The 19-Story View

    With contiguous blocks of apartment buildings covering University City like a checkered blanket, it’s easy to feel smothered as you drive its pothole-laden streets or walk past its lonely bus stops. But as I stood 19 stories up an unfinished residential tower last week, I was literally and figuratively above it all.

    The ascent began easy enough; my roommate had gone on a run around our neighborhood and noticed a gap in the green construction fencing surrounding the tower’s skeleton. He called me on his cell phone and, in a few minutes, we were both walking down the street from our cozy condominium toward the monolith whose shadow postpones our sunrise every morning. Guarded on its south side by hundreds of apartment windows as well as a gigantic crane, our newfound entrance was conveniently located to the north, where another apartment tower was spaced an acceptable distance away, where its gaze seemed more indifferent than usual to two imminent trespassers. As we walked by this building, I looked up through one of its wide windows and pointed out a father settling into bed while his toddler seized the opportunity to hop on his stomach. As easily as we could peer into the lives the few who still had their lights on at that late hour, though, none appeared to be concerned with anything or anyone outside in the dark — that’s how we snuck into our tower.

    At street level in University City, often the only things that break the darkness are the intermittent street lights. Their monochromatic yellow glow is enough to turn even the brightest parti-colored garments into muddy brown coverings. This usually leads me as a photographer to shoot in black and white — if I do at all — to avoid the inevitable gloomy warmth of a color photo in that situation. That night of the ascent, though, I would not attempt an image on the ground.

    Once inside the first floor of the tower, my first thought was that I still lacked the proper environment to take pictures. The darkness was even richer than on the street, and I was suddenly aware of how the ever-present light pollution surreptitiously lowers our standard for pitch black. Though I had a flash on my camera, I was not about to let my strobe reveal our presence to any passersby. The concern was validated as we neared the stairwell and saw a door with a window, revealing a lit utility room from the building to which the tower was being added. My curiosity pulled me closer to this door, where I was taken aback by a man plodding around just on the other side. This was enough to get me quickly onto the stairwell, grimacing each time we made the unfinished metal steps creak or resonate too loudly as we climbed the floors.

    Each shell of a floor was identified with corresponding number spray-painted on the drywall near the stairs. Incandescent bulbs strung along in industrial lamps lit it all. The glow was warm and we were surprised by the brightness inside the building’s dark expanse. It was already an improvement over the streetlights. I tried taking a few shots of my roommate and we ventured upward.

    We hit the end of the stairs at the 19th floor and were greeted by a stiff breeze that would have made us shiver had we not been heated internally by the climb. The breeze was a fresh release from the dead, ground-level air that is stifled by the structures found on all sides. The surprising wind was the first indication that we were free from the confines of University City and on our very own plane. We peered around the back of the stairwell to confirm that this floor had no walls, and that in fact there was nothing between me and the towering Mormon Temple a couple miles away.

    The view was spectacular. I could see pools, cars, a baseball field I didn’t know existed — and I think I even spotted Geisel Library. And that ridiculous Mormon Temple that seems like it was ripped from a Super Mario Bros. game no longer made me roll my eyes. Instead its white light inspired me to pick up my camera. Its beacon shone above the various bricks of apartments and condos as if to say, “I’m no more ridiculous than those boxes you live in.” The quality of the neighborhood blocks was also different. The dots of yellow sodium vapor and green fluorescent bulbs of so many dwellings combined to outline shapes — squares mostly. I was above the patchwork now, and could see it spread out gently over the hills as if for a picnic in front of Mario’s castle. And they no longer overpowered the moonlight; in the dead of night I could shoot photos with a creamy natural palette.

    For over an hour my roommate and I explored the open space of the 19th floor. I had no tripod, so getting the long exposures I wanted was tricky. I rested my camera on anything I could find, from the weak wooden railing keeping us from being blown off the side, to a cooler still rattling with ice from the previous day. We even climbed a ladder to reach the very top roof of the place, nimbly shuffling along corrugated metal while I used my camera’s flash to my heart’s content. No one would see us; we were all alone on top of the world. In University City, you can travel a mile in any direction and see nothing but residential complexes so nondescript that the only way to tell them apart is by their completely arbitrary names like Costa Verde and The Venetian. It came as much relief to learn I could travel a much shorter distance upward and see revealed a higher truth to this neighborhood that is surprisingly beautiful.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2505
    $5000
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $2505
    $5000
    Contributed
    Our Goal