By Mary Taschner
Copley Award, San Diego History Center 1981 Institute of History
“3000 houses in 300 days” boasted the contractor’s slogan for building Linda Vista, America’s largest defense housing project.1 The words symbolized the new era which San Diego entered as a result of the defense industry. Almost overnight, the slow moving residential community became America’s fastest growing city. Inside of one year, San Diego’s population jumped from 203,341 to over 300,000, an increase of fifty percent.
Welcomed at first, the defense boom with its $2,000,000 weekly payroll2 seemed the answer to San Diego’s dreams. But the impact of an avalanche of defense workers soon made the dream seem more like a nightmare. San Diego, which had always had ample services for all its residents, suddenly had a shortage of everything. Homes, schools, hospitals, highways, policemen, firemen, recreational, water and sewer facilities were all desperately needed. It was discovered that very little of the huge payroll would be available to finance the needed services.3 San Diego found itself with a multiplicity of problems which could not be ignored or wished away. The boom, once eagerly sought, turned out to be a boomerang which impacted every citizen of the city of San Diego.
For many years, ambitious businessmen had been trying to promote San Diego. Schemes had included shipping and highway projects of all kinds. In an attempt to lure tourist dollars, the city had been proclaimed “Heaven on Earth” and an ideal place for honeymooners. None of the schemes had worked.4 In spite of its ideal climate, San Diego had remained a slowmoving community, famous for its “pretty girls” and “quiet life.”5 Local business was largely dependent on expenditures made by the U.S. Navy, which was the major industry.6
The threat of World War Il changed all that. The awakening was swift and ungraceful. Once quiet blue skies became full of steam, smoke and planes.7 People began pouring into the city from all parts of the country. In one year, San Diego’s population reached a number which had not been expected until 1960.8 The defense boom changed San Diego overnight into a fast-paced city with a motto of “right now.” No more could residents take a leisurely stroll down Fifth Avenue or lunch with friends in quiet cafes. The old joke that a pedestrian could take a nap in the intersection of Sixth and Broadway without danger would never be true again.9
The emergence of San Diego as a major defense center was a “natural.” The Navy had originally settled in San Diego because of its location. When the government decided to build a two-ocean navy, it was inevitable that San Diego would be chosen for their major Pacific coast base.10 San Diego has one of the ten best natural harbors in the world, capable of sheltering most of the U.S. fleet. In addition, the city can be easily defended because of its location. The whole United States protects it to the north and east, while to the west is the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of miles of barren, mountainous land to the south act as a further barrier to invasion.
The climate provided another important asset for a defense base. The blue skies that had attracted tourists also made San Diego a perfect place to test planes. Year round good weather made it possible for aircraft factories to assemble huge flying boats outside.11
While climate and location were the main reasons for the selection of San Diego as a major defense center, a pair of zealous ex-army officers did their part to help the process along. Major T.C. Macaulay had been a flight instructor in San Diego during World War I. When he later became head of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, he remembered a former student of his — Major Reuben Fleet. After retiring from the army, Fleet had opened an airplane manufacturing plant in Buffalo, New York. Macaulay convinced Fleet that he should move his operation to San Diego. As an extra inducement, Macaulay persuaded the city to lease Fleet a site on Lindbergh Field for one dollar a year, and also to dredge land from the bottom of the bay for his plant.12
That plant, known as Consolidated Aircraft, became the largest local producer in the aircraft industry. It started out by making a small number of big flying boats for the Navy. But by July of 1941, Consolidated had a backlog of orders from the United States and England. for over $685,000,000. Planes rolled out of the factory at the rate of one per day.13
Manpower became a critical issue. Recruiters were everywhere. As one Arizona tourist said, “All I want is to sit in this cool plaza and watch the crowds. But every five minutes some stranger wants to hire me to do some kind of work… 14 Fleet’s recruiters began looking in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys for defense workers to man the factories. In 1941, Consolidated employed 17,000 men, thirty-two per cent of the male wage earners in San Diego. Four out of five of these workers were newcomers to the area.15 Most of them came alone and as soon as they were established in their jobs, they sent for their families.
For over a year, aircraft workers and their families poured into San Diego at the rate of 1,500 a week. The results were immediate — there was no place to live. People trudged the streets looking for a place to sleep, any kind of place. Stories filled the press about families sleeping in their cars or even in all night theatres for lack of a better place.16 People shared hotel rooms with night shift workers using the room during the day, while day shift workers slept there at night. Some beds were never cold.
Housing problems were intensified for families with children, particularly for the “Aviation Okies.” Landlords were suspicious of people who had different accents.17 Practically no one was willing to rent to families with children.18 The case of Kay Hill is typical. She arrived in San Diego in July of 1941 to join her husband who was an engineer at Consolidated. Because they had a family, the only place they could find to live was an expensive hotel suite. Mrs. Hill recalls a fellow househunter asking bitterly, “What do they want me to do with my kids, drown them?”19
Families who arrived with practically no money in their pockets were not as lucky as the Hills in finding a suitable home. The story of Otis Porter from Pawnee, Oklahoma illustrates the problems faced by migrant workers. After getting a job with Consolidated for sixty-four cents an hour, Mr. Porter sent for his family consisting of a wife and six children. The only place they could find to rent, which they could afford, was a one-room cabin in an auto court for eighteen dollars a week. In this small room, the whole family was forced to exist.20
The city of San Diego tried to aid incoming defense workers in their search for homes. A Defense Housing Commission opened in City Hall which listed every vacant room in town as soon as it was discovered. But requests for homes raced ahead of the listings.21 In a further attempt to aid defense workers, the city lifted ordinances against rooming houses in residential zones. The whole city seemed to become a huge rooming house. But nothing was enough as the influx of people continued at the rate of one hundred families per day.22
At first San Diego resisted attempts to form a housing authority on the grounds that it had no housing problem. Various groups opposed public housing in any form.23 But when factory officials began to report that men were refusing jobs for lack of housing, it became obvious that an important part of America’s defense effort was being impeded. As a result, the federal government went over the heads of local officials and started public housing projects.
With the passage of the Lanham Defense Housing Act by Congress, plans got underway to build the first project, 3000 family units.24 Because houses couldn’t be built fast enough for immediate needs, Uncle Sam set up 650 trailers and moved workers into them. Demountable houses and dormitories also were planned to help fill the housing gap. Units slated for construction in 1941 and 1942 totaled 10,125.25
All those potential units required land on which to be built. San Diego was the loser. Army, Navy and defense projects removed 31,000 acres of land from the tax rolls. Although the government called it leasing, San Diego did not get a choice. Refusal would simply have meant that the land would have been condemned. By July 1941, twenty-six per cent of the land inside San Diego city limits was under federal control, meaning that $150,000,000 of potential assessed valuation had disappeared. Watching this happen, San Diego’s Mayor concluded gloomily that if the boom continued, San Diego would turn into a federal city just like Washington, D. C. 26
Under the Lanham Act, loss of tax revenues was to be made up by in-lieu tax contribution to the city and county affected. Fifteen percent of each rent would go to provide San Diego County with a revenue of about $150,000 a year.27 In reality, the school board received the first cut of five point six per cent, then the federal government deducted amounts for garbage disposal, street upkeep, lighting, or anything else it decided to do on its own. The city and county got what was left. The Mayor estimated that San Diego would be lucky to receive half of what the boom would cost.
Meanwhile, the huge influx of defense workers was causing a tremendous strain on all community facilities. Existing water and sewage systems were totally inadequate to meet the population boom. just to meet immediate needs, the 1941 city budget was $1,500,000 higher than the year before.28 Although the $2,000,000 weekly defense payroll brought in a considerable sum in sales taxes, this amount went to the state and not to the city of San Diego.29 The only solution for getting the money needed was to tax the very people who benefited least from the boom and didn’t want it anyway. Many of those people were retired and living on small fixed incomes. But new city services had to be paid for, so the San Diego city tax rate was raised from $1.92 to $2.40 per hundred.30
While San Diego struggled to pay for its new residents, the federal government went ahead with its plans to build the largest defense housing project in the United States. The design and construction of that project, known as Linda Vista, was placed under the Public Buildings Administration. A twelve hundred acre site among gently rolling hills was chosen for its accessibility to aircraft industries as well as for its natural advantages.31 Construction on the 3000 dwelling units began on March 5, 1941. Because of the urgent need for the homes, the contractors, the McNeil and Zoss Construction Companies, were placed under a contract period of 300 days. To accomplish the tremendous task of building a complete community for 13,000 people in such a short time, the contractors adopted mass production methods.32
The project was split into eight sections with several hundred units in each section. Work followed an assembly line where construction of each house was divided into forty-five operations from (1) surveying to (45) window shades. Many parts of the buildings were pre-fabricated before being trucked to the building sites. At the peak of production, enough materials were delivered so that forty houses a day could be completed.33
The world’s largest low-cost modern housing development was carefully planned to meet every contingency. The gently rolling topography allowed each house to be placed so that it would have a view of the natural vistas. Landscaping was planned to provide privacy for the tenants as well as natural beauty. A complete new water and sewer system was installed to supply the needs of Linda Vista. Site layout allowed a complete segregation of cars and pedestrians in greatest density areas. School, hospitals, parks, stores and services of all kinds were planned to be part of the new community. Linda Vista would be self-sufficient in all aspects.34
From a construction standpoint, the plans for Linda Vista worked perfectly. But from a planning point of view, the project served as a horrible example of what can happen when the local community is not considered in any way. The highly acclaimed new water system dwindled into one teninch pipe which connected with San Diego city water supplies. Both the new water and sewer line had to merge with San Diego’s already overtaxed and outdated mains. Like the water system, the beautifully planned road system ended in one narrow winding road which had to funnel all the traffic to San Diego.35
As the first defense workers began moving into Linda Vista, they found themselves living in a sea of dirt and mud.36 Landscaping had not been put in; a shopping center had been dropped for lack of funds.37 Schools were still on the docket, but they were just barely getting underway by September. As a result, 120 of the new houses were put to use as schools.38
The shopping problem could not be solved so easily. Kay Hill, one of the first Linda Vista residents, remembers the three mile trek along winding Linda Vista Road to the nearest store. She bought all her groceries in two week quantities because stores were so inaccessible. One of the constant features of life in Linda Vista was a kid at the back door saying, “My mother wants to borrow a cup of sugar . . .”39
Automatically, Linda Vista’s problems became San Diego’s problems. At the same time, the opening of Linda Vista created a whole new set of headaches for San Diego. School, library and recreational facilities had to be provided. Already overcrowded hospitals and jails somehow had to be expanded to include the new residents. Police and fire departments began working under emergency conditions in order to provide the protection required. Funds needed immediately included $7,000,000 for new roads, $10,000,000 for water facilities and almost $4,000,000 for expanded school facilities.40
Local school officials, knowing that the burden of providing education for the new community would fall on them, had begun negotiating for federal grants in 1940. The government recognized its responsibility, but Congress did not pass the bill approving funds until September 3, 1941.41 Schools opened anyway on September 15 with 7,000 more pupils than had left in June. Students were provided for by renting temporary buildings, going on double sessions and borrowing whatever could be borrowed.42
Urgent pleas for books resulted in enough donations to start a small library in Linda Vista which immediately became the most popular spot in the whole area .43
Many of the new Linda Vista residents were having their own problems. Depressed and homesick, they were forced to rapidly adjust to a whole new way of life “right now.” The crowded or temporary conditions they faced everywhere did not make the assimilation easier.45 For many of them, San Diego was their first experience of a big city, and they got into trouble at every turn. Police Chief Clifford Peterson reported a huge number of traffic citations issued to newcomers not accustomed to California driving. Accidents in San Diego doubled with more than fifty per cent of the people involved being new residents.46 Even the ocean posed a hazard to unwary inlanders encountering it for the first time. Special lifeguards had to be provided to keep them from drowning.47
This then, was the scene in San Diego by 1942. The city’s landscape had been scraped, leveled and built to meet the demands of the Army, the Navy and the aircraft industry. Two thousand acres of new land had been added to airports and parade grounds by moving the waterfront a mile out.48 Rows and rows of square boxlike buildings marched neatly across land which had held only sagebrush and rattlesnakes the year before. Camp after camp of auto trailers crowded together on the bare ground of Mission Valley. Each day at factory shift change, traffic jams snarled the major north-south arterial as it was forced to handle as many cars in one hour as it had been designed to handle in one day.49 And everywhere there were people — crowding the sidewalks, the parks, the stores and the roads.
The defense boom had changed the face of San Diego forever. But more than its physical appearance, the tempo and lifestyle of the city also underwent a drastic reversal. All of the changes happened so rapidly that their impact was cataclysmic.
San Diego, thinking only of a huge payroll, was not prepared for what could happen when thousands of people inundated the city all at once. But the city soon found out that the problems created could outweigh the benefits accrued. The $2,000,000 weekly payroll brought with it a host of expensive problems that required immediate solutions and money that San Diegans did not have. The city which had taken great pride in its ten-year development plan found itself begging the federal government for financial assistance.50 To many San Diegans, the boom had become the “silver cloud with the dark lining.”51
1. Elizabeth Elgin, “Boom-town Library — Linda Vista,” Wilson Library Bulletin, Vol. 16, No. 9 (May 1942), pp. 705-710.
2. “Defense Housing,” Architectural Forum, Vol. 76 (May 1942), p. 272.
3. “Boomtown Inquiry,” Business Week, No. 616 (June 21, 1941), pp. 30-31.
4. Curtis Zahn, “What the Blitz-boom did to San Diego,” Travel, Vol. 83, No. 5 (September (1944), p. 20. “Boomtown: San Diego,” Life, Vol. 11 (July 28, 1941), pp. 64-69. C. McWilliams, “The Boom Nobody Wanted,” New Republic, Vol. 104, No. 26 (June 30, 1941), p. 882.
7. Frederick Simpich, “San Diego, Can’t Believe It,” National Geographic, Vol. 81 (January 1942), p. 45.
8. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 882.
9. Zahn, “Blitz-boom,” pp. 20-21.
10. F.J. Taylor, “Blitz-boom,” Saturday Evening Post, Vol. 214 (July 19, 1941), pp. 14-15; 35-36.
11. “Boomtown: San Diego,” pp. 64-69.
12. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.
13. “Boomtown: San Diego,” pp. 64-69. Other aircraft factories included Solar which made exhaust manifolds and Ryan which operated the Army Air Corps Flying School.
14. Simpich, “San Diego,” p. 45.
15. “Boomtown: San Diego,” pp. 64-69.
16. “Defense Housing,” p. 272.
17. Arthur Ribbel, “The War Years in San Diego — When Houses Became Homes,” The San Diego Union, March 30, 1980, p. G-2.
18. “Only 217 Vacant Houses in City, Says Hamilton,” The San Diego Union, September 19, 1941, p. 1. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting, it was learned that eighty-five to ninety per cent of San Diego landlords will not rent to families with children.
19. Oral interview with Kay Hill on April 4, 1980. The Hills lived in the same apartment that Charles Lindbergh had rented when he lived in San Diego.
20. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 883.
21. “Rental Bureau Ready to Open,” The San Diego Union, March 9, 1941, p. 1.
22. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.
23. “Defense Housing,” p. 273.
24. “Linda Vista, America’s Largest Defense Housing Project,” Pencil Points, Vol. 22 (November 1941), p. 697.
25. “Defense Housing,” p. 275.
26. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.
27. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 883.
28. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 36. Rents were based on the ability of the tenant to pay; roughly 20% of his base wage.
29. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 882.
30. “Blitz-boom,” pp. 14-15.
31. “Defense Housing in San Diego,” Architect and Engineer, Vol. 147 (October 1941), p. 47.
32. “3000 Living Units for Defense on Kearny Mesa, Linda Vista,” California Arts and Architecture, Vol. 58 (September 1941), p. 34.
33. “Defense Housing,” p. 278. The project required 45 miles of water and sewer pipe, 24 million board feet of lumber, 810,000 square yards of lath and plaster and 2 million pounds of nails.
34. “Linda Vista, America’s Largest Defense Housing Project,” pp. 697-698.
35. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 883.
36. Oral interview with Kay Hill, April 4, 1980.
37. “Grass on Main Street Becomes a Reality,” Architectural Forum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (September 1944), pp. 81-93. For a complete description of the shopping center, see also California Arts and Architecture for October 1944.
38. Richmond Barbour, “Elementary School Housing: An Appraisal of a Wartime Expedient,” The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 42 (April 1942), p. 597. Kay Hill recalled that her son attended school in one of those houses and found it totally lacking in adventure to merely go from one house to another.
39. Oral interview with Kay Hill.
40. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” pp. 882-883.
41. “S.D. Schools Get 3 Millions,” The San Diego Union, September 3, 1941, p. 1.
42. Ruth Taunton, “City Schools Will Open Tomorrow for Estimated 37,000 Boys, Girls,” The San Diego Union, September 14, 1941, Section B, pp. 1-2.
43. Cornelia D. Plaister, ‘New Branch Opened at Linda Vista,” The Library Journal, Vol. 67 (September 15, 1942), p. 802.
44. “Recreation at Emergency Trailer Camps,” Recreation, Vol. 36 (April 1942), p. 16.
45. Kay Hill had the opposite problem. Coming from Chicago, San Diego seemed to her a very small town with practically no cultural activities.
46. “S.D. Accident Injuries Double in Boom Year,” The San Diego Union, September 30, 1941, Section B, p. 1.
47. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.
48. Zahn, “Blitz-boom,” p. 21.
49. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.
50. “Government Asked to Break Linda Vista Bottlenecks,” The San Diego Union, September 21, 1941, Section B, p. 1. “Housing Sought for 22,000 More Defense Workers,” The San Diego Union, September 12, 1941, Section B. p. 1. McWilliams, “Boom Nobody Wanted,” p. 882.
51. Taylor, Saturday Evening Post, pp. 14-15; 35-36.