenging.

The usual rush-hour traffic along University Avenue never materialized. 

KOGO AM Radio did an amazing job of covering the blackout crisis. However, they largely focused on the doom-and-gloom situations. They alarmed listeners by announcing that the airport was shut down, as was the entire trolley system.

Traffic, they claimed, was a nightmare as people were rushing out of downtown to get home and were clogging the streets and freeways. But University Avenue in both Hillcrest and North Park had only light traffic, even during the rush hours. The approach road to the 163 freeway briefly gridlocked at the start of the blackout, but the freeway itself was clear.

Power Restored

Ironically, many people seemed to be having so much fun in the blackout that there were audible groans of disappointment when electrical power was restored and the festive atmosphere on the streets abruptly came to an end.

 “Oh, NO, the power is back on,” complained one young man on the Georgia Street Bridge as lights suddenly came on.

Literally within five minutes after power was restored, the sidewalks were again deserted as people rapidly returned to their homes.

The Gay bars in the Uptown District closed during the crisis.  But one straight bar, the Alibi at the corner of Vermont and University, somehow stayed open and operated with candlelight, apparently serving warm drinks, though the customers didn’t seem to mind. The blackout produced a party mood.

The Live Wire bar on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park also stayed open and ran their refrigerators and air conditioner from an outside generator. Next door, a pizza parlor, apparently equipped with gas rather than electric ovens, continued to serve customers on an outside patio and even supplied them hip-hop music, blasting from a car stereo in a blue SUV parked on the street outside.

When power goes out and traffic lights become inoperative, intersections function like four-way stop signs. Drivers – what few were out there – were following those rules, apparently largely out of courtesy.

Major intersections like Park and University Avenues experienced no problems with the flow of the unusually light traffic, and apparently no accidents were reported in Hillcrest during the emergency. Downtown was a different story, according to one observer. Drivers there seemed confused how to negotiate intersections without streetlights, and there were a few near-collisions.

Be Prepared!

While happy people crowded the sidewalks in the darkness, with light only from headlights of passing cars, many would face the reality that they were totally unprepared for a major emergency and didn’t have candles or emergency flashlights to cope with the darkness enveloping the rooms of their homes.

Simple things like getting a glass of water meant finding your way with the help of a single candle, if you were lucky and had one handy.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) initially was saying that it could be one to three days before power was restored.

That could mean something as simple as fresh food might rapidly become very scarce because there would be no refrigeration. Canned goods were O.K., if you had a hand-operated, can opener.

Perhaps this blackout alerted lots of us to check out emergency supplies and preparedness.  Are you ready to survive for days without power or water, realistic possibilities with an 8.5 earthquake?

If it does hit and the city loses power and water, many of us are woefully unprepared and don’t even have flashlights handy. A hand-operated (batteries burn out) AM-FM radio will keep you posted on emergency situations.

Photo caption: Usually totally deserted at night, people in a festive mood flocked to the famous Georgia Street bridge high over University Avenue during the blackout; and were very disappointed when power was restored. Time exposure taken seconds after lights came back on.