San Diego is changing. A cityscape of cranes raises a new skyline. New freeways accommodate new traffic jams. New folks move in from Pittsburgh. A Chili's springs up overnight across the street from the taco stand. Who will be left standing? Amidst this collision of new with the old, synthetic with the authentic, what becomes of the existing culture of this place? How do we preserve what is important to us without standing in the way of what is inevitable?
Noah Tafolla does not worry about these things. A rare commodity these days, he is a third-generation Diegan. He was born and raised in Ocean Beach and continues to reside there with his wife and three kids. Noah is a genuinely laid-back, impossibly likable type of guy who understands one simple and irrefutable truth: His hometown is one of the greatest places on Earth to be, no matter who you are or what you're in to. As host of Wonderland on KPBS, Noah is on a mission to meet the people, eat the food, experience the lifestyle, eat some more, see the sights, learn the history and share the many cultures that make San Diego what it is.
Each episode of Wonderland focuses on a different neighborhood. San Diego is, after all, less a city and more a conglomerate of distinct and often contradictory scenes. Though they may be somewhat segregated, surfers, Navy Seals, techies, libertarians, transvestites, trophy wives, cult leaders, Mexicans and even a few cowboys all call San Diego home and keep their culture alive here.
Since its first episode in October 2006, Wonderland has profiled Ocean Beach (twice), Point Loma, Julian, La Jolla, Coronado, Little Italy and Lakeside. With a permanent sense of fascination long gone from too many adults, Noah is absorbed into these communities. Where others might simply interview shop owners, he gets behind the counter, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Unique histories, folklore, legends, traditions, values, pastimes and quirks are revealed, and all the local food is sampled. But no matter where he goes, who he talks to or what he encounters, it is Noah's genuine interest in his subject that makes the show engaging for the viewer.
Before Wonderland, Noah was like any of us who struggle to find a calling in life. He got the idea to sell frozen chocolate-covered bananas on a stick in supermarkets. He put everything into his business. Doing his own roadside advertising dressed in a banana suit began to pay off. "Noah's Banana Chunks" were selling at Boney's Market and Ralphs. Things were looking up until a sketchy meeting with the Chiquita Corporation somehow left Noah cut out of a deal involving the product he'd invented. Noah once again suited up in his banana costume, this time to picket outside of the Chiquita corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. They would not return his calls.
Noah returned to San Diego and found sporadic work as a house painter-or a painter of anything that someone would pay him to paint. He wanted to work in film, so he began shooting weddings of people in the neighborhood. Finally, a breakthrough came when he found the perfect subject for his camera: San Diego itself. Knowing he was on to something, he submitted to KPBS a short documentary that became the pilot episode of Wonderland, and it got picked up.
When something is right, it's right. Noah Tafolla has found his calling, sharing the town he loves with people who are thankful to rediscover the beauty and culture that has been all around them all along. The mom-and-pop shops that appear in Wonderland experience increased business following the airing of their episode. It's good for everybody involved. I am brought back to my original observation about the changes going on in San Diego. I wonder if even Noah can see beyond his own enjoyment making this show to fully appreciate the service he is providing on a grander scale. In this time of rapid growth, Wonderland digs up San Diego's past, exposing the foundations, reminding us where it all comes from so that we are better equipped to decide where we want to go next.
Noah's summertime picks
La Jolla Cove: "A definite must-do is to go snorkeling in the La Jolla Cove. You'll feel like you're on a reef in Hawaii. There's a ton a fish everywhere, and it's beautiful. When you get out of the water, dry off and take a tour through the Morrison Hotel, which is a gallery on Prospect Street that displays the most incredible old rock 'n' roll photos of all time."
Eagle Crest Mine: "In Julian, there's a real gold mine that you can take a tour through. It's very cool and you can even pan for gold. Also while in Julian, stop by and get some fresh apple pie at Mom's Pies-the best in town."
Point Loma Seafoods: "Get a fried-squid sandwich and go out to the tip of Point Loma and tour the old Point Loma Lighthouse-it has the best view of San Diego than anywhere else."
Ocean Beach: "The most relaxed town in all of San Diego. Go to Hodad's on Newport Avenue-they have the best cheeseburger in San Diego-and then take a walk out on the longest pier in the United States, which is the Ocean Beach Pier."
Hotel Del Coronado: "Take a ride over the Coronado Bridge to the Hotel Del Coronado and spend the rest of the afternoon touring the historic hotel and lounging on the beach-you'll be glad you did."
Check out www.wonderlandsd.com.