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Friday, July 28, 2006 | Once there was a river. It flowed down into the rich bottomlands and past a series of steep, indented bluffs bordering a tiny pueblo towards the bay. Sandbars and islands, cut by the river’s channels, dotted its broad-flowing areas. Willows, cottonwoods and poplars grew along its winding banks. Coastal sage scrub covered the higher ground. Marshes teemed with wildlife, especially birds and waterfowl.

This river, the San Diego River, was the source of life to all cultures that existed in the Old Town area from pre-history through much of the 19th century. When the Spaniards arrived in 1769, the Kumeyaay Indian village of Cosoy reportedly existed on a low bluff protected by trees where the river emptied into an estuary.

Part of the river, several Mexican Era adobes, and possibly a portion of Cosoy lie buried beneath the Caltrans site at Juan and Taylor Streets. Assemblyman Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, this year introduced AB 2081 to include the soon-to-be vacated CalTrans property as part of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

Why is the CalTrans acquisition so important? Why should San Diegans care? Because this heavily urbanized park is the city’s historic birthplace. It is historic ground, and the idea of setting aside a portion of a park to recreate its historic landscape as used by our forebears is novel, indeed eventful. Nothing like it exists, even remotely, in San Diego.

Acquiring this site is essential to telling the story of early San Diego. The river played an indispensable role in Old San Diego’s development; without it there would have been no settlement. The early settlers, many retired Spanish soldiers from the hilltop presidio, planted their huertas or garden lots near the river and built their adobe homes on elevated ground west of the plaza.

After the CalTrans office complex is demolished, State Parks plans to use the property and adjoining park land around the McCoy House to create cultural landscapes as used by the native Kumeyaay and Mexican and early American settlers. The long-range vision is to cover the McCoy House parking lot and intervening paved streets (Calhoun and Wallace). A section of the historic riverbed and bluffs could be recreated with native vegetation, including stands of native willow. The cost would be minimal.

A recreation of Cosoy could include metates, grinding stones, a pit for firing clay pots, stacks of dry bunch grass, a shell midden, an ‘e-waa – the traditional brush-covered hut made from willow saplings – and perhaps some baskets, tools like fish hooks, awls and nets, and trade items such as salt and acorns. The village garden would have sage, greens, and cacti planted in it. Along the banks of the river, there would be examples of native plants gathered by the Kumeyaay, such as lemonade berry, wild lilac, and juncus.

The cultural landscape of the Mexican Era – the huerta of a retired soldier – could feature a vegetable and herb garden, a pear or fig orchard, a cactus fence or adobe wall, a hand-dug well, and maybe a corral and a bed of Castilian roses. Flowers, especially roses, often adorned the “altar rooms” of Catholic families living in Old Town into the early 20th century.

At least three historic buildings should be reconstructed, as funding becomes available. They are Josefa Carrillo and Henry Fitch’s two-story adobe store and home on the CalTrans site, and Guadalupe Machado and Albert B. Smith’s wood-frame house and adobe near the reconstructed McCoy House. Erected in the 1830s, Fitch’s store did a brisk business trading cowhides, tallow, and aguardiente (brandy) for textiles and apparels shipped in from New England, China, and Mexico. The Machado-Smith houses, which were built circa 1855-1866, stood on a beautiful sloped garden lot overlooking the river.

Many of the paved walkways, subtropical gardens, and other 20th century landscape trappings in the park will be removed in the near future. This does not mean that State Parks plans to create a barren, treeless landscape in Old Town, as some may think. Californio and American families like the Carrillos and Fitches, the Machados and Smiths planted orchards and vegetable gardens. Their adobe and wood-frame homes had grape arbors and gardens of flowering Castilian roses, jasmine, geraniums, and cups of gold vine. Their world, although not idyllic and often grim, was alive with color and smell – a fecundity and mysticism that is missing from ours.

The Vargas bill has so far generated widespread local support. It has been unanimously endorsed by the Old Town Community Planning Group, Historic Old Town Community Foundation, Old Town Chamber of Commerce, Old Town School Program, Save Our Heritage Organisation, Friends of the Whaley House, Friends of the Old Adobe Chapel, and Old Town Business Improvement District. City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who represents Old Town, strongly supports the acquisition.

On May 30, the State Assembly unanimously passed the bill by a 79-0 vote. The assembly bill, however, did not provide any funding for the State to acquire the property. According to a committee report, CalTrans wants $13 million.

The bill is presently before the Senate Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Water. Senator Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, another strong supporter of the acquisition, is a member of this committee and the most likely sponsor of the bill in the State Senate.

Until a month ago, the question of appropriations appeared to be the barb on which the bill could be snagged. But then something unusual happened: on June 26 Vargas withdrew his bill, possibly because he was defeated for reelection in the June primary. The state legislature reconvenes on Aug. 7. If he does not retract his decision, the bill will have to be reintroduced in the assembly during the 2007-2008 session, which is an unlikely scenario.

If the bill becomes inactive during the next session, CalTrans will be free to sell its property to the highest bidder – in this case a private contractor. Rumor has it that there are at least two developers interested in the property. San Diegans do not need yet another office complex or hotel, especially on historic ground that should be rightfully set aside as a “living reminder” to their heritage. Too much has already been lost in this city due to unbridled growth and development.

This setback unfortunately comes at a time of promise for the park. The San Diego Coast District of State Parks was recently awarded $1.8 million by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment to restore the historic Casa de Bandini/Cosmopolitan Hotel. Rehabilitation of three other historic adobes, including the Casa de Estudillo, a national landmark, is likely with the possibility of deferred maintenance money from State Parks.

The CalTrans acquisition, however, is the most critical component of Old Town’s redirection as a historic park. Without it, a rare opportunity to salvage a part of our heritage, where a river once flowed, will be lost forever.

Victor Walsh is a state historian with the San Diego Coast District of California State Parks. Send a letter to the editor here.

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