It’s not just buildings. Smugglers’ Gulch at Border Field has been bulldozed by the Border Patrol. Who cares? Well, it was from exactly there that Gaspar de Portolá, the first governor of California, and Father Junípero Serra first saw San Diego Bay, on June 29, 1769, after scrambling overland up Baja for months.
San Diego used to have big celebrations, culminating in 1969, with its 200th birthday. “They used to have a Native American village” at the presidio, says Coons. “They had Native American dancers, they had cannons, they had mission bells, and a blessing and dancing…”
But since the 1970s, there’s been a collective embarrassment at celebrating what amounted to the cultural domination and demolition of the Native Americans of San Diego. “For better or worse,” says Coons, “it’s an extremely important date, the founding of the modern city. [Before 1769], they didn’t call this place San Diego. They didn’t call it California. Whatever you think about it,  is really when we started calling this the town of San Diego.”
Coons hopes that “as we get closer to the 250th birthday” in 2019, there’ll be more participation by local tribes. Although none showed up today, SOHO supports “the Kumeyaay, and the Luiseño, and the Kupa [Cupeño], the Cahuillas, the San Luis Rey band of Mission Indians. Historic preservation is not just about buildings and objects — trains, boats, and planes — but cultural landscapes. We’ve been active in a number of fights. One of them was over the 252 freeway, near San Onofre, which was going to impact — ironically — the village where the first two baptisms in California were performed. And we were very active in trying to preserve the [Kumeyaay] burial ground at the [UCSD] chancellor’s house in La Jolla. We’ve been successful so far.”
He’s also fighting to prevent Rancho Guejito from turning into an extension of Escondido. “Rancho Guejito is probably one of the most important undisturbed cultural landscapes in San Diego County,” Coons says. “We’re working with [county] supervisor [Bill] Horn, and a coalition of preservation groups, including the Endangered Habitats League, and we’re trying to convince the owners to sell it for a new state or national park. It’s probably the most important unprotected valley between here and Santa Barbara. It’s just spectacular. It has the largest stand of Engelmann oaks in the state, or in the world. They have the ruins of several adobe ranch houses, and there are numerous village sites, including an intact adobe ranch house. There’s only one new house on the entire property.”
Coons says Alta California’s Mexican governor gave Rancho Guejito’s nearly 13,300 acres to José María Orozco as a land grant in 1845. “Orozco was a lucky man. He was the guy who stood up on Presidio Hill and took a couple of potshots at the Americans raising the Stars and Stripes in the plaza in Old Town in 1846.”
Luckily for Albert Smith, the American sailor who shimmied up the pole, Orozco missed.
“Of the 800 ranchos recognized by the U.S. government, only Rancho Guejito’s boundaries are intact, with its hills and valleys just as they were when Orozco received his grant,” Coons says.
Yet with each of these battles, it feels a bit like “Suppose they had a war and nobody came?” Where, in other words, are the legions of outraged citizens lining up behind the SOHO banner, ready to march on City Hall (a building SOHO is not fighting to preserve) to save these landmarks?
“I don’t know,” says Coons. “It’s funny. Some people think it’s because there are so many immigrants here, and they just don’t know the history. They come in with this attitude that San Diego doesn’t have any history. You could say the same thing about L.A., but L.A. hasn’t forgotten. Of course, L.A. is younger than we are. We’re the oldest European settlement on the West Coast of what is now the United States. We were founded before the American Revolution. People need to know that. We have a past worth fighting for.”
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But is SOHO always on the right side? Of all their fights, the one for the soul of Old Town has generated the greatest emotional divide among San Diegans. Some in the preservation game call Bruce an Anglophile who has forgotten our Spanish roots, ruining Old Town with his insistence on orienting Old Town to the “transition period” of the mid-19th Century, when Anglo-American culture was asserting itself and starting to dominate.
There’s no denying that the character of the plaza in Old Town has changed. Or that there has long been a power struggle between stakeholders favoring the Anglo side of life in the plaza and those favoring the Hispanic. In 2000, the pro-Anglo side won the battle to build a replica of an 1860s house belonging to one Sheriff James McCoy on top of the remains of the adobe house belonging to the Silvas — this despite pleas from family members, who are descendants of one of Portolá’s Spanish Leatherjackets from the presidio.
When it came to upgrading the historical accuracy of the plaza, Bruce Coons seemed to have come down squarely on the Anglo side, or, as he might put it, historical accuracy as opposed to sentimental fantasy.
For that you can partly thank an alliance with the New York behemoth Delaware North, the concessionaire that wrested Old Town’s main plaza activities from the popular Diane Powers and her Bazaar del Mundo, an eclectic but only fuzzily accurate depiction of the plaza’s Mexican days. During the past decade, Delaware has de-emphasized the Mexican era and focused on the later “transition” period, when Anglo influence was starting to dominate. So one-time cantinas became the Jolly Boy Saloon and, above all, the iconic Casa de Bandini, family seat of Don Juan Bandini’s highly hospitable clan of the early 1800s, has been stripped of its Spanishness and replaced by a restoration of the wood-railed Cosmopolitan Hotel of the plaza’s mid- to late-19th-Century stagecoach days.