Land is all you need, preached a utopian visionary in San Ysidro a century ago. Bosses and landlords and employees? Naw. Totally unnecessary in this commune.
“Amid all our hopes of industrial greatness, the land is the only reality,” a savvy marketer named William E. Smythe declared. “The man who owns the land, tills the land, lives by the land, is the only independent man.”
And for a while, he seemed to prove it. During its short existence, the Little Landers colony drew hundreds of residents and plenty of national attention while creating a financial system that will sound very familiar today.
Smythe, a New England transplant who accused San Diego of being corrupt, began promoting the idea of Little Landers around 1909. But where to put it? He looked south. Down by the border, “the climate, the fertile soil, the abundance of cheap water, the electric and steam rail network and planned county highway system made conditions ideal for an agricultural boom,” writes historian Lawrence E. Lee.
The idea was that each family would own an acre and live off the surplus crops, which were sold at a market on Sixth Avenue in downtown.
|Befitting its socialistic origins, the Little Landers homes, circa 1913, weren’t luxurious. | Source: The Overland Monthly|
Why farm? Because San Diego didn’t have other jobs. “In the bidding for population, suppose a New York lawyer, doctor, dentist, teacher, mechanic or merchant should write for specific information,” Smythe asked a local crowd in 1909, “who of you would take the responsibility of saying, ‘Come, there is a good opening here?’” Nobody answered.
The colony struggled but eventually grew to 300 families, including some that owned more than an acre of property. A name for the larger area came too: San Ysidro, honoring the patron saint of farmers.
“Conspicuous among the colonists are professional people, ministers, teachers, college professors, lawyers, doctors and artists,” reported the Overland Monthly magazine. “Indeed, it is a significant fact that among the best and most successful are found men — and in some cases women — whose former occupations kept them from the land, demonstrating that those with no experience and some brains will do better than the truck gardner of years’ standing with a poor order of mentality.”
The crops in this “land of hope,” as the magazine called it, included oranges, figs, apricots and peaches and vegetables. Residents raised chickens and rabbits too.
|Source: Microfilm files of The San Diego Union, 1913, San Diego Public Library|
To raise money, the colonists embraced an approach that sounds similar to a way modern city governments seek to improve rundown neighborhoods: by skimming property tax proceeds. In other words, redevelopment. “As market values in Little Lander real estate increased, this ‘unearned increment’ was captured by the community and diverted to the Improvement Fund,” historian Lee writes. “The board of directors had authority to appropriate sums from the ‘Fund’ for civic improvements such as streets and sidewalks, sewers and public buildings. The ‘Fund’ also, in time of need, could be used to undergird the marketing system and grant loans to individuals.”
The colony seems to have had a decidedly anti-business and left-leaning flavor. A Walt Whitman line about “the dear love of comrades” (later thought to be a possible reference to homosexuality) was even placed above clubhouse fireplaces.
A plaque along one wall said this:
That individual independence shall be achieved by millions of men and women, walking in the sunshine without fear of want.
That in response to the loving labor of their hands, the earth shall answer their prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
That they and their children shall be proprietary rather than tenants, working not for others but for themselves.
That theirs shall be the life of the open-the open sky and the open heart-fragrant with the breath of flowers, more fragrant with the spirit of fellowship which makes the good of one the concern of all, and raises the individual by raising the mass.
On the other hand, the utopians at Little Landers may have lacked a bit of true-believer fervor. Consider its wishy-washy motto: “A Little Land and a Living Surely Is Better than Desperate Struggle and Wealth, Possibly.”
And the colonists certainly weren’t racially progressive. The settlement banned blacks and Asians.
By 1915, reports historian Robert P. Sutton, there were 200 homes and about 500 people in Little Landers. “However, the community was plagued almost from the start by fiscal mismanagement and by the fact that many columnists had no agricultural skills.”
Then the famous 1916 floods came and wiped out dozens of homes in the community. Little Landers and its utopian dream soon vanished, and San Diegans returned to their “desperate struggle” without the distraction of a colony of people who sought more through less.