There’s a bunch of garbage in the middle of Balboa Park.

Newspapers and barber shop bottles and anchovy cans and frozen dinners, all thrown away by a mid-century generation of San Diegans, sitting and stinking in the middle of a park, in the middle of the city.

You might never know the dirt-covered, uneven acres between Pershing Drive and Florida Drive are hiding mountains of trash.

But you might notice one above-ground clue. A controlled combustion chamber gives off the wavy, warbling lines that show heat escaping. Disc golf regulars told the San Diego Reader’s Dorian Hargrove about the chatter on the course a few years ago.

“Everybody’s always wondered, like, what’s coming out of it and if it is hazardous,” one said.

Between 1952 and 1974, the city filled in the Arizona Street canyon on the east side of the park with garbage — about 1.9 million tons of it. It was an active sanitary landfill, so trucks would deposit a load of trash; then workers would compact it and cover it with a layer of dirt.

Here’s what the canyon looked like in 1953. The photo comes from the Environmental Services Department, which manages the landfill.

What was the city thinking, placing a dump in the middle of its crown jewel? Newspaper articles from the time highlighted saving money by hauling trash smaller distances. And Ray Purtee, a mechanical engineer who manages the landfill’s gas for the city, adds a likely theory.

“We have this canyon that’s worthless for building — let’s make it nice and flat,” Purtee said. “This is what our forefathers decided.”

I didn’t find evidence of the same level of controversy over the landfill site as with some of the park’s other history. But the landfill’s existence is a classic chapter in our series looking at Balboa Park’s big controversies and changes in the way the land’s been used since the park’s initial designation in 1868.

And it still hangs over discussion today.

One San Diegan used the dump to make a point at a recent City Council meeting about the future of Balboa Park. He read aloud the names of the City Council members in the 1950s under whose watch the dump opened.

He read the list at the meeting when the current City Council approved a plan pushed by Mayor Jerry Sanders and philanthropist Irwin Jacobs to remake the western entrance of the park.

For the speaker, bookseller and theater technician Erik Hanson, the two actions were linked.

“In 50 or 60 years will some citizen perhaps yet unborn be reading your names in this chamber?” Hanson posited, with no small amount of dramatic emphasis. “We will not forget this day.”

The city’s decision to open the dump had long repercussions. Now the city pays a crew of people to monitor the site’s methane emission and to make sure no contaminated water runs off of it. An elaborate underground methane capturing system funnels the gas to that controlled combustion chamber — the “flare station” — the disc golfers can see, and the chamber burns off the gas.

And the site measuring more than 65 acres is relatively useless as-is.

Rehabilitating the landfill is often invoked as a project the city might do something about if not for money problems.

The landfill is supposed to be repurposed and landscaped, according to the city’s plan on the books since 1993. Perhaps manicured turf could be planted there, or it could be landscaped more naturally. An estimate from 2008 of the reclamation’s cost: $86.7 million.

Part of the cost comes because you can’t just plant plants — you’d have to carefully control how they were watered and maintained so that irrigation runoff didn’t get contaminated.

It’s not an easy site to do much on. In 1987, a worker lit a cigarette near a storm drain and was blown six feet away. His clothes ignited and 35 percent of his body was covered in burns.

A few years later, the state started requiring cities to control methane emissions instead of just letting them escape into the air. On the site now, the city has an elaborate underground piping system. Purtee and his crew monitor 89 wells dug into the ground and measure for any seeping.

Purtee said two wells across the street in the golf course have been out of state compliance for a long time, but the levels of methane have been getting better over time.

As anaerobic bacteria chomp on the waste and decompose the trash, the ground settles oddly. A gate leading to the outfield of one of the baseball diamonds has sunk so far into the earth that you’d have to be pretty short to walk through.

The team also has to make sure the dirt doesn’t leave shapes where water could pool, get contaminated and flow into the water supply. Trucks haul dirt from construction sites all day to the landfill and add to its grading. The Plaza de Panama project plans to bring trucks full of dirt over when the park is excavated for the parking garage.

But while planning and parks staff work out the future, in the meantime, Purtee still grins with fascination — even after monitoring it for a couple of decades — as he describes all of the processes that go on underground. If the flare station shuts off, hits a too-high or too-low temperature, a robot voice automatically calls him on his cell phone.

As we turned to leave the flare station, Purtee looked up from under a wide-brimmed straw hat at some tall trees nearby. There are places in the park where trees have special difficulty digging their roots very deep, but these ones stand in defiance of even more than hard, dry ground.

“I’m surprised these trees are here,” Purtee said. “Once their roots hit the trash, it stunts them.”

Up next: The park’s mid- and late-century hurdles include the intrusion of freeways and the expansion of the naval hospital.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of Diego.

Photos by Sam Hodgson, except where noted otherwise.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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