The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1987, Volume 33, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

San Diego: A Pictorial History.

By Raymond G. Starr. Norfolk, Virginia: The Donning Company Publishers, 1986. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. 225 pages. $27.95.

Reviewed by Gary F. Kurutz, Director of Special Collections at the California State Library, Historical Photography Editor for San Francisco Adventurers and Visionaries, and authority on collections of historical photographs.

San Diego, because of its spectacular natural setting, fabulous climate, colorful people and rich heritage is a photogenic city. Fortunately, too, this Southern California metropolis has been blessed with a number of skilled photographers, artists and illustrators who have chronicled its development. Many of these images have been preserved in local and statewide research institutions. In recent years, the interpreters of San Diego’s past have mined these iconographic treasure troves to produce a shelf full of pictorial histories ranging from articles in scholarly journals to multivolume sets. Neil Morgan, Richard Pourade, Ray Brandes, Iris Engstrand and Thomas Scharf number among those who have mixed words with pictures.

The latest contribution is Raymond G. Starr’s San Diego: A Pictorial History. Published as part of The Downing Company’s Portrait of America Series, it is embellished with over 350 photographs, maps, documents, drawings and illustrations reproducing newspapers, posters and other historical documents. Dr. Starr, a Professor of History at San Diego State University, presents in his introduction an eloquent summary of what this book accomplishes: (it) “illustrates the transformation of San Diego from a desolate little village on the last corner of the earth to the seventh largest city in the nation, with the proud – if self-proclaimed – distinction of being one of the most livable places in the United States. The book focuses on the many people (of many races and cultures) who did it, the institutions, and the setting.”

Professor Starr’s heavy emphasis on the twentieth century makes this volume a particularly important contribution. Calling on his vast experience as an urban and regional historian, the author weaves a well-written and compelling explanation of San Diego during this volatile century. For example, rather than dwelling on San Diego’s founding and picturesque rancho era, he instead explains how this romanticized time period contributed flavor and atmosphere to the city’s character. The 1915 Exposition, profusion of mission revival architecture, Hispanic place names and other symbols illustrate this fact. Starr gives much play to the city’s economic and cultural development, social strife, struggle to maintain quality in the face of growth (“Smokestacks versus Geraniums”), redevelopment projects and the creation of world class zoos, parks, museums and educational institutions. Included are realistic appraisals of the city. For in-stance, he tells how the cold war saved San Diego from the ravages of peace by keeping strong the military-industrial complex. All these factors helped shape this onetime “last corner on earth” into “America’s finest city.”

The vast quantity of illustrations and their informative captions form the cornerstone of this city history. Dr. Starr selected from libraries, museums and archives up and down California not only dramatic and entertaining views of bathing beauties, surfers, airplanes and such musts as Bum, the Stingaree and Katherine Tingley but also images that clearly confirm that this dream city did have nightmarish moments. Photographs of KKK meetings, floods, store closures during the Depression, housing shortages during World War II, sprawling suburban subdivisions, border problems and McCarthyism graphically show that many national problems also visited this semi-tropic paradise. Students of urban history will be pleased by the number of illustrations devoted to the development of parks, the military, aeronautics and other local industries, politics, housing developments, tourism and San Diego’s place as a leading “Sun Belt” city. The inclusion of a photograph of Oscar’s drive-in restaurant and the huge neon sign of the Campus drive-in demonstrate Starr’s sensitivity to the automobile culture we all endure.

Picture researchers and historians of Western pictorial works will be equally as pleased. Dr. Starr provides captions packed with information about each image. In fact, the sometimes “chatty” captions are almost as lengthy as the text. The author frequently mentions the name of the photographer or artist who created these visual documents. Furthermore, he states when a picture is undated or touched up. So often pictorial histories are deficient in this area. Many of the illustrations appear to be fresh views attesting to Starr’s ability to ferret out images from less than obvious sources. Inevitably, though, familiar eye-catching pictures are liberally sprinkled throughout.

While San Diego: A Pictorial History deserves high praise, it does have a few blemishes. The quality of the reproductions is not the best and some originally fine crisp views have been “muddied.” Also, the lengthy captions, although invaluable, cause some problems. On occasion, this reviewer thought the caption was part of the text and visa versa. Perhaps the designers might have devised a better way of setting off the illustrations’ descriptions such as with ruled borders or a distinctively different type face. Considering Dr. Starr’s careful recognition of photographers, it may have enhanced the book to have included a profile of one of these men who made books like this possible.

San Diego: A Pictorial History serves as one of the better examples of how an historian, tuned to public history, the “new social history” and archival and library resources, can fashion a pictorial that not only satisfies the casual observer of San Diego but also the scholar. Finally, Professor Starr’s enthusiasm for this “Harbor in the Sun” keeps the words and pictures flying by at a rapid fire pace.