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A letter to the editor in response to Scott Lewis’s piece, Balboa Park at a Crossroads.
One reason for the demise of Balboa Park is the decision taken decades ago to suburbanize San Diego. It drew people from the city’s core, leaving it an island amidst freeways with limited accessibility by mass transit.
Once deeply connected to its surroundings, by foot and trolley, most notably to a bustling downtown business district, and used by residents and workers seeking solace, play, a place to eat, and for socializing and enjoying nature, Balboa Park was a respite from urban life. It is now a destination for tourists and day trippers and the profit they bring.
Like so much public space in San Diego, it is a front for private enterprise. Meaning honest conversation about preserving it should begin by recognizing its original purpose is gone. It’s about money now: museum and zoo receipts, charity fundraising events, municipal golf fees and defense dollars for the medical industry. Sadly, we now ask, what needs to be done to maximize its commercial value?
One start is promoting New York’s Central Park Conservancy as an administrative model. But beware of further comparison; the two parks have little in common. To think otherwise is delusional. They are different in layout, use patterns, accessibility and design, not to mention their cultural and economic impact and the affection they draw from citizens. A revealing example is that the most expensive residences in Manhattan rise adjacent to Central Park, precisely for that reason. Sixth Avenue by the Cabrillo Bridge holds a graveyard of rusting rebar commemorating unfinished dreams.
Add that yes, Irwin Jacobs is a sincere philanthropist, but he is one of only a handful whose generosity is not linked to commercial gain, unlike the thousands, even tens of thousands like him in Manhattan who fund Central Park. A reason for their altruism is that if you live in Manhattan, Central Park is your backyard. It’s the place you or your kids play ball, stroll on weekends, take in music and theater on a summer night, enjoy a picnic or go sledding in winter. San Diego’s backyards are in its suburbs.
Sprawl has consequences. A more visionary San Diego would now have a far larger, more economically diverse and dynamic downtown, with a daily sea of workers injecting life into an easily accessible Balboa Park, not severed from users by Interstate 5. The presence of such a large group of weekday merchants, rather than “weekend entertainment downtown,” would have brought swanky neighborhoods to streets adjacent to a park that’s so close-in. This San Diego would yield a plethora of park champions, people who would treasure it for its natural sense of life, not its contrived cents of profit.
Bob Stein lives in University City.