In 2008, San Luis Obispo was rated in the top four happiest cities on Earth by New York Times best-selling author, Daniel Buettner. San Luis Obispo earned a No. 4 spot because of the short commutes for employees, open spaces, outdoors, low smoking rates, support for the arts, a community-oriented downtown and the volunteer organizations it offers. While SLO boasts positive results from the factors deemed worthy of a happy city, including some of the lowest smoking rates in the country and high satisfaction with their jobs, some Cal Poly students don’t see the happiness in the town.
“Just drive through the streets on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night in SLO and you’re bound to see groups of college students keeled over on the sidewalk vomiting,” said English freshman Hillary Bright. Bright believes it’s the raucous weekend behavior that contradicts SLO’s so-called “happy” image. Additionally, the noise ordinance implemented in the town in summer 2015 makes students feel like the college vibe is being pressured to change. “Whether it’s party fines–which makes the party scene suck more and more each year–or pointless driving tickets . . . they (the police) are targeting students, enforcing silly rules and making the SLO environment very unenjoyable,” said sophomore aerospace engineer Hokulani Gunderson.
“The city is closed off and in denial of it being a college town, there’s parties and police work hard to suppress that” said political science and anthropology junior Aurora Chavez. Despite the widely held belied the local residents feel a sense of animosity towards their college-aged neighbors, a lot of “SLOcals” enjoy the presence of young people in their community. “I love walking around Cal Poly’s campus and seeing the college students. It makes me happy” said JoAnn Bissell, 41-year resident of San Luis Obispo. Specifically, Bissell said the upbeat youth make SLO a vibrant place.
But what is it about SLO that makes it such a pleasant environment for the people who wouldn’t be happier elsewhere? Part of this pleasantness includes the idea that SLO is closed off from the rest of the world, according to biology senior Megan Durham. “We live in a bubble, a happy bubble,” said Durham. When asked why SLO is a bubble, Durham said, “I guess because SLO is predominantly white, there’s not a lot of different issues.”
Durham is not alone in her guess; Kinesiology junior Camille Gix said, “SLO is only really the happiest city for people in the upper middle class and white.” Gix and Durham address a point. “Happiness if very subjective, so how can one city claim to be the happiest city?” sociology sophomore Brittany Nelson said. For those who enjoy the outdoors, warm weather, tight-knit community and friendly people, SLO is wonderful. On the other hand, for those more concerned with issues like diversity, SLO is not as happy for them. “It’s a primarily white city. Everywhere you look it’s a good 90%+ Caucasian population. And with that being said, it comes with a lot of ignorant, Republican, agriculture, close-minded people. These people have no ethnic or cultural rounding, leaving them with bland personalities and no worldly experience,” said Gunderson, who lived in Denver, Portland and Hawaii before SLO.
Gunderson’s statement that SLO is primarily white is reflected in 2014 US Census data. In 2014, SLO county’s makeup consisted of 89% White people, a 7.6% increase from 2010. In comparison, the Latino population increased by 2% over the four-year period, with Asians and Pacific Islanders making little to no growth.
“I have been told by some of my friends of Latino background about some experiences they’ve had here. For example, they tell me that they get dirty looks in public from people because of their skin color, and have been confronted by other students because of where they come from, and generally making them feel like they don’t belong here. I’ve never had any experiences like that during my time at Cal Poly,” said construction management sophomore Conor McKay.
McKay said calling SLO “ ‘the happiest place in America’ is overlooking a significant minority group that lives here and fortifying its marginalization.” Both McKay and Gunderson’s observations about ethnicity and diversity speak to the free speech wall controversy that occurred in March. The free speech wall displayed messages of religious intolerance and offensive racial terms directed towards Middle-Easterners.
Others don’t believe that there is a problem. Electrical engineering freshman Samantha Bituen feels very included in the campus community. “When I first visited, everyone seemed genuinely happy, whether it be the people or the things to do here,” Bituen said. Bituen is a member of Pilipino Cultural Exchange, one of 27 cultural organizations Cal Poly offers. “I feel like minorities are included at Cal Poly because of clubs available to them and if they choose to participate, they can,” said sophomore computer engineer Noah Paid. Even though these organizations exist, Paid said he’d like to see more diversity on campus. While unsure of how Cal Poly will achieve this, Chavez said she feels like the University needs to take that issue into its own hands.
“I feel like Cal Poly does talk a lot about diversity. It’ll take awhile for problems to actually get fixed and since it’s not soon enough it can be frustrating,” Chavez said. In her opinion, she said Cal Poly should know about the desires of the students and respond to them.
Although San Luis Obispo has idyllic weather and outdoor opportunities for tourists and nature lovers, it admittedly has its problems like any place does. What should be recognized though, is that every city in the world has its pros and its cons.
Moreover, it should be remembered that happiness is subjective. There will always be people who enjoy a certain location more than another because of his or her quality of life. Just as each person is different, so is each perspective and opinion on how happy she or he is to live in San Luis Obispo.