As a teen in the 1980s, Matt Bokovoy and his pals would skateboard at night through the streets of downtown San Diego, nearly empty at that point, and around the suburban office parks sprouting up on the fringes of town. The city, in the early stages of redevelopment, was still figuring out what it was to become. Years later, as a graduate student studying American history at Temple University in Philadelphia, Bokovoy would compare San Diego's burgeoning urban sprawl to Philly's lack of it and use that perspective as a focus of study-“how urban landscapes are created and how people use them,” he explained. In other words, how urban planning affects the social life of a city.
When it came time to start thinking about his doctoral dissertation, Bokovoy's attention shifted back to his hometown and to two events that perhaps had the greatest influence not only on urban planning, but also San Diego's attempt to define itself as a modern American city. San Diego aggressively bid and won the role of host city for both the 1915-16 and 1935-36 World's Fairs. When, over coffee at Gelato Vero, Bokovoy shared his idea to further explore how the fairs impacted San Diego's growth with UCSD cultural historian and professor Ramon Gutierrez, one of Bokovoy's early mentors. Gutierrez told Bokovoy that little had been written on the subject.
Fast forward 10 years and countless hours spent combing through historical records and that dissertation idea has become Bokovoy's first book. Now an editor for the University of Oklahoma Press, this weekend Bokovoy will be in town to discuss his book, The San Diego World's Fair and Southwestern Memory: 1880-1940. Staying true to his homeboy roots, he'll cap off three appearances with a book-release party at one of his former downtown haunts, the East Village hipster bar Landlord Jim's-a remnant of the downtown he grew up with, and, he said, his way of encouraging scholars and writers to “take their work to younger people.”
World's Fairs, now almost a relic of the past, began in the 1800s. The U.S. hosted its first fair in 1829 in New York, but by the 1940s had largely stopped playing host-Americans were finding other things to entertain them, Bokovoy points out, like theme parks, TV and movies. The bulk of World's Fairs happened in the early 20th century, spurred by industrialism. The fairs were intended to promote international understanding, but for the U.S, they were a chance to show off progress and share future ideals. Millions of dollars were spent preparing a city for a yearlong influx of tourism, and major U.S. corporations, like the Ford Motor Company, and newly created federal agencies took advantage of the chance to market themselves to an impressionable public in only the way a fair setting could provide.
At the 1935 San Diego fair, for example, as Bokovoy describes in his book, the Federal Housing Administration displayed early versions of what we now refer to as a planned community. Located in the “Palace of Better Housing” on the Balboa Park fairgrounds, “Modeltown and Modernization Magic,” was a 3-foot-high, 56-home model city that “promoted a mixed-use and apparently self-sustaining community” based on a rural village concept, yet with tricked-out modern homes. The FHA appealed to first-time homebuyers with promises of mortgages as low as $30 a month for a spanking-new abode.
The fairs were also, oddly enough, a place to push the cultural envelope, as Bokovoy points out. The 1935 fair featured provocative fan dancer Sally Rand-one of the event's more popular attractions-and a nudist colony known as Zorro's Gardens, which ostensibly promoted nudism as a path to healthy living, though visitors to the gardens weren't necessarily after such enlightenment.
Features like Zorro's Gardens, Bokovoy said, were “part of the whole scene or culture of urban working-class amusements that were mostly just male oriented.... Even though it was perhaps seen as immoral or risqué,” he says, “it didn't upset patriarchy.”
Bokovoy's research also looks at various plans to, especially for the 1915 fair, essentially recreate San Diego into, as Boston planner John Nolen envisioned, something akin to Nice or Naples with “a grand public plaza... bay-front development, small open spaces, wide streets and grand boulevards” with a park system serving as a connector. Nolen, brought in to draw up a whole new city plan, was a pioneer of the “city beautiful” movement of the early 20th century that emphasized aesthetics and social spaces. The Nolen plan was eventually scrapped, Bokovoy writes, a victim of local businessmen who preferred income to aesthetics.
Had Nolen's plan been accepted in full (it was eventually implemented though incomplete and piecemeal), Bokovoy would have been skateboarding through an entirely different San Diego.
Brothers John and Frederick Olmsted, too, were brought in to turn Balboa Park into something resembling New York's Central Park. (The latter is commonly referred to as the founder of American landscape architecture.) Like Nolen, the brothers were eventually pushed out of the picture by developer John Spreckels, who saw promise in building up San Diego's suburbs rather than focusing on a city center. Spreckels, however, did retain New York designer Bertram Goodhue, who's to thank for Balboa Park's Spanish revival architecture.
San Diego's fairs, of course, played upon the region's Spanish heritage, giving visitors a somewhat romanticized synthesis of a past that was anything but. At the same time, Bokovoy points out, the fairs also tried to present an authentic portrait of native people-something that made the San Diego World's Fairs different from the others. Other fairs held in U.S. cities were Anglo-centric, depicting native people as savages, “possessions who had been conquered or... superceded by a superior civilization,” Bokovoy said. San Diego's fair attempted to revise national perceptions of race, at least when it came to Native Americans and Mexicans.
The 1915 fair offered the “Painted Desert” exhibit, in which a large livable village was literally built on the fair's Balboa Park grounds and American Indians from New Mexico were recruited to inhabit the village for the duration of the fair. The “Show Indians,” as they were known, carried on life in the village for the benefit of fairgoers. While such an exhibit might seem exploitative now, at the time it gave the residents of the Painted Desert some control over how they were seen by white audiences, Bokovoy says.
“When you look at the people who were involved and the way the exhibit was set up, how it was supervised and how the Indians were allowed to participate, I think the 1915 fair shows a transition where actually there's more of an embrace of an affirmative exhibition of natives in general-that native peoples are looked upon not as a weakness of the American public, but as a strength or as something that could be learned from.... They would be people that harried Americans would learn something from rather than put in their place.”
It was still a far cry from equality, but at least it was progress.
Matt Bokovoy will discuss and sign The San Diego World's Fair and Southwestern Memory at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at Bay Books, 1029 Orange Ave. in Coronado, 619-435-0070. At 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, he'll be at DG Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave. in La Jolla, 858-456-1800. At 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, he'll be at the San Diego Public Library, 820 E St., Downtown, 619-236-5800, with a book-release party from 5 to 8 p.m. at Landlord Jim's, 1546 Broadway, Downtown, 619-233-9998.