It’s Beef Week at Voice of San Diego. We’re explaining some of the region’s long-running tensions — and the characters behind them — to help you understand civic affairs in San Diego.
In 1910, Southern California was the lesser half of the Golden State, and the pint-sized city of San Diego wasn’t much more than an afterthought.
Oakland, Sacramento and even Berkeley were larger. At eight to 10 times our size, the sprawling metropolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles made us look positively Lilliputian, the kind of town you’d pat on the head and call “kiddo” on your way to somewhere with more pizzazz.
But San Diego grew like crazy over the next few years, nearly doubling its population over an eventful decade. By 1917, a surly, street-fighting local politician wanted to become mayor to keep the good times flowing. A developer himself, he embraced business like a long-lost Army buddy and painted his opponent as a tree-hugger who cared more about flowers than workers with jobs.
“Do You Prefer Progress and Prosperity,” his campaign sneered in a newspaper ad, “or Dreams and Daisies?”
To local historians, the lopsided election results — one mayoral candidate creamed the other — were less important than the “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums” race itself and the way it crystalized the never-ending battles over San Diego’s future. As California historian Kevin Starr put it, the campaign showed how the city struggled “with the problem of wanting it both ways: wanting San Diego to remain an unchanging enclave resort while enjoying the prosperity that comes only from growth.”
On the side of industry — those smog-belching smokestacks — is Louis J. Wilde, a native Midwesterner, like so many San Diegans then and now. “A hard-driving financier and banker,” as one historian put it, he wanted to build, build and build some more.
Wilde, a scrapper who’d later sock a councilman in the eye at the U.S. Grant Hotel, dismissed his opponent as “Geranium George” because of his focus on making San Diego beautiful.
Indeed, George Marston, another Midwest transplant, wanted to make the town look great: He helped bring Balboa Park and the 1915 exposition to life. But he was perhaps best known then, and for decades into the future, as the man behind the mammoth Marston Department Store downtown. And he was hardly a no-growther since he’d served as president of a local railroad and wanted the city to grow.
Still, Marston seemed to be more cautious about growth than his opponent, and some voters surely remembered — for better or worse — starry-eyed plans from a few years earlier for a grand San Diego civic complex complete with opera house. The “Geranium” slur stuck to Marston, as did the idea of vapid environmentalists preventing businesses from making money.
Both sides slung mud. A Marston supporter demanded that his rival put up or shut up: “Mr. Wilde,” the supporter wrote in a newspaper ad, “30,000 voters demand to know how you could make good on your ‘Mysterious Smokestacks’ slogan?” Another ad wondered, “Why hadn’t he produced a single smokestack in his fifteen years in San Diego?”
On the pro-industry side, “they had a replica of a locomotive going up and down Broadway,” recalled a longtime resident in a 1979 interview. A sign declared “Smokestacks instead of geraniums — Louis J. Wilde.”
Meanwhile, a 1917 newspaper columnist accused the geranium types of being wealthy and oblivious: “It is better to have a fairly pretty commercial city which is prosperous, than to have an unusually beautiful city whose citizens have nothing in their pockets.”
A pro-Wilde campaign song — thank goodness we don’t have those anymore — declared: “Oh, we love to have the tourists come, in our sunshine to bask / But we need some smokestacks: / Give us work: a chance is all we ask.”
Local leftist types actually supported the pro-commerce “smokestacks” candidate. “Wilde emerged as a worker’s hero in attempting to entice more industry and thus more jobs to the area,” wrote historian Uldis Ports in 1975, with Marston’s critics accusing him of siding with the wealthy. The campaign, one labor paper says, is a case of “silkies against the woolen socks.”
Wilde and his big smokestackian promises took “Geranium George” to the cleaners: He beat Marston, 12,918 to 9,167 votes. But Marston had the last laugh.
As historian Ports put it:
As mayor, Wilde sought more industry and referred to Los Angeles as a great city and a model to emulate, “bidding welcome to all capital and enterprising men.” In contrasting the two cities, Wilde said “Los Angeles is full of youth, vision, imagination, optimism, curiosity, boosters, and brains. San Diego is full of old tight-wads, pessimists, vacillating, visionary dreamers….” Wilde left San Diego for Los Angeles in 1921 when his second term as mayor expired, declaring that it was “a thankless job.” He died three years later.
Wilde left a few legacies before skipping town. One was a scandal: As mayor, he came up with a peculiarly named oil-digging scheme that went bad for investors. Another legacy: the fountain at Horton Plaza.
Ol’ Smokestacks, it turns out, beautified the city after all.
So did Marston, who later “bought all the land that is Presidio Park, landscaped it, paid for the building of the Serra Museum and gave it all to the city,” in the words of local historian Patty Fares. “Unfortunately, that was 1929. You know what happened that year. The city gave it back to him because they couldn’t afford [the upkeep]. He personally maintained it for at least 10 years until the city could afford it again.”
As for San Diego, we’re more than 30 times the size we were in 1910. But some things never change, like snarky remarks about the obstinance of flower-loving environmentalists. Just check this 1918 letter to the editor mocking city-beautiful types who raise an alarm whenever anyone “dares to disturb the seagulls where the lilies-of-the-valley are to be planted for posterity.”
“Immediately,” the letter says, a poor soul trying to build something “is notified by the Pro-Geranium and Amalgamated Society of Ancient Quietus that he is not wanted in these parts.”
Today’s political jibes against environmentalists aren’t quite so, well, flowery. But the spirit of the century-old snark is still with us, then and forever.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and national president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.