SAN DIEGO — History is a fickle beast.
Almost always open to conjecture, it rarely passes up the chance to avoid controversy--especially where legends are concerned. History can be kind--or incredibly, indelibly mean. It can give credit to true believers, and deservers. Or break the reputation of those who merit a far better kiss of fate.
San Diego is no different from any city as far as lore is concerned. Who gets credit for the legends of "America's Finest City"? Is it a pioneer, a clear thinker, a creative soul, a hard worker with a heart in the right place? Or is it someone who happened along at just the right time to inherit a priceless bit of folklore that he or she can cling to forevermore?
How often have you wondered who decided this or that about San Diego? Or any place you've lived? Is credit in the right hands, right name, right place? Does it matter? Did it ever?
How has who decided the important decisions about your town changed or affected your life, your daily motion? What about the not-so-important decisions, the obvious you never knew existed?
Examining "who decided" is like taking a look at how fate and time shape a city, at how who gets the credit may not always be the truest telling of what really happened.
Or why . . .
Good question, said Steve Weathers, a lifelong resident of San Diego and a "hobbyist historian."
You could say it was Charlie Brown (not the "Peanuts" character. This Charlie Brown had a lot more savvy than that one.).
You could say it was the state Department of Transportation, now commonly known as Caltrans.
You could say it was fate.
Or you could say it was all three and probably be closest to the truth.
In the '50s, Brown proposed building a big hotel--the Town and Country--at the juncture of San Diego's biggest roadways: U.S. Highway 395 (now state Highway 163), which was built in 1947, and proposed U.S. 80 (now known as Interstate 8).
Brown could see that building two big roadways through the middle of a massive valley would guarantee development like San Diego had never seen.
He was right.
Brown shocked the city, Weathers said. He bypassed El Cajon Boulevard, which at that time was U.S. 80 (and is still known as the Interstate 8 business route). Brown opened his big hotel (in 1953), and the Stardust Hotel shot up almost immediately as competition.
By Weathers' account, a second event took place that all but ensured the mega-growth Brown envisioned. The May Co. of Los Angeles acquired a large chunk of land along the San Diego River bottom--one with a known history of flooding. May Co. erected a major shopping center above the flood plain, with only parking in the plain. May Co. took business away from the North Park shopping district--all but killing that area, Weathers thinks--while hurting other neighborhoods in lesser ways.
Controversy swirled around displacing thousands of acres of prime park and farm land. Weathers remembers a lush-green, rolling hills-type of valley--much different from the hotel-and-saloon look of today.
"You could go to the valley and see carrots, cabbages, tomatoes," he said. "It wasn't just a valuable natural area but the only one in San Diego--essentially, a drought-ridden area--that was green, where you didn't have to import water as you do other places. Now we build parks on mesas, where you bring in water. It's not cost-effective, but it is wasteful."
The danger of flooding is alive in the valley. Weathers says the flood of 1980, which damaged dozens of businesses, was a trickle compared to the flood of 1916. The 1980 flood generated 25,000 cubic feet of water per second; the 1916 flood, 75,000 cubic feet per second.
Weathers, like others in San Diego, thinks a major flood in the valley will never be forgotten in the annals of devastation--making the decisions of a few entrepreneurs look wickedly short-sighted.
If you want to blame anyone, he said, how about Caltrans for putting the highways there in the first place?
Whatever, a few got rich, he said, off the development of Mission Valley.