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San Diego has become an overbuilt theme park, a hollowed-out pleasure dome noisy with professional sports teams and the brouhaha of drug- and booze-fed street festivals generated for tourists, conventioneers, and high-tech moguls. Unemployment is absurdly low, and the city's economy, fueled by tourism, biotech, cell phones, and the stream of cocaine that crosses the Mexican border, simmers at near-boil.

In the middle of Balboa Park, once the city's finest public asset, a hulking parking garage is planned for the San Diego Zoo, which has become a bastion of commercial exploitation, hawking its wares on the Internet and hosting loud private parties for convention-going revelers. "Many visitors from out of town have difficulty finding the Zoo entrance," the zoo complains on its website, bolstering its argument to gobble up more park land with PR doublespeak. "An improved entrance that brings the Zoo out to Park Boulevard would enhance the Zoo's presence and relationship with Balboa Park." Instead of a renovated central library, the city will soon have the finest baseball stadium money can buy, with state-of-the-art skyboxes for the wealthy to entertain their friends and business partners, courtesy of local taxpayers. While Mission Bay grows crowded and polluted, the city council continues to buy up millions of dollars of unsold football tickets from Alex Spanos, the Stockton developer who owns the San Diego Chargers. The sour deal was pushed by City Manager Jack McGrory, who quit after taxpayers got wind of the fleecing. But instead of doing penance for his football-ticket folly, McGrory, who also championed the baseball stadium, is now employed by that project's chief beneficiary, Padres owner John Moores.

Moores, McGrory, Spanos. Those are the men who run San Diego. The mayor and city council have become minions, carrying out the orders of those who have enough money to buy their way into power. With only one daily newspaper remaining and the radio and television stations owned by national monopolies, participation by average citizens in the city's affairs is virtually nil. They seem content to sit on their couches, enjoying their drug of choice: television, cocaine, or the Union-Tribune.

Was this the San Diego envisioned by Joseph E. Dryer? Probably not. But Dryer's handiwork laid the groundwork. Back in 1951, he was president and founder of the Heaven on Earth Club, an organization devoted to attracting as many newcomers to San Diego as it could by touting the area's weather. Although it was then a sleepy town with cows still grazing in Mission Valley, San Diego, he said, was a paradise awaiting a fabulous future. A furniture-store owner, Dryer devoted much of his time to urging his fellow San Diegans to send postcards to their relatives in the east touting the healthful benefits of continuous sunshine.

Dryer became the first Mr. San Diego on December 15, 1951. The award was given by the Grant Club, described in a 1947 story by the San Diego Union as "a coterie of men meeting every noonday in the Grant Hotel lobby." In its early years, the club was said to be "principally interested in partisan politics.... Hangers-on at club gatherings include local lobbyists anxious to find some fulcrum to move their projects through local legislative halls. They are tolerated but not accorded real membership. Political writers are encouraged to attend, but, like children, they should be seen and not heard.

"Every day for more than 20 years," the paper reported, "Grant clubbers have been served by the same waitress, Florence Fain. Most of the club members place no food orders with her but eat what she brings them, so well acquainted has Florence become with their tastes. Alcoholic drinks at the tables are taboo."

By 1951 the club was seemingly more interested in boosting the local economy than its political dialogue, hence Dryer's award. "This is the nicest Christmas present you could give me," Dryer reportedly told the lunchtime crowd at the Grant. "If you try to do some good for the community, you do good for yourself. The best assets you can have are a lot of friends. San Diego does not owe me a thing. I owe everything to San Diego. I am a lucky Joe."

If Mr. San Diego was full of small-town schmaltz, he reflected his constituency. Next year's Mr. San Diego was Harley E. Knox, a "prominent dairyman" who had recently finished two terms as mayor. Ever the gladhander, Dryer presented the award to Knox and announced, "In all these years, including the eight he served as mayor, I have never yet heard anyone say an unkind word about Harley Knox." Knox had actually been the target of critics who accused him of rigging city projects so as to benefit his dairy business. Still, it was all very small-town stuff, and Knox became a local hero for his battles with the federal government over the city's right to Colorado River water.

George A. Scott was next in the early line of Mr. San Diegos. Owner of a small department-store chain called Walker-Scott, the nattily attired Scott told interviewers he had been "adopted" at the age of 16 by R.M. Walker, a kindly department-store mogul from Los Angeles, who took him on extravagant tours of Europe. In 1935, the legend goes, just before he was to open a branch of his mentor's chain on San Diego's Broadway, the old man died, leaving Scott to fend for himself in the little Navy town. Scott became the city's mercantile king, building its first shopping mall.

In 1954, Douglas Young, a hospital president and Unitarian church trustee, was Mr. San Diego, followed in 1955 by Fred Rohr, a sheet-metal worker who made the gas tanks for Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and had gone on to found his own company, Rohr Aircraft. In 1955, it was Andy Borthwick, a congenial banker. Then in 1956 came James S. Copley, along with his ready-made legend.

Copley, the story went, had been adopted from a Chicago orphanage by Colonel Ira Copley, the wealthy owner of a chain of Illinois newspapers he had assembled to help him campaign for Congress. Ira, said the legend, walked into the orphanage and asked for the weakest boy there, so that he could build him into a man. Jim went home with Ira, and 40 years later inherited his newspapers, including the Union and Tribune in San Diego.

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