A view of San Diego’s past: 'A dream vision in the re-imagined world'


 Kevin Starr, during an interview with KPBS TV's Peggy Pico, host of "Evening Edition"

Eminent California state historian Kevin Starr brought his encyclopedic knowledge of San Diego’s past to UC San Diego on Dec. 2, 2014, regaling the audience with a compelling mix of facts, lore, oddments and irrefutable historical linkages dating from 150 years ago to recent decades.

His talk was based on San Diego’s California-Panama Exposition of 1915, an ambitious Balboa Park event that he termed “the height of chutzpah,” given that the still-nascent city had only 49,000 residents and was thousands of miles away from the event it was supposed to celebrate, the opening of the Panama Canal.

Prior to the event, he was a guest on KPBS-FM's "Midday Edition" with host Maureen Cavanaugh and later, KPBS-TV's "Evening Edition" with host Peggy Pico. CLICK HERE.

Starr explained the exposition's concept: As ships carrying goods and daring transplants from the East Coast headed northward, their first port of call would be, by happy necessity, the undeveloped but welcome shelter of San Diego Bay.

Several decades earlier, in 1868, a 3,000-acre preserve had been set aside for City Park, the early name for Balboa Park. As Starr pointed out, that, too, was a highly farsighted move considering that San Diego’s population then was only around 3,000.

“There’s a side to San Diego that’s filled with civic ambition,” said Starr. “But there’s another side that says, ‘Now, wait, wait, wait, we don’t want that much.”

Reflecting on the pioneers of San Diego’s early development, Starr put it this way: "The boom of the 1880s brought to San Diego a very large number of educated, Anglo-American, Protestant, upper-middle class people of means. Now, if anybody has trouble with that, then I'm sorry, you have trouble with history."

A fourth-generation San Franciscan, former California state librarian and now a history professor at USC, Starr is the author of "Americans and the California Dream," a series of books widely regarded as the definitive history of California of the 1800s through the mid-1960s.

Starr's talk will be available on UCSD-TV for future airing.

In his wide-ranging presentation, part of Extension’s Helen Edison Lecture Series, he offered a number of insights and observations, including:

  • On civic pioneer Alonzo Horton’s initial land purchase: “On April 15, 1867, Horton almost immediately purchased 960 acres in 160-acre lots along what is today the harbor and downtown … in a successful effort to persuade the city to move from Old Town, by the mission, to New Town by the bay.”

  • On how Horton personified the city’s early leaders: “These kinds of people were not overwhelmingly rich, but they had enough time for leisure -- time to work on civic projects. ... They brought a dream vision of a re-imagined world.”

  • On the official opening of the California-Panama Exposition: “President Woodrow Wilson pressed a Western Union telegraph key (in Washington, DC) which turned into an illuminated glow three miles long, of more than 1,000 lights.”

  • On the city’s civic leaders of that era: “…the future was formed by an oligarchy largely led by John D. Spreckels, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., George Marston, Edward Scripps, and Kate Sessions (‘an equal opportunity oligarch’) … high-minded and upper-middle class leaders who were motivated by civic philanthropy … educated, wealthy and democratic.”

  • On their commitment to civic betterment: “Even such an oligarch of vast wealth as John D. Spreckels, for example, sustained a high level of civic philanthropy oriented toward solid, middle-class values.”

  • On the subsequent buildup of the Navy, based on land donated to the federal government: “That brought aviation and shipbuilding … plus sailors and marines didn’t go out on strike.”

  • On the value of such celebrations: “These are grand themes, they’re promotional themes, booster themes. But they’re also ‘envision themes,’ themes of San Diego as a ‘garden city’ and a ‘city of health’ and of a sensitivity to the biological basis of life. … That begins with the climate, the rise of the health culture. It moves forward and results in a great zoo, and it goes all the way forward to biotech, (starting with) the rise of Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the emergence of UC San Diego in the early 1960s.”


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