A Spanish American Vision: San Diego’s Parks

Balboa Park - San Diego, California

Thou hast seen nothing yet–Cervantes, Don Quixote

I am a fan of counter-factual history, where historians speculate on what our present might have looked like had a critical moment in history panned out another way. What if Washington lost at Yorktown? What if Lincoln was not assassinated? What if champagne was never discovered? When standing in the cities of the American Southwest, I sometimes try to envision what this part of America might have looked like if in 1848, the Mexicans won the Mexican-American War? What might the street scape look like? What might the local culture be?

Don Quijote de la Mancha

Cervantes knew a thing or two about vision and reality. Don Quixote spends much of his story meandering from place to place with visions and concepts that only lived in his mind’s eye. Oddly, in a corner of San Diego, I needn’t imagine it. I can actually stand in a Spanish California–in the stylized Balboa Park and in the Presidio Park of the old Mission San Diego de Alcala.

Visión de Una América Española

The way Americans receive their official history is that the continent was settled by several different nations—France, England, and Spain. France ended up with the north and old Louisianne, Spain with South America, Central America and Mexico, and the British won the North American coast. From 1492 to 1776, the map of the new world began to look like a layer cake of Old France, Old England and Old Spain. From 1776 onwards, the continent that holds the United States is firmly rooted in an English heritage. Or so we are taught. The alternative history—of a Spanish wild west—is omnipresent in the lives of those living in parts of the US that were once Spain, from Tejas to Alta California. While the Atlantic colonists were fighting with the British in the 18th century, across the expanse, the Spanish were setting up missions along their increasing Pacific coastal domains. For Spain, the mission in San Diego was the first toehold on the North American continent, the capital of Las Californias and the westernmost city of New Spain.

San Diego remained a colonial outpost for the viceroy of New Spain, then under Mexican rule, for a little over 80 years. Upon the defeat of the Mexican army in 1849, the United States demanded San Diego and its deep natural harbor for a war prize. San Diego’s development from Catholic mission and Spanish presidio fort to a major ciudad was arrested. San Diego would never drip of the accoutrement of Spanish Rococo like Lima or Cuzco, or have a major square like the Zocolo of Mexico City.

Catedral del Zócalo

“What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza.”

Balboa Park

Winning San Diego for the United States served as a cultural blow to San Diego, seemingly robbed of her Spanish birthright. This cultural crime was not corrected until 1915 with the civic leaders of San Diego conspiring to attract a World’s Fair to San Diego. The city created an enormous tribute to Spanish colonial architecture in Balboa Park. West coast cities were jockeying to attract traffic from the recently completed Panama Canal. As the southernmost city on the Californian coast, San Diego hoped to use the fair as its debut as an international shipping port–the first stop in Pacific America. San Diego recruited top architects to design a Spanish version of a World’s Fairground. While previous iterations of the World’s Fair always opted for neo-classical and Beaux-Arts motifs, San Diego would instead pay homage to its Spanish heritage by building its own Zocalo in Balboa Park.

Panama-California Exposition Buildings

“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”–Cervantes, Don Quixote

San Diego was not successful in hosting the World’s Fair that year, losing Federal support in favor of San Francisco’s display. San Diego was left with a bunch of plaster palaces bereft of its promised grand party. Undaunted, the city took on the expense, and hosted its own exhibition, followed by another exhibition in the 1930’s, touting the promise of San Diego as a cultural and economic miracle.

To civic leaders of the era, the investment in a massive fairground seemed wise. At the time of the World’s Fair boom, global travel was long and arduous—before airplanes, television and the Internet. What was left in the Expositions’ wake were vast expanses of land filled with combustible structures. Some cities were able to be innovative and reclaim the space. Chicago re-purposed their fairgrounds as part of the University of Chicago. New York’s Flushing Meadows still has remnants of their 1968 fare as a park. And San Francisco’s Palace of the Arts is the lone structure from her exhibition in a city park.

By 1940, San Diego was looking for a way to keep their deteriorating exhibition buildings–and the spirit and whimsy of those exhibitions–preserved. The miracle of Balboa Park is how intact the theme remains. Unlike the lost White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, Balboa Park remains and retains the whimsy of the Exposition. San Diego has reinvented the space with each generation, adding in modern museums, a misplaced replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and reconstructed plaster buildings remade in fireproof cement. And the world-famous San Diego Zoo sits alongside the park.

Family Portrait

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them.”

With that menagerie of fine arts, sun bleached vistas and wild animals, Balboa Park maintains the feel of a World’s Fair–a vast collection of delights housed in Spanish rococo. Don Quixote might find tapas for the culture vulture. However, upon further reflection, the illusion of marble turning into cement, Sancho Panza might see carrion instead. Standing in the great San Diego Plaza de Panama, along the El Campo with the California Tower casting a long shadow over the park, I know that many of these Spanish palaces are made of plaster and cement, not marble. This was no Escorial; this was an ersatz pleasure dome, preserved for promenades.

My usual posture would be to share in the disgust of Balboa Park’s critics, who maintain that the phony cathedrals and palaces are “Hollywood Spanish.” I instead find that charge to be unfair, especially since the buildings were designed by Bertram Goodhue, a leading American architect of his day (Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago; Nebraska State Capitol; Punahou, Hawaii; National Academies of Science, Washington, DC to name a few). I take Balboa not for what it was but for what it has become—the cultural and recreational epicenter of San Diego—a beautiful tribute to San Diego’s Spanish heritage and an adored public space rivaling Central Park in New York.

California Tower, Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego

Museum of Man, Balboa Park

“All of that is true,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘but we cannot all be friars, and God brings His children to heaven by many paths: chivalry is a religion, and there are sainted knights in Glory.’ Yes,’ responded Sancho, ‘but I’ve heard that there are more friars in heaven than knights errant.’– Cervantes, Don Quixote

Despite the amenities of Balboa Park, there is little to be found by way of authentic cuisine. Overpriced museum cafes dot the park. Zoo-sized cokes and soft pretzels can also be had. While in awe, I did find myself tilting at windmills. Where was the real, old San Diego? For all of this pride in her Spanish heritage, Balboa Park did not offer up the real history of San Diego. For that, I’d have to continue on my pilgrimage, toward the Old San Diego, and the remnants of the mission. At four miles away, cordoned off by interstate highways, I called up a taxi to serve as my Rocinante.

Junipero Serra Museum, Presidio Park, San Diego, California

Presidio Park

Artesanias Mexicas @ Old Town

Presidio Park preserves the original grounds of the Mission San Diego. The old stucco Junipero Serra cathedral, terracotta tiles and plain pathways reflect the frontier austerity that those monks may have experienced in their environs. The early city of San Diego grew and thrived around these cloisters, offering locals and tourists a sense of what the old town was.And while some buildings are reconstructions of the old mission, those interpretations more accurately reflect the life and times of the old city.

Old Town San Diego, San Diego, California (4)

This part of San Diego has gritty charm. While Balboa Park is an ideal, the Presidio and old town district offer a dose of reality, as well as local fare. My sojourn takes me to the very ends of the tourist map, into the last precinct of old San Diego. At the Cafe Guadalajara, the tourist can enjoy local cuisine–carne asada and fish tacos–al fresco. And in sunny San Diego, there is no reason to ever eat indoors.

Casa Guadalajara

“Hunger is the best sauce in the world.”–Cervantes, Don Quixote

Touring San Diego’s environs does not require an either/or view. The vast plazas of Balboa Park offer a vision of a Spanish America that never came to be. Yet Balboa Park is very real, and full of delights for tourist and townie. And the Old Town, while a tourist attraction in its own right, does provide both style and substance. Whether in the grandeur of Balboa or the ruins of the Presidio, San Diego offers up both illusion and reality, allowing a visitor to see San Diego through both Sancho Panza’s and Don Quixote’s eyes at the same time.

Balboa Tower Photo credit: Michael in San Diego, California / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Balboa Reflection Photo credit: Osbornb / Foter.com / CC BY

California Tower Photo credit: Mastery of Maps / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Zocalo Photo credit: Felixe / Foter / CC BY-SA

Presidio Park Serra Memorial Photo credit: Ken Lund / Foter / CC BY-SA

Old Town Photo credit: Ken Lund / Foter / CC BY-SA

Terracotta Photo credit: Psicoloco / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Casa Guadalajara Old Town Fish Tacos Photo credit: kimberlykv / Foter / CC BY

Don Quixote Photo credit: rromer / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


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