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KPBS Commentaries

Far away on the other side of the world, some vacationing San Diegans spent a recent morning discussing ways to make our city even more appealing. We wondered how to bring San Diego more of the sense of heart and soul that we find in Balboa Park.

We were in Russia, visiting the regal city of Saint Petersburg, which looked as crispand tidy. As if it were dressed for a party.

Finally, we realized that Saint Petersburg in fact was dressed for a party. We tourists had arrived just after the departure of the international finance ministers, bush, blair and other group of eight presidents, and their accompanying army of media, which gave the city worldwide television exposure.

Then we learned that the city government had gathered up a few thousand homeless residents of saint petersburg and moved them to a rural compound until the foreign government visitors had left the city.

With that revelation, one of our better-read companions let loose a cry:

its a Potem..kin village! The Russians are still doing it!

We pieced together how that phrase, Potemkin village, made its indispensable way into the worlds vocabularies.

During the long Russian reign of catherine the great, one of her unctuous lackeys was so eager to please his boss that he constructed elaborate, fake villages all along the routes that the empress would travel-- all through the Ukraine and the Crimea.

This was one massive con job!

His name was Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin. And you can read up on him in reference books and dictionaries, along with the useful definition:

A Potemkin village is something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance.

My favorite use of the phrase comes from the California historian Lewis Lapham,.when he fired off an angry diatribe to the federal government.

Lapham wrote of the Potemkin village of this countrys borrowed prosperity.

Even right here in San Diego, we have sat around and watched Potemkin villages built within reach of city hall. A Potemkin village now threatens the glorious acreage at the foot of San Diegos broadway, a site which could become this citys permanent landmark -- the identifying icon that has always eluded us as we try to describe ourselves. Whatever happened to our dream of a new library at that site, or a oaring sydney-style opera house?

The foot-of-broadway proposal that has the upper hand comes from the hyperactive developer doug manchester. Probably it would turn a larger profit than other plans, widely favored by architects and environmentalists, and also by me. Ours does not reek of greed. It is a peoples plaza.

When i pause there now at the foot of broadway, on this citys signature property, i shudder. Will we laidback san diegans stand aloof and allow a Potemkin village to define this citys image.

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