Election Eve

Monday, July 25, 2005, 12:11 —by Syntax of Things
This item was posted in San Diego Politics category and has 4 Comments so far.

Is everyone getting ready to do some electing tomorrow? In case you’ve been in a cave that doesn’t have WiFi access, tomorrow is election day. We get to choose who will bear the city’s cross and whether or not the city will bear a cross. According to a report I just heard on the radio, experts are predicting a really low turnout at the polls, something in the order of 30 percent.

Of all the articles I’ve been reading over the last few days–and the city has been getting a lot of coverage both in national and international media outlets–one of the best about this election was written by state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr. In it, he says that San Diego needs to grow up. Pretty much a kind way of saying that San Diego should shed some of its provincial ways and live up to its billing as the seventh largest city in the United States. Even if you disagree, his article provides a nice history lesson on politics in San Diego:

San Diego has been a tourist mecca since the early 1900s. It is a world-class center for scientific and biotechnological research at UC San Diego and a dozen related institutions. The community teems with Navy and Marine Corps installations, and it was brought to a peak of effective administration during the mayoralty of Pete Wilson, and represented in the state Assembly and Senate these past decades by some of the ablest elected officials in the history of the state. How can such a city fall into such a mess?

I have a theory. At the core of the San Diego identity — in its civic DNA — is a profound and continuing ambivalence to its growing urbanism, an ambivalence to the very fact that it has become the seventh-largest city in the United States, a major city by any standard. This ambivalence induces a suburbanized sense of civic denial: a near refusal by San Diegans to admit that they live in a big city with big-city problems and must, through politics, pay attention to and consistently, openly take responsibility for such problems.

In the 1870s, San Diego began its growth as an American city with a bitter struggle between those who liked the town as it was and those assenting to Alonzo Horton’s argument that the center of the city should resituate itself at a more favorable site and set aside a tract for a great public park that embodied San Diego’s hopes for an impending urbanism. Horton’s forces won, and he became, in effect, the founder of the modern city. But in the decades that followed, the argument continued.

Development of the park became a struggle between those who wanted San Diego to grow as a city and those who did not. In 1915, San Diegans opened a major exposition in what is now called Balboa Park as a way to encourage growth. But they designed the Panama-California Exposition as a dream city, a civic castle in Spain, removed as far as possible from the gritty realities of being a harbor city that striking Industrial Workers of the World Wobblies had recently almost shut down.

In 1917, San Diegans fought their famous Smokestacks versus Geraniums mayoral campaign. Banker-businessman Louis Wilde, a former Texas oilman, pilloried opponent George Marston as Geranium George, portraying him as an elitist interested in maintaining San Diego as a non-industrialized resort city. Wilde won the election and served two terms as mayor. But he moved to Los Angeles in 1921, defeated by those who, led by Marston, saw San Diego as an eternal enclave of upper-middle-class progressivism.

When San Diego at long last did acquire an industrial infrastructure in the 1920s, it did so by deliberately bringing the Navy and Marine Corps into town, transforming itself into a protective enclave of the federal government.

“Anything but Los Angeles!” had by then become a San Diego mantra, with Los Angeles standing for growth, industrialism and a big-city identity, and San Diego standing for anti-growth, antiurban reserve and for preserving a privileged life for the city’s ascendant classes. This anti-urbanism was compounded, longtime San Diego commentator Neil Morgan has argued, by the postwar influx of Midwesterners and emigres from the upper South, who did not have much personal experience with big cities and instinctively preferred a small-town atmosphere.

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4 Responses to “Election Eve”

  1. lyn said on Monday, July 25, 2005, 16:34

    that’s a great article and totally true. thanks for sharing.

  2. Barry said on Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 11:46

    I don’t agree that San Diegans’ preference for a small-town atmosphere comes from lack of personal experience with urban life among its residents.

    At least as many modern San Diegans emigrated from urban environs, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and others. And if my conversations with San Diegans I have met mean anything, it appears to be people who have deliberately left these places who appreciate the small-town atmosphere that San Diego offers, along with big-city amenities and convenience. Candidate Myke Shelby exemplifies this demographic, which I posit is a significant number of our population.

    We want good restaurants, walking neighborhoods, “things to do”, in a concentrated area, but we also appreciate that we can go for a quick hike in Mission Trails Park before seeing a play at the Old Globe. We like living in the 7th largest city without having to deal with pervasive crime. If we wanted something else, we would move, because the same demographic is highly mobile, and if we can afford to live here, there are few places we can’t afford if they are attractive enough.

    Yes, there are people who fight change. I live in Ocean Beach, and some of my self-labeled “progressive” neighbors want nothing more than to see the little town locked in a Groundhog Day scenario, circa 1971, no matter what the cost. Some of them are on local planning boards. But they are not the majority, and certainly not the majority of new residents.

    In sum, I think that the article is interesting, but resorts to oft-repeated stereotypes that are not productive, and shed little light on the future.

  3. MAS said on Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 14:46

    By city limits we may be the 7th largest city, but we are really the 17th largest metro area.

    Sort by 12+ Population

  4. Ramsey Green said on Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 11:14

    Starr had some good points, but read the letter to the editor I sent to the Times, below, in response…he’s never cared about San Diego history until bad things happen here.

    It was pleasant to read that Kevin Starr, the former
    California State Librarian, is finally doing a little
    research on the history of San Diego. In Starr’s
    opinion piece (San Diego: Reluctant city must grow up,
    Op-Ed, July 24, 2005), the USC professor and
    California historian decries the “ambivalence” we San
    Diegans have toward accepting that we “live in a big
    city with big-city problems.” Starr buffers his
    claims that San Diegans are a civically immature lot
    with historical anecdotes dating back to the 1870s.
    His sudden interest in San Diego history is
    surprising; after all, on March 24, 2004, he told the
    San Diego Union-Tribune that “nothing happened in San
    Diego until World War II” to justify his skimpy
    coverage of the city in his early volumes of
    California history. Starr should know better. In
    fact, after years of its inhabitation by Native
    Americans beginning nearly 20,000 years ago, San Diego
    was the first California city to be visited by
    Europeans, which was quite a bit before World War II.
    Today San Diego faces an enormous political crisis,
    however as the demographics of the city continue
    transitioning and local progressivism grows, San Diego
    will politically mature. In the meantime, perhaps Mr.
    Starr should stick to writing about the history of a
    city he is interested in rather than capitalizing on
    writing about a city that in normal tranquility he
    could care less about.

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