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California Historian Kevin Starr On Balboa Park

Photo credit: UCSD

California historian Kevin Starr

California Historian Kevin Starr On Balboa Park

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Kevin Starr, California historian

More than 350,000 visitors celebrated the December Nights festival in Balboa Park. The event also kicked off the 100th anniversary celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Just how to mark this centennial has been a sticking point in San Diego civic life for the last several years. The plans morphed and changed, from restructuring the park with a redesign of the Cabrillo Bridge and parking structures, to hosting a world-class mega event, to the total collapse of the planning committee.

Now, we have a pared-down, locally-focused Balboa Park centennial lineup and it remains to be seen if people will be aware of the anniversary events at all.

But the upheaval that accompanied the centennial planning was not that much different from the uncertainty leading up to the original Panama-California exposition. At the time, San Diegans had endured several years labor strife marked with violence, said California Historian Kevin Starr.

"There was a sense that the fair would say, 'Enough already,'" Starr said.

The exposition framed San Diego as a city poised to grow. It celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which opened up the west coast to the rest of the world. Travelers no longer had to trek cross-country or make the 167-day trip by boat around South America to reach California. Indeed, in the years following the canal opening - and exposition - California's population grew.

Since, Balboa Park has become an icon for San Diegans.

“There’s something about the outdoor life that the public experience of flowers, parks, sports, tennis, golf, all the amenities of life that would be available for middle class peoples is a signature contribution of Balboa Park and its development,” said Starr, who authored a series of books on the history of California called "Americans and the California Dream."

City officials in 1868 set aside 3,000 acres for the park - about an acre per resident at the time. Then called City Park, it was sublet for various uses, including a plant nursery and orphanage, Starr said. Balboa Park didn't get its current name until planning for the Panama-California Exposition commenced.

Starr said he's not worried the 2015 celebrations could be a little less iconic than the park itself.

"If you take a kinder, gentler approach and you say, 'Let's not try to make this as if it's going to change your life to pay attention to this, but let's take a look to what we were in 1915,'" Starr said, suggesting planners focus on the legacy of the exposition itself: the San Diego Zoo, its impact on urban planning in the city and the connection it fostered with the region's Mexican heritage.

"I think San Diego just has to be San Diego," Starr said. "We're not necessarily an anti-city, but the 'smokestacks versus geraniums' debate is still very strong in San Diego's collective identity. In San Diego, there's a tremendous pride but there's also a sense of 'Let's not take this out of control.'"

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