Friday, February 10, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant:

So one pesky little old apartment building stands in the way of yet another sparkling glass condo tower- because it happens that some folks who stayed there also attended something called the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Not that anybody remembers what that was anymore. This is San Diego: You think we bother remembering things? That can trip you up on the way to the beach.

Or, if you’re a real estate developer, the bank. Four-hundred sparkle-walled luxo-cubbies aren’t going up, and the reason why is run down, shabby, decrepit and only two stories.

Celebrating our history, it turns out, takes a little effort and someone to hold your butt – money.

However, the worth of it is obvious – perhaps too obvious.

The classic argument for the preservation of historical sites and structures is still the best one: cities (and states and nations) just don’t make sense without them.

If you posses any intellectual curiosity at all, a quick spin around San Diego will impose a few questions only history can answer.

Did Mission Bay always have a trailer park? Why is it called North Island Naval Air Station? Was the San Diego River always sheathed in concrete?

Who or what is Balboa, and what the heck inspired that crazy blue dome and that huge park?

OK, so you didn’t quit your job to become a historian the first time one of those questions crossed your mind. You probably didn’t even look up the answer.

And without a doubt, you are worse off for it. When you start asking questions about the landmarks you drive by daily, the answers become addictive – and the commute enlightened.

Suddenly you begin to grasp an appreciation for a fact that historians and urban planners grapple with alone: Cities don’t change overnight, but they do change suddenly.

A hundred years ago, San Diego was sucking wind as just another small-time town on the west coast. The bay was undeveloped, the railroad didn’t go here and worst of all, Los Angeles had better connections with the federal government – which meant more industry and more people.

So when the Panama Canal opened for business in 1915, San Diego was hoping it could finally capitalize on what was sure to be an increase in trade for the west coast. San Francisco had gotten the World’s Fair, but San Diego boosters (ever heard the names Spreckels and Kettner?) saw an opportunity to put their long-overlooked hamlet on the commercial map.

They did it the way any smart person would have, by throwing a really big party.

But every great party needs a great venue – and that was exactly what they set about making Balboa Park into. Architect Bertram Goodhue was hired to develop park-happy city planner John Nolen’s vision for the open space named after the first European ever to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean.

That distinct San Diego twist on the Spanish-revival style …see the blue dome, the bell tower, and the various museums – was created by Goodhue for Balboa Park exhibits at the Expo, but its influence on the look and feel of San Diego is impossible to miss today.

The boosters’ party – called the Panama-California Exposition, turned out to be an economic spark of a seminal degree for the little town by the bay.

A guy named Pendleton, then in charge of the 4th Marine Battalion, had half of his troops camp out in the middle of the festival, holding daily parades and drills. Pendleton ran into Kettner (then both San Diego’s congressional representative and a prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce), and the two discussed an idea of unspeakable importance to the rise of San Diego: building an advance base for the Marines in the area.

From those discussions, the Navy ended up buying its first major piece of land in San Diego, which was an empty marsh called Dutch Flat (you might know it today as the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot.) And thus you have the beginning of San Diego’s life as a military town.

Less than a hundred years later, it’s impossible to think of America’s Finest City without that association – and that’s the problem. One little apartment house in the East Village admittedly seems inconsequential within our daily madness, because we don’t get to see the suddenness of the change it signifies. Human life isn’t long (or relaxed) enough for us to cultivate due appreciation for the little twists upon which the fortunes of future millions turn.

A hundred years ago, the peninsula was a big sandbar. Mission Bay was an empty marsh. North Island was an island. Balboa Park was a swath of dusty chaparral. The seventh largest city in the United States was closer to being a village than a town.

A hundred years from now, San Diegans will still share that past, most of which has already been filled, redeveloped, remodeled and built on. The process of urbanization will inevitably render our street signs into riddles, while future generations will feel just as caught in their moment, just as free to forget, as we do.

By preserving our past – even when it gets in the way of making money – we stave off that forgetfulness. If we want to think that what we do now will have any meaning for those to come, we have to grant our ancestors’ advances the same possibility.

Send your own curious tips about San Diego’s public spaces to Ian Port at

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