San Diego at 250

Historical marker at Presidio Park in San Diego, California. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Two and a half centuries ago today, on May 17, 1769, a party of Spaniards led by Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of San Diego in the hills above the bay first sighted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Portola’s fortified camp was followed a few months later by the first of 21 Franciscan missions, called San Diego de Alcala by Father Junipero Serra.

The Spanish were eager to establish a foothold on the west coast of North America in the vast and rich land they would later call Alta California. Their conquest of the local indigenous people was efficient and ruthless. The Kumeyaay and other native tribes were driven off by the soldiers or baptized and put to work by the friars, and by the 1820s a small Spanish-speaking adobe settlement had been built at the foot of the hill where the mission stood. By the time California was admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850, this pueblo of 650 people had been incorporated as the city of San Diego.

This has led many to consider San Diego the “birthplace of California.” Annexation by the United States and the Gold Rush began a century of astronomical population growth, and by 1962 California had become the most populous of the 50 states. The Golden State today boasts the widest ethnic diversity of any state, including the largest Hispanic and Asian American communities, and California’s economy is now the fifth largest on earth. Summer 2019 will see many celebrations commemorating San Diego’s role in the origins of this great success story.

The original pueblo at the bottom of the mission hill is now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, maintained and administered by the State of California since 1968. For several of the past 50 years, it has been the most visited of the 280 sites in the California State Park System. Its Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead festivals are among the largest in the United States. Old Town’s 27 restored historic buildings highlight the settlement’s 19th century history and are surrounded by scores of popular restaurants and shops.

Naturally, an honest appraisal of California history must include its darker side. San Diego’s story in particular includes many shameful chapters. In addition to the decimation of local Native American peoples by disease, warfare, and subjugation, the Spanish-speaking Californio families who formed the original community were soon marginalized by the English-speaking newcomers. “Old Town” was eventually eclipsed by the “New Town” of downtown San Diego along the bay side waterfront, notorious for shady business deals, a vibrant red light district called “Stingaree,” and a succession of corrupt politicians.

Then came the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier. San Diegans and thousands of visitors were welcomed to the newly completed Balboa Park with its grand Spanish colonial architecture and lush gardens. Twenty years later, the California-Pacific International Exposition was held in Balboa Park to boost morale during the Great Depression. By then San Diego had become a vacation destination and tourism had grown into a major local industry. A thriving tuna business and active military bases led to further development and new communities.

The burgeoning shipping and aviation industries grew exponentially overnight with the coming of World War II. San Diego became the civilian and military port and base of operations for the war in the Pacific. Many who arrived during the war decided to stay afterwards and contribute to the city’s growth. By the end of the 20th century, San Diego had become California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the country. Today the city is host to many new and exciting industries, resurgent historic neighborhoods, and a metropolitan population of more than three million.

San Diego’s story set the pace for the growth of California, as California did for the nation as a whole. Despite a high cost of living, a struggling public school system, unresolved immigration issues, and continuing economic inequities, there is still much to celebrate this summer. California represents the land of promise for thousands of newcomers who arrive each day, and the state government in Sacramento has made valiant efforts to expand public health care and other social programs to reach more of the state’s 40 million people.

I have called California home since 1977. In those four decades I have lived in Long Beach, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Orange County, and many other places before moving to San Diego last summer. Over the years I moved to other states for a brief time, but the excitement, beauty, and opportunity of California always brought me back. The Golden State has led the way in the emergence of our diverse, entrepreneurial, digital, global society. I am pleased to be here in the place where it all began 250 years ago.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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