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My New Book!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March 21, 2012: Balboa Park

[This week, I’ll be blogging about some of the many interesting sites and spaces of public memory and community in San Diego. This is the third in the series.]

A historic site that does justice to its origins in unique and inspiring ways.

It’s easy to forget just how significant the August 1914 opening of the Panama Canal really was—even when you’re in the space created to celebrate that historic achievement. To honor that international feat of engineering, in the city that would be the first American port of all for ships coming west through the Canal, the United States and Panama jointly hosted the year-long 1915 Panama-California Exposition; San Diego’s Balboa Park had been in existence for nearly half a century, but the Exposition represented the first unified use of the Park, and a number of new and striking features (such as Cabrillo Bridge, the tower on the California Quadrangle, and the El Prado plaza and buildings) were created as part of the Exposition grounds. Yet I would venture that as many 21st century visitors to Balboa Park know that origin point as there are 21st century Americans who think regularly about the Panama Canal.

That might seem to represent a kind of failure for a historic site; certainly if the goal of Balboa Park was or is to create and sustain public memory of the Panama Canal, it hasn’t to my mind done so. Yet if we see the Park, and even the Exposition, as an effort instead to create a communal space as inspiring and powerful as the Canal’s achievement, then our perspective becomes quite different. That’s particularly true when it comes to the Prado area—the Bridge and Tower are certainly still striking, but the Prado is that and a good deal more: a collection of unique and compelling museums, set in and among buildings, plazas, and gardens of distinct and uniformly inspiring architectural and artistic achievement, offering visitors aesthetic, intellectual, and historic experiences that both highlight their San Diego setting and feel connected to the world beyond in ways that do justice to the best of what the Panama Canal could mean.

And then there’s the Zoo. San Diego’s justifiably world-famous zoo was directly inspired by the collection of foreign animals that were featured at the Exposition, and as it developed in the decade after the Exposition, it built quite precisely on the Exposition’s ideal: featuring animals that were cast-off pets from naval and other vessels; finding animals for whom, in many cases, there was no longer space at other zoos around the world; and seeking to create in its own space authentic habitats that became models for all future zoos. Even before the creation of the even more unique and inspiring Safari Park (about which I’ll have more to say in a couple days), the Zoo represented an extension of Balboa Park’s ideals and influence on numerous levels—and whether or not visitors to the Zoo think at all about the Panama Canal or any of that history, they’re helping to carry forward the Park’s purposes and legacies in much more meaningful ways.

Next San Diego site tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

3/21 Memory Day nominee: Eddie James “Son” House, the Mississippi preacher and convict turned blues musician whose 1930s recordings are among the most influential American musical works, who directly inspired Robert Johnson (among many other subsequent greats), and who formed an integral part of Alan Lomax’s 1941-2 Library of Congress recording sessions of the Delta Blues.

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