For more than a century boosterism has been a major force in shaping San Diego. Five generations of civic and business leaders promoted and sold their collective visions to the outside world. Central to these visions were the bay and climate.
Previous generations envisioned the creation of a great commercial port and sought to achieve that goal by developing strategic transportation links between the city and important trade centers and by promoting local agriculture. Despite these efforts, however, the vision of a great commercial port never materialized. Ironically, San Diego’s calm, land-locked waters became a recreational setting for pleasure boats and harbor excursions. The recent growth of a high-rise skyline, vacation resorts, recreational facilities and improvements along the waterfront have made it one of the most scenic and beautiful harbors in the world . . . but it has never become a major port.
As each generation worked to realize its vision, promotion of the other major asset – the climate – became the most consistent focus for marketing the city. A 19th century observer correctly assessed San Diego’s future potential when he commented – “You have a great capital in your climate. It will be worth millions to you”. Indeed it was. Although some visions changed over time, the image of San Diego’s ideal location, situated between mountains, desert and ocean, and its near-perfect climate, remained intact. In addition, the conscious effort to transform the landscape from semi-arid desert to tropical paradise had an enormous impact on the selling of San Diego and reinforced the image that this region had been blessed with a unique environment that enabled its inhabitants to enjoy a very special lifestyle. This lifestyle proved in each generation to be the foundation of San Diego’s success and growth.
The forces directing the growth of San Diego have given the city a unique and strongly visible identity that continues today. Over the years San Diegans experienced the impact of the outside world on their community. They felt the tensions caused by the influx of diverse peoples and cultures and witnessed significant alterations in the environment as the desire to redefine and reshape the landscape became an integral part of the city’s vision. However, those forces which shaped the city’s development never made as strong an impact as the visions themselves.
From a great commercial port, to “America’s Finest City,” San Diegans have continued for more than 150 years to successfully market an image that reaped rewards for the city. Interestingly enough, San Diego benefited from some of its losses as well as its gains. Although Los Angeles, not San Diego, became the great commercial port for the Southwest, some would argue that in light of a host of complex social, economic, and environmental problems, Los Angeles has lost its vision of paradise, while San Diego clings tenaciously to its ideal.