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About 100 years ago, the city undertook a similarly crazy plan to throw a big international bash against the odds, and we have Balboa Park to show for it.
A version of this story first appeared in VOSD’s quarterly magazine. It has been updated to reflect recent regarding recent developments involving a binational Olympics bid.
The mayor of San Diego stole his own thunder one day in February.
At a gathering to dedicate the city’s new Tijuana office, a symbol of collaboration between the two border cities, Mayor Bob Filner proclaimed he’d received a letter to measure his interest in San Diego hosting the 2024 summer Olympics.
Filner, the man whose persistent grin seems to grow when he’s suggesting something outlandish, seized on the idea and went a big step further: Why don’t San Diego and Tijuana co-host the Olympics, bidding to become the world’s first binational site for the global games?
“I sort of cringed and said, ‘Oh my gosh, another idea that is just really ludicrous,’” said City Councilman David Alvarez, whose district includes San Diego’s southernmost neighborhood, next to the border.
The mayor waxed on, coining a mantra for the effort — “Even if we lose, we win.” He painted the effort as a motivator, a deadline to confront some of the region’s big transportation and border challenges, and a reason to catalog both cities’ cultural and environmental assets. Alvarez found himself warming to the idea.
“It would place us on the map in a different way, not only in the world’s eyes, but also in our own fellow San Diegans’,” Alvarez said. “Even if the region doesn’t win the bid, just going through this process is a win for us. What is possible? What can we do?”
Not everyone was so easily won over. Filner’s pitch to bring the Olympics to San Diego and Tijuana was met in many circles with skepticism and jokes. “This is from The Onion, right?” wrote one incredulous resident on Twitter. “That would have its challenges,” said Scott Blackmun, a top U.S. Olympic Committee official.
Indeed, the committee that decides which U.S. cities to present as potential bidders has “put its foot down” about the cross-border idea, Vince Mudd, businessman and civic booster involved in Filner’s plan to bid for the Olympics, told Fox 5 Thursday. Now energy seems to be building for San Diego to submit a solo bid to host the games in 2024 or later.
Still, the idea – that the benefits of a monumental, expensive, complicated undertaking are ultimately worth all the headaches – echoes the pluck of the city’s forebears, 100 years ago. Then, a city of fewer than 70,000 undertook a harebrained plan against gigantic odds, aiming to put San Diego on the national and global map.
Those efforts began just past the turn of the century as an effort to broadcast the region’s climate, agricultural opportunities and strategic location for trade. City leaders launched a blitz that combined PR outreach with infrastructure investments throughout the region in order to lure the World’s Fair to San Diego. The fair ultimately went to San Francisco, but city leaders threw an exposition anyway. And that celebration shaped Balboa Park, providing the city a lasting hallmark to show for its crazy undertaking.
“You could say that in 1915 our city fathers pushed uphill, as well,” said Rick Crawford, a historian and director of Special Collections at the San Diego Public Library. “For us the result was hugely successful. Our expo truly put San Diego on the map.”
The audacity of 1915 also sets the stage for today’s question: What could come of the Olympics conversation Filner is sparking?
“It was very gutsy,” said Mike Kelly, president of the Committee of One Hundred, a group founded to preserve Balboa Park’s original, historical buildings. “It’s hard to believe that they pulled it off, and pulled it off so well. You don’t know until you try it. It might help us deal with some of the problems that we have.”
In 1874, a few years after 1,400 acres of canyons and scrub were set aside for a park in the middle of San Diego, the Union newspaper’s editorial writers implored the city to carry out an exposition.
“It is time that a movement in this direction were made in San Diego,” they declared. “We have every natural advantage that could be desired and nothing is needed to make a start but the will.”
Another article 16 years later carried the vision further – cities that hosted expositions boosted their business prospects, influenced transportation routes and lured permanent residents.
But it wasn’t until 1909 when the dream for an exposition in San Diego really took root. The Panama Canal would open in a few years, and San Diegans recognized the city was in prime position to be the first landfall for ships traveling westward through the canal.
President William H. Taft spied national significance in that connection.
“San Diego is so situated that she is necessarily very much interested in the opening of the Panama Canal,” Taft wrote before the exposition’s ground-breaking in 1911, “and the fact that this exposition is to give particular attention to the relations between this country and Central and South American countries is sufficient reason why the American public should be especially interested in its success.”
The San Diego Sun tried to insert some restraint into the conversation.
“It will take not only a lot of noise and confidence, but a lot of good American coin to float that world’s fair,” the newspaper cautioned.
But San Diego brought it. Residents pitched in to raise $1 million. They voted to let the city take out another $1 million in bonds. One leader solicited residents to write letters to the editors of East Coast newspapers, preaching the San Diego gospel. A series of 10 postcards circulated for residents to pen notes to family and friends in eastern and northern parts, a guerrilla advertising effort. A publicity campaign launched to get the word out throughout South America.
It was such a big deal the city held a multi-day, Mardi Gras-like groundbreaking event to call the region’s attention to the planning.
The energy galvanized efforts to extend train and streetcar infrastructure and to think about how accessible the park was from the waterfront. The energy spilled over into large infrastructure projects. By 1912, the expo movement had wrought $6 million in harbor improvements, another $2 million in streets and suburban roads, the Union reported.
The effort extended even to the garden. In order to make such a large, desert park bloom, “the people of San Diego were asked to allow cuttings to be taken from their rose trees, vines and other plants,” the Union reported, “and they responded nobly.”
It’s not all that different from the vision of a San Diego Olympics: A region urgently defining its assets in culture, environment and infrastructure, working to highlight strengths and shore up its weaknesses.
Maybe a new Chargers stadium project grows to serve an Olympic-sized need, Filner has said. Maybe the federal government considers new measures to streamline the border-crossing process. Maybe regional transportation planning, or the celebration in Balboa Park, goes forward with an eye toward boosting the region’s ability to host the world.
“Everything that we will have to do to put this proposal together, we would’ve had to do anyway,” Filner said. “But now we will have a focused aim, we’ll have timelines, we’ll have an excitement.”
The news that the U.S. Olympic Committee won’t support a San Diego-Tijuana bid could be insurmountable.
But the 1915 Panama-California Exposition once seemed doomed, too.
San Francisco forged ahead with a plan to host a World’s Fair the same year. A Union editorial rallied the “San Diego residents who are justly indignant over high-handed attempt of San Francisco to filch Canal Exposition.”
Ultimately, San Diego decided to go ahead with its expo. Leaders sought to lobby federal and state lawmakers to pay continued attention (and appropriation) to the southern city, even though San Francisco won the race to host the global fair.
It wasn’t just outward pressures the city had to worry about.
A fight over how to spend money, and who should have control, broke out among city leaders and expo officials. A dramatic 1911 Union editorial urged readers to be mindful of politics that threatened to derail all of their hard work:
“The people of this city have done their part to promote the success of the exposition. They have given freely and gone into debt to give more. They have a right to insist that they shall not be deprived of the fruits of their public spirit because of jealousy, animosity, politics or technicalities.”
Organizers today should start narrowing what they actually want to pull off and thinking about logistics even as they cast the vision, said Ben Clay, volunteer co-chairman of the committee planning 2015 celebrations in Balboa Park.
“How do you get beyond the boosterism to the details?” Clay said.
And, of course, there’s money to consider. Filner touts pointers from Mitt Romney about how the cities might pull off a bid without incurring Beijing-style expenses. Romney lives in San Diego part time and ran the cost-efficient Salt Lake City Olympics, and has agreed to advise the city.
But Alvarez’s warming reception of the Olympics idea doesn’t signal a coming blank check from city officials. He loved the idea of evaluating San Diego and Tijuana’s assets – together and separately. Beyond that, he’s skeptical about what pursuing a bid would mean for the city’s budget.
“Initial analysis is good on its own, for its own reasons,” Alvarez said. “But obviously, going forward, we’re going to have to make tough decisions in terms of the financial ramifications.”
The conversation inevitably hinges on legacy.
At a dinner for boosters at the U.S. Grant Hotel in 1912, the exposition’s director, Charles Collier, got the crowd going, comparing San Diego’s efforts to build a great city to what he called San Francisco’s striving to simply throw a good party.
“San Diego has had to fight for everything she ever got and she has to fight for everything she hopes to get,” he said. “Our exposition has a deeper meaning than the ordinary project of this sort.”
He touted a growth in the city’s population, an increase in investment, a boost in building permits. “I do honestly and sincerely believe that of this growth more than 90 percent is due to the work that has been done by the exposition people, and the publicity given the city through that work,” he said. “In the last two years no city of equal size anywhere has received a tithe of the publicity achieved by San Diego.”
Now, San Diego treasures the buildings and the spirit generated by the 1915 exposition, and another in 1935, in its central urban park. Then, they were celebrated as a harbinger of greatness.
Like in this 1914 Tribune editorial:
“The striking feature of the expositions is that they are celebrations not alone of something which is completed and gone on, but rather of something which is ahead.”
Many hurdles loom in the Olympics conversation. But San Diego engineered a way to link itself to Coronado, and build a desert park into a blooming, architecturally significant exposition.
“Somebody had a vision. It’s happened before,” Mudd said. “We have to stop pretending that just because something is hard, it’s somehow impossible.”