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Exposition Fosters Confusion About Balboa Park History

Aired 3/18/13 on KPBS News.

The 100th anniversary of Balboa Park is coming up in 2015. Or is it? Turns out the San Diego press corps has been getting it wrong about the pending centennial and the 1915 Exposition.

— The 100th anniversary of Balboa Park is coming up in 2015. Or is it?

San Diego press corps has been jumping to erroneous conclusions about the pending centennial. In fact, KPBS found itself on the receiving end of a rebuke, delivered in an email from a member of the Horticultural Committee of the Friends of Balboa Park.

Nancy Carol Carter is a member of the Friends of Balboa Park and an amateur historian.

“Reporters for several San Diego news sources have been calling 2015 the ‘Centennial of Balboa Park’ or the park's 100th birthday. I was dismayed to hear this same error on KPBS recently.”

The note was signed, Nancy Carol Carter.

I met her alongside the park’s famous lily pond, where she spoke in measured tones and gave us some consolation that the error was widespread.

“I’ve seen this in newspaper stories, on TV and on the radio,” she said.

A web search did reveal similar gaffs, including a Fox TV interview of City Council president Todd Gloria, in which the female anchor cheerfully proclaimed that San Diego was “preparing for the big, 2015 centennial celebration of Balboa Park!”

But if that was wrong, what is right?

“Balboa Park was actually founded in 1868,” said Carter. “So it has 47 years of history before the exposition.”

During those 47 years it wasn’t called Balboa Park. It was called City Park. It had 1,400 acres and not much else. There was an ammunition dump. There was a pound for stray animals.

“They had a ‘pest house,’ where they isolated people with small pox and other diseases like that,” said Michael Kelly, president of Balboa Park’s Committee of 100. “And during a small pox epidemic there were about a dozen people there.”

So when did the Balboa Park we know begin? The Prado, the museums, the Spanish architecture… it dates not from the founding of the park, but from the 1915 Exposition.

The 1915 exposition was meant to put San Diego on the map. It was called the Panama-California Exposition because it coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal.

“We thought this was going to be the first big port where ships would stop after going through the canal coming into the United States,” said Kelly.

Alas, the Port of Los Angeles would be the region’s great maritime magnet. But the point is… the 2015 exposition is the source of the historical confusion about the park. There was a large city park just east of downtown San Diego in the 19th century. But the one we know today didn’t really exist prior to 1915. Before that it wasn’t even called Balboa Park.

Michael Kelly is president of the Balboa Park Committee of 100.

Keep in mind this confusion in the media about Balboa Park history has its own venerable history. Carter said 1918 a local newspaper published a false story about how Balboa Park got its name.

“And that story was that a city-wide contest was held in 1910 about what to name the park, and that a Mrs. Harriet Phillips won that contest by proposing the name ‘Balboa,’” said Carter.

“It turns out there was no naming contest and Harriet Phillips played no part in the way Balboa Park got its name.”

Carter said the park commission came up with the name. Another incorrect story, which Carter actually believed for years, was that the park’s botanical building was originally built as a train depot.

But back to the centennial. KPBS stands corrected. The park we call Balboa won’t be 100 in 2015. It’ll be 147 years old.

By the way, before the exposition one local newspaper, the Sun, did actually ask its readers what San Diego City Park should be renamed? The winner of that contest got five bucks.

So what was the winning name? What was the iconic label the editors thought would give City Park just the right glossy, cosmopolitan profile? San Diego Park. Lucky for us, that one landed in history’s dustbin.

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Avatar for user 'Hardcover'

Hardcover | March 18, 2013 at 1:01 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Thanks for setting people straight on this. One slight correction regarding your statement " But the one we know today didn’t really exist prior to 1915. Before that it wasn’t even called Balboa Park": City Park WAS called "Balboa Park" before the Expo, for 5 years or so.

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Avatar for user 'Syntropic'

Syntropic | March 19, 2013 at 8:59 a.m. ― 4 years ago

In 1911 San Diego held a 3 Day party when City Park was renamed "Balboa Park.
In 1913 San Diego's Cabrillo National Monument was created on October 14 by President Woodrow Wilson.
On January 9, 1915 San Diego's Point Loma was home to the world's fastest cars for a 300 mile race on a six mile dirt track, with 50,000 people (city population 40,000) paying $1 each to watch the race. That historic race start/finish along Rosecrans Avenue became Naval Training Center San Diego in 1919, with construction starting in 1923.

On October 12, 2013 "It Begins With A Roar" as Cabrillo National Monument celebrates 100 years and the San Diego Region starts the Race to January 1, 2015.
Pre-1916 vehicles owned and driven by The Horseless Carriage Club, LJRG will start the weekend festivities at NTC Liberty Station's Ingram Plaza for the morning, followed by a drive along the historic race route with a side trip to Cabrillo National Monument. They will park at Cabrillo National Monument as a part of its Centennial Weekend Celebrations before heading down Canon Street.

Car Clubs and Transportation Enthusiasts are encouraged to dress up in clothing and costumes that match their era and creativity to hold "Creativity Festivals" within the San Diego Region's Communities.

While KPBS and others may be misled by the City of San Diego's focus on Balboa Park and the idea that 2015 should be a birthday party for this beloved location, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that 1915 was a pivotal year in San Diego and the world's history.
"San Diego 2015: Celebrating a Century of Creativity, Building Toward a Millennium of Sustainability" focuses on showing off not only San Diego's creative results from the efforts of the past hundred years, it seeks to show off the world's results in San Diego while bringing to the Region the technologies and activities that will shape the world for the next 1000 years.

Celebrate Achievements by People - not a place.

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