March 13 2013 10:04 AM

Esteemed panel confronts our collective identity woes

From left: James Hubbell, Mary Walshok, Howard Blackson, Rob Quigley, with moderator Peter Jensen
Photo courtesy of Ilan-Lael Foundation

"I've grown certain that the root of all fear is that we've been forced to deny who we are."

—Frances Moore Lappe

Before a not-quite-capacity crowd at Balboa Park's Mingei International Museum one evening last week, an artist, architect, scholar and urban designer shared a couch and their thoughts on San Diego's ongoing struggle with its identity.

The hour-plus discussion—the latest chapter of the Ilan-Lael Foundation's ongoing "Conversations on Beauty" series—couldn't have come at a better time, given the city's position at a crossroads of sorts, politically speaking.

Shoulder to shoulder sat iconic artist and social commentator James Hubbell (the foundation's cocreator); Rob Quigley, architect of the new Downtown central library; Mary Walshok, author, head of UCSD Extension and self-proclaimed "industrial sociologist"; and rising-star urban planner Howard Blackson, Walshok was asked about San Diego's origins, and she kicked off the conversation with an admittedly "shameless plug." She's co-authored a forthcoming book, Invention and Reinvention: The Evolution of an Innovation Economy, that just so happens to cover the city's trajectory from the 1840s to 2010.

While San Francisco is identified with the Gold Rush and Los Angeles with movies, San Diego emerged more as a response to crowded, overburdened metropolises. "San Diego's character," Walshok said, "was defined by a very different pattern of early economic alternatives and early migrants and very few immigrants, but mostly people fleeing what E.W. Scripps called in a letter to a friend ‘the diseases of civilization.'" 

Journals from early San Diego settlers, Walshok explained, depict a well-educated populace, many of whom arrived with health problems. "Most of them," she said, "were seeking an alternative to the debilitating industrial Middle West—Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, child labor, tenements, the grime, the ill health, the dirty streets.

"And I think this shaped very much the character of San Diego, which is about beauty of place. There is a consistent theme through 140 years of this place of trying to find clean industries... that can operate in this pristine environment and not harm it in a way that so much of the Midwest was ravaged by the Industrial Revolution."

Hubbell, whose nature-inspired art spans the globe, lamented San Diego's inability to grasp its potential, given its natural connection to Baja California, the Pacific Rim and its seat as a military powerhouse. He wondered what all of this has to offer to our future, adding, "If we can begin to put that into some kind of rhythm or pattern, I think we're off to a new start."

Blackson, a tireless advocate for walkable and bikeable communities, said he caught the planning bug after watching his grandmother become increasingly isolated after retiring from Woolworth's in North Park. "She used to walk to work," he recalled, "and the streets were so wide, and then she became so slow, and I couldn't figure out why she was becoming more and more isolated in this community.... What I think had happened was the car culture moved ahead of her ability to drive."

Quigley, a Los Angeles native, came to San Diego, he said, after a stint with the Peace Corps in a small Chilean village. His return flight to L.A. sealed the move when he found himself bombarded by noise, pollution and oversize cars—all in the short time he awaited a ride from the airport.

A lifelong surfer, Quigley said his only requirement was warm ocean water, and San Diego appealed because he felt he could have an impact on the city's built environment, unlike in L.A., which he considered a lost cause.

"San Diego, by contrast, was a blank slate in terms of its urban environment in Downtown during the early '70s," Quigley said. "There were no people down there. There were no restaurants open down there after 5. And only two opened before 5."

Walshok picked up on Quigley's observation. "San Diego has always been a blank slate," she said. "And successive waves of people who come here and are dreamers and imagine what it might be" have found a "tension" competing with the status of San Diego as "still today the largest military city in the entire United States."

She suggested, too, that when Franklin Roosevelt declared San Diego a "federal city" during World War II—when federal dollars flowed in to build much-needed housing, schools and water- and sewer-treatment systems—it kicked off "a habit here of not taking responsibility for our own infrastructure but looking to external resources."

"We have to really come to terms with the kind of rules of the game that have dominated here since the 1940s," Walshok added, "and they've got to be changed."

Quigley noted what he called San Diego's "schizophrenic sort of culture" that can attract such a who's-who list of high-stakes entrepreneurs—from Jonas Salk to Irwin Jacobs—but simultaneously cultivate "a civic culture of avoiding risks at all costs when it comes to beauty.

"We're among the worst," he said. "For whatever reason, when it really gets down to accomplishing something visionary... the status quo contracts. And, suddenly, there is no opening for vision, there is no value given to art, there is no value given to human emotion. And I find that strange."

Quigley even admitted that, while pushing for 16 years for the new central library, he'd never refer to the large dome that is the hallmark of the design in any artistic terms—merely its functional use as a sunshade—fearing it would be "value-engineered right out of the project.

"It almost was anyway," he added. An "efficiency expert" from the city handed him a catalog of pre-fabricated domes that might have carved $1 million from the cost. "They were just horrible," Quigley said, "the kind of thing you wouldn't put on a warehouse."

Now with a mayor whose central campaign theme was "neighborhoods first," San Diego must engage its citizens better, the four agreed. As Hubbell advised, "Stop thinking of everything as being separate, but realize that we all are part of this web and we function best when we are sensitive to it."

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