San Diego’s Balboa Park is one of my favorite places on earth, so they don’t have to throw a Diamond Jubilee party to get me to go. But they’re putting on a special effort to please their visitors in 1990, because 75 years ago they staged the Panama-California Exposition, to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (and to compete with San Francisco, which was then announcing it had gotten over the Earthquake with its “official” Pan-Pacific Exposition).
Praising the Panama Canal left San Diegans the legacy of this park. It includes one of the greatest zoos in the world and so many museums—art in general, 19th-Century art in particular, photography, anthropology, sports, history, space / aeronautics, and a gallery with local artists flaunting their latest works—that I get culture fatigue every time I drop in, usually once a year.
It’s only a three-hour Greyhounder ($20.85 round trip) from L.A., and the bus lets you off smack in the middle of downtown, a two-minute walk from the fabulous Horton Plaza and one minute from the Convention Tourist Bureau. I often stay at the Pickwick Hotel in the bus station ($30ish a night) when I don’t crash with friends. And the #7 bus in front of the station will drop you off at Balboa Park in ten minutes for 75 cents.
The development of the park itself is a great American success story. The city fathers set aside 1,400 acres in 1868 when cities all over the country were raising their civic sights after the horrible interlude of the Civil War. For decades it lay fallow, except for the louts that used it for a dump and the few civic-minded souls who now and then planted a bush or two.
But it wasn’t until 1892 that Kate Sessions, the Mother of the Park, made a shrewd deal with the mayor. If she could use some of the land for a nursery, she’d plant one hundred trees a year for a decade in the park itself and three hundred throughout the city. Think thank-Kate thoughts when you breeze beneath those lovely trees.
And the zoo began when a certain Dr. Harry Wegeforth heard a lion roar as he drove past the Expo grounds. He liked the sound and soon had schmoozed the city fathers into patching together a tacky flock of animals left over from the Expo, along with some people’s pets and mascots. In 1921, 100 acres were set aside for the zoo’s permanent site.
They held a name-the-park contest in 1910. Silvergate, Pacific and Horton were among the losers. The winner argued that there were vistas of the Pacific from the Park grounds that reminded him of the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to sight the Pacific “silent on a peak in Darien” in what is now Panama.
Most of the buildings for the Expo were plaster lath and chicken wire jobs that were never meant to last for the ages. One exception is the California Building, with its splendidly dominating Spanish Baroque tower. Now the Museum of Man, it is fielding an exhibition, “Celebrations,” on the way humans throughout the world hold festivals to commemorate important happenings (just like this Diamond Jubilee).
The History Museum features a photo replay of the original Expo itself in “Come to the Fair.” The Natural History Museum has “Reflections of China.” The Space Theatre across the fountain from NHM has a complementary OMNIMAX, “The First Emperor of China.” I had a most tasty lunch at the Café del Rey Moro. Get the quarterly sked from (619) 236-5717.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, July 18, 1990