Christmas Without Snow

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Sprawled across the extreme southwest corner of the United States, just sixteen miles from Mexico, San Diego is about as remote as you can get from a traditional New England Christmas. But except for a dusting of snow, the city puts on all the trappings of the season. The temperature, which reaches the sixties during the day, falls to about forty at night, cool enough for hotels and restaurants to light fires in their fireplaces. And residents throw themselves into matters like outdoor lighting with uncommon zeal. On San Diego Bay, pleasure boats, Navy destroyers, and the three-masted Star of India are all strung with lights. At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, part of the city’s world-renowned zoo, giraffes and zebras constructed of lights stalk the grounds. And in residential neighborhoods houses and curbside palm trees blink and glow all night.

Getting into the Christmas spirit here is easier than feeling any immediate sense of the past. The city’s oldest structures—its original mission and presidio—are long gone, and outside of museums there are few reminders that the discovery of San Diego predates the settlement of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.

It was in 1542 that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer working for Spain, first came upon this great natural harbor, one of only a handful on the entire Pacific coast. There’s a monument to Cabrillo out on Point Loma, a fifteen-minute drive from downtown. Cabrillo’s statue, sculpted in 1939, isn’t much to look at but the panorama from the visitors’ center is. Signs identify much of what you can see: the Laguna Mountains to the southwest, the Coronado Islands offshore, the various types of naval vessels in the harbor. As recently as 1900 Chinese junks filled the bay, fishing for abalone and shrimp to take back home. Just across the entrance to the bay is North Island Naval Air Station. Charles Lindbergh’s historic New York to Paris flight began on North Island in 1927; his plane was built here by engineers at Ryan Aircraft. Standing on the edge of a continent, we all feel a little like heroes and explorers, even when the parking lot and other reminders of our ordinary lives are just steps away.

Driving back to the town, you glimpse stretches of the scrubby chaparral that covered the point when Cabrillo arrived. This dusty, unirrigated landscape helps explain why it took so long for civilization to take hold here. Lacking sufficient rainfall, isolated by desert and mountains, San Diego didn’t come into its own until this century.

In 1909, in an effort to put the city on the map, somebody suggested that San Diego host a world’s fair to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Organizers hired the Eastern architect Bertram Goodhue, who put up a baroque Spanish-colonial city in the middle of Balboa Park.

Except for New York’s Central Park, Balboa Park is the largest in any city in the United States. You enter by crossing Cabrillo Bridge—a dramatic, cantilevered span that arches over a steep canyon. At the far end is the Exposition’s memorial archway and the beginning of the wide treelined avenue called the Prado, flanked on each side with white buildings, some simple, some with arcades and domes, all wonderfully harmonious. Earlier fairs had employed the architecture of fantasy; San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition marked the first time fair buildings were designed using a regional style. Here in Balboa Park is the San Diego that might have been if Cabrillo’s discovery had been followed by immediate colonization and prosperity instead of hundreds of years of neglect. As one visitor to the fair put it, “It is as though one stood on a magic carpet, wished himself on the shores of Spain three centuries ago, and found the wish fulfilled.”

Now that it is in place, Spanish architecture seems the inevitable choice for this location and climate, but before the fair there was hardly a stuccoed wall or a tiled roof anywhere in town. The public buildings put up by Goodhue and his assistant Carlton Winslow—all museums now—were followed by private houses designed by Irving Gill and others until the Spanish Colonial style became the city’s architectural hallmark.

For all its pleasures this part of town is fiction, a stage set. For a more realistic picture of San Diego’s past, you have to go to the part of the city known as Old Town. The cluster of low, mostly wood-frame buildings at Old Town was the center of San Diego from about 1821, through the Mexican War and statehood, until about 1872, when fire destroyed many of the houses. Today the five-square-block reconstruction is crowded with shops and restaurants that make it feel more like a theme park called Frontier Village than an authentic survivor of the nineteenth century. But inside the visitors’ center is a scale model of the town more eloquent than the full-sized version. Looking at that flat, dusty, treeless miniature settlement, I was struck, as I so often am traveling in the West, with what imaginations pioneers had to have to see the potential here.