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San Diego: Reluctant city must grow up

July 24, 2005|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus, is a university professor and professor of history at USC. In October, Random House will publish his "California: A History."

California's second-largest city is beleaguered. Jurors convicted San Diego's acting mayor and a City Council member of trading political favors for campaign contributions. Six current or former board members of the City Employees' Retirement System face felony conflict-of-interest charges, and the pension fund they administered is underfunded by about $2 billion. A long-planned new main library is in danger of losing a $20-million grant from the state if the city and the private sector do not come up with the required matching funds. And Mayor Dick Murphy recently resigned just a few months into a second term.

As the district attorney, U.S. attorney, FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies continue to investigate the pension fund, some elected officials say the city should face the inevitable and declare bankruptcy.

How can this be? 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.

The city's topography too -- mutually exclusive mesas divided by canyons and, later, by freeways -- fostered its evolution as a federation of suburban enclaves.

With suspicion of urbanism and big-city growth came suspicion of big-city politics. City government did what it had to do but, in psychological terms, it was not the major game in town. The politicians were a generally despised class.

The resulting governance was an uneasy detente between the downtown oligarchy, the La Jolla socialites, a growing scientific establishment, defense industries, the military and other blocs based on labor unions, ethnicity or an especially strong Roman Catholic diocese.

San Diego's civic identity and the institutions that express such an identity -- the airport, library, symphony -- were inadequate and below most people's radar. Only the professional baseball Padres and football Chargers seemed capable of capturing the city's attention -- a sign of civic immaturity.

On Tuesday, when San Diego voters go to the polls to elect a new mayor, they must finally look in the mirror and see what's there. San Diego is a big city, an important city, a place where the Sunbelt and the Asia-Pacific Basin, Latin and Anglo America converge.

Yes, it's still a pretty place. But it needs to start taking better care of itself, of its finances -- which have deteriorated to the disgraceful brink of bankruptcy. San Diego is a city, in short, that has got to grow up.

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