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San Ysidro

Okay, okay, I know. San Ysidro. It's not a place, it's the blur just before you get to Mexico. It's humanity sluicing up and down through the World's Busiest Border. The tidal gate between the First and Third Worlds, as we put it in smugness and fear. San Ysidro is people spewing out of the trolley, headed for the next civilization just a few yards away. Who cares about this little un-community of money changers and motels? San Ysidro is America's last gasp. It is parking lots with varying rates depending on the day of the week. It's signs like "U-Turn to USA." It's unfortunates being hauled into "Secondary." It's one-way gates you clank through to take you to -- ba-da-boom! -- Latin America. It's elderly smokers and medicine-seekers braving customs so they can live and pay the rent. It's Mexican businessmen coming to maybe the busiest post office in San Diego to make their phone calls and check their mailboxes -- it being quicker to cross the border than to wait for the mail. It's motels collecting people for last, desperate shuttle trips to Tijuana cancer clinics. It's the rack of phones at the border McDonald's filled with sons, lovers, and mules saying, "It's okay. I made it."

There is only one word to describe this place: bedlam.

Or is there? I've got another: Brigadoon. The "other" San Ysidro is like a lost, ideal world kept invisible by its brazen alter ego. Who would know this was the birthplace of the 20th-century commune? Of a populist tradition associated more with San Francisco than San Diego?

The place was named after San Ysidro himself, the 12th-century patron saint of farmers who was so beloved of God that when he fell asleep the angels finished his plowing for him. He fits this other, sleepier San Ysidro. Walk through the older part of town. It feels 1940-ish. There's the barn housing San Ysidro Feed and Supply. There's the library in the linear park leading up to the trolley. There's the San Ysidro Hotel under its great pine tree on San Ysidro Boulevard, with old boys like Jesús García, who used to work the lettuce fields, sitting in the afternoon sun on the little porch or fixing coffee in the large farm kitchen out back. They probably don't realize they're occupying the old Belcher ranch house, which has to be the poor twin of the Gaslamp's William Heath Davis house, "the oldest wooden structure in downtown San Diego." The Davis house was a saltbox prefabricated on the East Coast, shipped around the Horn, and assembled in San Diego in 1850. You think they packed just one? Boy, could the San Ysidro Hotel do with some of the love the Davis house has gotten.

But then the house is like the town, slightly forgotten. Who remembers that in Agua Caliente's heyday, the '40s and '50s, all of Hollywood stopped in San Ysidro on their way south. Rita Hayworth danced here. Ronald Reagan tarried for a tipple. Errol Flynn, Jack Dempsey, racehorse owners -- name them, they stopped at places like Grady's Keg.

But before that came the idealism. Joyce Hettich knew some of the dreamers. She's a relative newcomer. Started teaching here on September 9, 1945. She is 98.

"We can all thank William Smythe," she says. "Smythe Avenue is named after him."

William Ellsworth Smythe turned up a hundred years ago. He was a sophisticated New Englander with connections all the way to Washington, D.C. But he had seen life in cities on both coasts, a few wealthy winners and millions of disillusioned losers toiling their lives away in hopelessness. As he told audiences countless times, he had another idea.

"A little land and a living, surely, is better than a desperate struggle and wealth, possibly."

Smythe dreamt of creating the "Little Landers," a middle-class agrarian society on the outskirts of San Diego where every family had an acre — enough to survive on, with surplus produce to sell in the city. Days would be spent working the crops, evenings at mutual education and philosophy meetings. He meant to nurture body and spirit.

His idea worked. Starting in 1908, San Ysidro's fertile river lands bloomed, from Smythe Avenue down to the Tijuana River between I-5 and the border. Around 300 families came, city folk who knew little about farming but learned, grew, and mostly prospered. They delivered their surpluses to their market at Sixth and C in downtown San Diego. They built houses. They gathered in the evenings for classes, inspirational talks, and the study of philosophy with people Smythe brought in. It was the century's first commune. And it might still be here if they had worked out ways to control the river. As it was, the flood of 1916 knocked the stuffing out of the experiment.

But a lot of the houses they built survive around East Park Avenue, where the library and the senior center sit in the greenery. Joyce Hettich's adobe stands on a Little Lander lot. The community that grew up around it is intact.

Now the City of Villages idea looks about to hit Old Town San Ysidro. Let's hope that the attention doesn't do what decades of neglect failed to: destroy the town in order to save it.

"They want to move our beautiful library across the freeway," complains Joyce. "Why would they do that?"

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