City of the Dream, 1940-1970

CHAPTER FOUR: The City – The End of One Civic Dream

Five years after the storm — what kind of a City was San Diego? Gone for a generation was the idea of a “City Beautiful” as represented by the grouping of public buildings. Those who had come to work during the war, and remained, and those who came later to the City they had remembered as servicemen, knew little of the civic exhortations of the past and were not concerned about monuments to progress. A shining city to them was a symbol of a way of life different from what they had known in the past. And these ways were not necessarily the ways of those who had pioneered the land and expected their returns to be more substantial.

For the development of Mission Bay there was both enthusiasm and financial support. A second great playground in the heart of a city was intriguing to those who wanted to be participants and not mere spectators in living. Balboa Park was devoted to the trees, shrubs and plants of the world, to living creatures from all the continents, and the arts and museums and hobbies. Mission Bay, even larger, would be devoted to water activities and resort living. And, too, an hour away by auto were the mountains often capped with snow in the Winter, and beyond them the deserts. A new generation had learned to enjoy the deserts which the pioneers had crossed in haste and fear.

Attachment to a City was more casual than emotional. Twice more the Cedar Street Mall plan and proposals to erect new public buildings went down to defeat. In 1948 voters approved bonds for water mains and rejected bonds for a new Library, a Hall of justice and a juvenile Center. In 1949, Cedar Street was beaten again, and the Mayor and Councilmen denied pay raises. Efforts to modify the City Manager system of government, by expanding the authority of the Mayor and City Council and gradually reducing the power of the City Manager and City Commissions, had persisted through the years. But all such attempts had been turned back. The voters wanted Councilmen to serve, as it were, as members of a board of directors and leave operations and the appointments of such personnel as the Chief of Police to a professional manager. Efficiency, not politics, was the guiding thought.

A Mayor and Council majority were concerned over the age of their City Manager, Fred Rhodes. Rhodes had been appointed Manager upon the death of Walter Cooper and had been expected to resign within a reasonable time. He did not. At a Council meeting on December 28, 1949, Mayor Knox swung around in his chair toward the Manager and told him the Council wanted his resignation and unless it was forthcoming he would be discharged. Rhodes puffed a moment on his pipe, and then remarked, “Then you have got it all fixed for Campbell.” Knox replied that this was correct. Thus it became known that the Council had secretly agreed to hire O. W. Campbell, the City Manager of San Jose, as City Manager of San Diego, at $15,000 a year. Rhodes was sixty-nine years of age, and Campbell, forty-three. And thus passed from the official scene the man who had played a prominent role in establishing San Diego’s rights to Colorado River water and in its delivery to the County. Campbell was the eighth Manager in the City’s history.

The outcome of the 1949 election may have been influenced in part by the business recession then settling over the country. But, more likely, the role of cities was changing. And in the West change would come more swiftly than in the East, as so many cities of the West had no tradition of centralization. They had risen out of a Westward movement in which the pioneers had paused, created settlements and towns, then moved on, until the Pacific Coast had been reached. By the 1950’s the auto had added a new mobility and there was no need to huddle together; no need to reside near places of employment. Modest shopping areas were following the people, out along the wide avenues leading from the City. Improvements of streets and highways hastened the process of shifting patterns of life.

San Diego as yet had no central core in an advanced stage of decay. People did shift around within the City and its suburbs, in a restless movement of a new age, leaving older sections for newer ones. Few remained long in their first homes. But surprisingly, civic, social and business life was still “downtown.” Its principal stores and its restaurants were easily accessible by auto from the suburbs and the neighboring communities. Yet, no new major buildings had been erected since the start of the Great Depression. The suburbs had grown because that is where the newcomers settled, in the subdivisions being scraped out on the mesas or in the interior valleys.

The topography of San Diego averted much of the density of building so common to Eastern cities. Suburbs followed the fingers of mesas cut by attractive canyons which provided open spaces so lacking in most metropolitan areas. Even before the end of the war the electric street cars had been unable to follow the lines of development; the suburbs grew away from them.

After the war, R. E. McNally, assistant general manager of the San Diego Electric Railway Company, declared that street cars had to be replaced entirely by buses:

“Buses are more flexible. In a City where population is growing and shifting as fast as it is in San Diego, we can shift our routes to meet changing needs faster than we can with street cars.”

In the industrial cities of the East fixed transportation systems had delivered people from their homes to their jobs, and to the facilities which made cities areas of attraction — warehouses, offices, shops, theaters, libraries, universities, and railway stations. In the newer cities of the West transportation experts believed that flexible bus lines could follow growth and development but warning signs for public transportation were difficult to see. The attractions for people — their jobs or their recreation — were not to be centralized but diffused.

In 1948 the Spreckels interests sold the electric railway company and the San Diego and Coronado Ferry Company to a firm headed by Jesse L. Haugh, a former railroad executive who had entered local transportation on the West Coast. The sale followed that of Hotel del Coronado to Robert A. Nordblom and reduced the once-great empire of John D. Spreckels to holdings of about a hundred acres of land considered of little value.

At the time of the sale only three areas were being served by electric street cars. They were out to Adams Avenue, up Broadway to Thirtieth Street, and out University Avenue to East San Diego. On March 27, 1949, a “farewell to street cars” excursion was conducted by railroad boosters. On April 23, the street cars made their last runs on the three lines, and were replaced with buses. Some cars were sold; most of them were scrapped. San Diego thus became the first major City in the Southwest to abandon street cars for buses.

The Harbor Department had made a concession to the Nolen Plan, and to the lure of recreational attractions, by dividing the waterfront for three uses and thus assigned the lands south of Market Street to National City for industrial purposes. Lands from there north to a point just beyond the City-County Administration building were assigned to commerce, with commercial piers extending out from in front of the Administration building. Harbor Drive was to be moved inland, along Kettner Boulevard. Between the commercial piers and the Coast Guard Station was to be a small protected harbor for the commercial fishing fleet. Recreation was to be assigned to the lee side of Point Loma, behind the two sheltering arms of a narrow island-like area which had been built up with sand from dredging operations and connected to the mainland by a causeway. Between there and the end of the Naval Training Station was to be a bay for sports fishing boats.

Residents of Point Loma at first had opposed the raising of Shelter Island in the belief it would result in disturbing their quiet and in the cluttering of their bayfront. They were reassured by Anderson Borthwick, Commission chairman, who said the island would be a calm haven, the west side devoted to fine hotels and private facilities, and the east side to the public as a park.

In the matter of commerce, the port had been disappointing. While goods brought by ships into the harbor in 1950 amounted to more than $14,000,000, exports, that is, in goods shipped out through the harbor, amounted to less than a fourteenth of that figure. This explained the reluctance of port enthusiasts to devote more tidelands to public buildings, especially in an area where piers could be located without more bay dredging.

Port commerce had to be a two-way street. Mayor Knox had been successful in bringing about the retirement of Joseph Brennan as Port Director and a younger man, an engineer in the department, took over. He was John Bate. To him, the future was the waterfront. His task would not be an easy one. There were only seventy-one acres of land available on the reclaimed tidelands which totaled 1,727 acres. About twenty-eight percent had been ceded back or leased to the Federal Government for military uses. Aircraft companies had leased about nineteen percent, in the vicinity of Lindbergh Field. The airport itself accounted for eighteen percent. More than eight percent was leased to industrial organizations south of Market Street, where the larger boat-building companies and fish canneries were located. About sixteen percent of the waterfront was assigned to recreational facilities and civic and commercial purposes.

In the fiscal year of 1950-1951, the harbor earned nearly a million dollars in operating revenue, but only two percent came from shipping, which indicated that existing tideland uses were not contributing to the development of water-born commerce.

There was considerable agitation to move the municipal airport from the tidelands, to an area freer of fog and with more favorable surrounding terrain. The Navy, reducing its vast Pacific Fleet air operations, entered into a fifty-year lease allowing the City joint use of the wartime Miramar field on Kearny Mesa, which it would no longer need unless some emergency arose.

The giant of San Diego industries, Convair, was reviving. It again was under new management. The Aviation Corporation, which had brought assembly-line methods to the production of the B-24 bomber and the PBY, bowed out after the war. The Atlas Corporation took control on November 20, 1947. Floyd B. Odlum became chairman of the board and La Motte T. Cohu, previously president of Trans-World Airlines, replaced Woodhead as president.

Convair plants were producing early models of a new fleet of bombing planes. The mighty B-36 transport plane, with its six engines, made its maiden flight from Lindbergh Field late in 1947. It was estimated that a fourth of San Diego’s population gathered on the streets and hilltops to watch the flight. Later, four jet engines were added. The company was experimenting with a “flying auto” and designing high-performance Delta-wing fighter planes. Most important to the prosperity of San Diego, however, was Convair’s entry into commercial aviation fields that began with the two-engine Convair-Liner which, proceeding through design and mechanical changes, became a workhorse of airlines around the world. There was only a limited military interest now in a missile that could fly a single ordinary bomb 5,000 miles. It was an era of peace. The small unit in Convair working on what eventually became the Atlas missile lingered near death.

San Diego’s other aircraft-related industries had readjusted after the war. Ryan Aeronautical Company had begun production of the Ryan “Navion,” a high-performance private plane. Solar Aircraft, with the swift expansion of commercial aviation, had found new customers for its heat-resistant metals. Rohr Aircraft, in Chula Vista, backing out of its mergers, was on the way to becoming the world’s largest producer of power packages for airplanes.

The return to “normalcy” brought other changes to the City. Commercial television arrived in 1949. Television had gone from the laboratory to the living room in a generation. People who had witnessed the birth of the airplane, and then its conversion from wood, wire and fabric, to jet-power with the speed of sound, also had experienced the transformation of atomic physics from theory into bombs that could destroy a civilization.

Two years before Colonel Ira C. Copley, founder of the Copley Newspapers, had died at the age of eighty-three and his publishing empire, which included The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, was to pass into the control of an adopted son, James S. Copley. He sent William F. Shea to San Diego. The Daily Journal which Clinton McKinnon founded during the war on newsprint allocated by a Democrat administration, was sold in 1947 to John W. Kennedy of West Virginia. The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, freed of wartime newsprint restrictions which had been imposed on The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, moved vigorously against its new competitor. In 1950, the Daily journal was sold to the Copley interests, suspended, and its name merged with that of the Evening Tribune. McKinnon entered the community newspaper field and in 1948 ran for Congress as a Democrat, defeating Charles K. Fletcher, the Republican son of Colonel Ed Fletcher, one of the land and water developers who had shaped San Diego City and County for half a century.

The tremendous post-war expansion, particularly in Los Angeles, and the rising dominance of the auto, brought state legislative approval of a three billion dollar, ten-year highway improvement program. The era of the freeway had arrived. And so had smog, as yet only casting a shadow of the problems ahead for Southern California.

A modern highway cutting through the heart of Balboa Park, to provide the first across-town freeway artery, had been proposed as early as 1941. But the park had its defenders who opposed, as they said, cutting the park in two or the slicing away any more of its land area for civic buildings, roads or parking areas as had been done for the Naval Hospital and schools. But to city planners such as John Nolen, a park so large in the heart of a City had been a mistake, and it would have been better to have had a number of smaller parks strategically situated. Those interested in the growth of the City reasoned that the park, if allowed to remain inviolate, would stand as a block around which all traffic would have to be routed at the cost of time and money. A freeway running through the canyon in the park, along a winding road bordering a lagoon and underneath the handsome span of Cabrillo Bridge, seemed to be the answer to the problem. A divided freeway could follow an existing route and absorb only a limited amount of additional land. The State Division of Highways needed the cooperation of the people of the City of San Diego to withdraw land from the park, and got it back in 1941. The old publicly‑held lands were not sacred to new voters. They also later approved the withdrawal of eight hundred acres of pueblo lands, in the Torrey Pines and Kearny Mesa areas, to be disposed of as designated by the City Council. In 1953, a City Charter amendment was to give the City Council the authority to build or approve the construction of any roads in parks.

A seven-mile state highway through Cabrillo canyon was completed and opened to traffic in 1948, providing a crosstown artery from the City’s center to Mission Valley and with access to Linda Vista, by way of Highway 395. To allay the fears of those who had opposed diverting traffic through the quiet of Balboa Park, and that the beauty of the parkway would be sacrificed for expediency, the State Division of Highways set out 500,000 plants of twenty-eight varieties and transplanted many large trees for the dividing zone.

Work was progressing on a highway through the valley, from Point Loma to La Mesa. The route of the transcontinental highway through San Diego would be moved from busy El Cajon Boulevard, a wide street of many shops and homes, to an almost lonely by-pass through a valley that would soon be the heart of a growing City and come under the eye of those who planned for the future. At first, resistance to highway by-passing smaller towns was frequent. Merchants in La Mesa would fear the collapse of business with the diversion of traffic from the center of the City.

The face of San Diego was changing swiftly under the impact of the auto. Construction work on interchanges as well as freeways was proceeding. By 1951 there were four interchanges, the magic circles by which traffic would flow without interruption from one freeway to another, from one area of the city or region to another.

In the same year the final link of a twelve-mile east-west freeway through Mission Valley was dedicated on August 8. The City’s first modern interchange was at Pacific Highway and Mission Valley, where traffic could be exchanged between the main route into San Diego and the new freeway through the valley. The most elaborate interchange, however, was at the point where the Cabrillo Freeway joined the Mission Valley Freeway. Another interchange was under construction at the extension of Fairmount Avenue where it too reached Mission Valley. Work also was underway on an interchange where a section of the new Wabash Freeway would join Federal Boulevard, before proceeding toward Harbor Drive on the south. Several cross-overs moved traffic without the interruption of converging autos.

The times were serene, the problems civic ones. Only the fear of a shortage of water could be summoned to alarm the voters. But belated post-war effects, and the worsening state of the economy nationally, had contributed to a steadily rising level of unemployment in San Diego. There were 23,100 persons listed as looking for work in January of 1950. In March, San Diego was described as a critical unemployment area. On June 25, 1950, Communist troops of North Korea crossed the line between North and South Korea which had been established after World War II. The United Nations had pledged its support of the territorial integrity of republican South Korea. President Truman ordered American soldiers into action, and they did so, on June 30, and the Seventh Fleet was ordered to protect the island of Formosa, or Free China, from a possible attack by Chinese Communists. The effect on San Diego was instant and spiraling. The Cold War had begun.

Though the war in Korea, labeled as a “police action,” was largely a land and air war and no large Naval surface forces were in action, 16,000 Marines from San Diego and 34,000 tons of their equipment were shipped out in record time in August. The airplane industry spurted ahead. For San Diego, it was World War II all over again, though on a smaller scale.

By the end of 1950, 188,000 persons had jobs. More than 14,000 were once again employed in the aviation industry, with a production rising to almost $105,000,000 a year. Jet-powered fighters were weapons of a new type of warfare. The Korean war took Ryan back into manufacturing parts for other military aircraft, at the request of the military, though the Ryan Navion, originally produced as a private high-performance airplane, also saw duty in Korea.

The Navy had proved to be a constant source of local income and now with a distant war again clouding the horizon, personnel increased by 10,000 and the payroll jumped from $55,500,000 to more than $71,000,000. Civilian employment by the Navy and Marines added 14,000 more persons with an income of $117,000,000. Unemployment dropped to 6,000 in September of 1951, from the post-war high of 30,000.

The City had failed to act on its rights to use Miramar air field and the Navy took possession and began building one of the world’s largest Naval air stations for the new jet planes operating from a new generation of carriers.

The secret program to design and build a missile which could fly 5,000 miles, which had been starved by government disinterest, was revived and money poured into the tight little group at work in Convair. On Kearny Mesa, on a new area known as Morena Mesa, high above Mission Bay, another city within a city was rising, Clairemont. It was begun as a private enterprise by Louis Burgener and Carlos Tavares, with 400 homes.

True to predictions, the number of tourists visiting San Diego in 1950 rose to 660,000 and they left $60,000,000 behind them. Agriculture was booming, with the total value of products — field crops, truck crops, livestock, fruits and nuts, and miscellaneous products — rising to almost $71,000,000. Farming, however, was still a small, or family operation. The average size of a farm was about 150 acres; those over 100 acres numbered less than 200.

Population was on the rise again, as workers flocked to San Diego for war-related jobs. The City’s population had dropped by 1950 to 334,387 from a peak of 392,000 only two years before. The population in the County had both risen and fallen during the war years, once reaching a peak of 650,000 in 1949, and falling back to 556,808 in 1950. But this would change again, drastically.

Little towns had become small cities, and small cities big cities. Chula Vista had tripled its population in a decade. Coronado was twice the size it was in 1940. El Cajon had jumped from less than 1,500 to 5,600. La Mesa’s population had more than doubled as had that of National City. Oceanside’s population had tripled. The age of the average San Diegan was still falling, as it had done since the beginning of the arrival of industry in the form of airplane production. By 1950, with the persistent arrival as permanent residents of servicemen who had trained in San Diego during the war, the average age had dropped from just under thirty-two to about twenty-nine and a half, and was still going down. San Diego no longer could be considered a City of the retired.

The Korean War was not a long one, compared to World War II. Peace talks began in the Summer of 1951. Two years later with a new President in office, Dwight D. Eisenhower, an armistice was signed. The “police action” initiated by President Truman had cost 33,629 lives in battle and 20,617 other deaths.

Growth and drought seemed to go hand in hand. By 1951 the drought had entered its sixth year and a “Save our Water Committee” was formed in April to conserve dwindling supplies in the realization that the San Diego Aqueduct was going to prove inadequate. In the period between July 1, 1948, and June 30, 1949, the San Diego County Water Authority had delivered 71,570 acre feet of Colorado River water to its member agencies, an amount equal to about eighty-five percent of the total water they had consumed. By June, 1951, member agencies were increased by three with the annexation of the San Dieguito Irrigation District, the Santa Fe Irrigation District and the City of Escondido. By then the Authority was serving a population of more than half a million people.

As far back as 1949 the Authority had begun to worry and had executed a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation for a report on the feasibility of completing the aqueduct to its full capacity. The report was favorable and early in 1951 legislation was introduced in Congress again to authorize the Navy to add a “second barrel” to the original pipeline. Construction began in December of 1952. The following year heavy rains broke the drought. But the respite was only temporary. The rains diminished again within the year.

No civic persuasion was needed in the case for water. San Diegans knew they lived on borrowed time, unless water could be laid upon the land. Not enough reservoirs could ever be built and not enough rain would ever fall to supply a City that certainly would someday approach a million in population. Even when the second barrel was completed in October of 1954, the County Water Authority knew that additional water might be needed as early as 1960.