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'People think it's just like Hawaii. It's not. It's an arid desert.' : Historian Captures the Real Past of San Diego

July 10, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA — Michael McKeever is fascinated by history. Not so much the myth and romance of history, but details that stand out like brush strokes on a canvas.

McKeever, 41, has just written "A Short History of San Diego," a book that seeks to penetrate the myth and romance of "America's Finest City."

"The true history of San Diego is not overly romantic," he was saying over lunch. "Truth is, it's more or less neglected. If the state park service (Department of Parks and Recreation) saw what Old Town was like in the old days, they'd be horrified."

In other words, it wasn't the sort of place where chichi boutiques flourished alongside gourmet Mexican cuisine.

"It was dusty, dirty, full of fleas," McKeever said. "The plaza didn't have grass, it smelled. . . . If I could go back in a time machine, I, a San Diegan of Old Town, would feel very cut off. When the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, San Diego didn't have a telegraph line. We had to hear from a person riding on horseback from Los Angeles. Isn't that curious how it parallels many of our feelings about L.A. today?

"People here seemed to be running from or to something else. The first really ambitious people came here as a result of the Gold Rush in the 1840s. But gold played out, and many of those people stayed 'cause they wanted to."

McKeever is fascinated by "the Wobblies" of 1910, who coincided with the Mexican Revolution. Jack London, a self-proclaimed Wobbly, once described the group as "socialists, anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws and undesirable citizens of the United States." The Wobblies' claim to fame was invading Tijuana in May of 1911, only to be beaten by the Mexicans and later shunned by the San Diegans. McKeever said the forces at work in the city were of an incredibly conservative posture.

Always Conservative

"San Diego always has been a very conservative city," he said, "a strange mix of idealists and anarchists. The singing group Up With People came here in the 1960s and filled the Civic Theatre three nights running. San Diego is such a conservative city that when the battleship New Jersey showed up in the late '60s, San Diegans filled the decks for hours, walking around, admiring the thing. San Diego was hardly a hotbed of anti-war fever. And yet San Diego had to feel close to 'Nam due to having the naval hospital. Surely, someone must have noticed those pale men in bathrobes sitting on the lawn and wondered, 'Why are they there?' "

McKeever describes the city in large part as an artificial creation.

"People think it's just like Hawaii," he said. "It's not. It's an arid desert. If it weren't for the water from the Colorado River, it could get really rough around here. The Spanish suffered tremendously over lack of water. People reshaped the bay, which is beautiful, to look like it does today. But man had a lot to do in making San Diego San Diego."

San Diego, in some ways, McKeever said, has benefited more from its losses than its gains. It has a splendid natural harbor, but Los Angeles, using a primitive man-made port, became the illogical shipping center. At one time San Diego loomed as the natural terminus of an East-West railroad line, but Los Angeles copped the honor.

Trade-off for Railroad

By virtue of its losses, San Diego may have retained its best asset--beauty--at the expense of one of its worst--inferiority.

McKeever, a tall man of Irish descent with a confident gait and kind manner, knows much about the landscape he's passing, whether it's Chula Vista, his home, or San Diego, the place of his childhood. He has lamented for years San Diego's feeling of being overshadowed by big brother Los Angeles, but thinks the tide is turning, albeit subtly.

"I'll probably be run out on a rail for saying this," he said, "but San Diego, in the past, was jealous of L.A. L.A. has always treated San Diego like San Francisco treats L.A.--with a jaundiced eye. San Diego had the gorgeous harbor, but L.A. goes out and builds the damn thing and becomes an international shipping port.

"You can feel an electricity in L.A. and New York--even Honolulu--that you don't feel here. San Diego is at a crossroads, but it's been at a crossroads so often, it's a wonder it hasn't been busted for loitering. Now I wonder about Tijuana, the sleeping giant, which San Diego regards much in the way that L.A. regards San Diego."

McKeever marvels at the fact that Tijuana is the "promised land" of Baja California. "And can you imagine," he said, "what it must be like for a lonely Mexican child to look across the border at those tract houses and see those fat happy American kids at play? I wonder about the future of Mexico, and Tijuana, and how it's all going to affect San Diego. I think we should sit up and take notice, before it's too late."

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