Photo by Thomas Larson, Serra Museum, Presidio Park
6. “El Jupiter,” Presidio Cannon
Cast in the Philippines in 1783, this big bronze gun saw its first action at the Spanish outpost Fort Guijarros on Point Loma. Part of a ten-gun battery, the cannon fired 25-pound shots on smugglers during 1830’s “Battle of San Diego Bay.” In 1837, the weapon — its six-foot barrel weighed two tons — was wagoned to the Royal Presidio, a military bulwark protecting Father Junípero Serra’s first mission. Ever wary, the padres soon moved the mission six miles east. The Presidio, having fallen into Mexican hands, was abandoned, though the cannon continued to glower at modest farms in Mission Valley at the mouth of the San Diego River. The gun remained in place during the U.S.-Mexican war, 1846–1848, when the United States acquired a western land mass whose biggest prize, Alta California, became our state in 1850. Geranium-lover George Marston, who owned the Presidio and its grounds and gave it to the city in 1929 (imagine someone doing that today), kept the cannon in the basement of his downtown store. Today, it’s housed in the Serra museum. The Presidio is an archaeologist’s dream, as many a trowel has exposed artifacts from the Kumeyaay, Spanish, and Mexican eras.
Charles Lindbergh’s Flight Suit.
Photo by Missouri History Museum
7. Charles Lindbergh’s Flight Suit
When Lucky Lindy took off from San Diego on May 10, 1927, in his wicker-seat, single-prop monoplane, he was snug in this A.G. Spalding & Bros. fur-collared, brown cotton twill coverall. Price, $50. After 34 hours in the air, he landed in Paris and wrote inside the suit’s collar, “Worn on the following flights: San Diego–St. Louis, St. Louis–New York, New York–Paris. Charles Lindbergh.” (The suit is on display at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.) The pilot, as every school kid knows, flew Spirit of St. Louis, designed and built in 60 days by Ryan Airlines Corporation. He oversaw the plane’s construction in a vacant cannery building on the site where Solar Turbines is today. Engineers reduced the weight wherever possible: no parachute, no radio, no lights, no windshield. The gas tank was in front of him, so he steered by looking out the window. Why wasn’t it the Spirit of San Diego? The financial backers — who provided $15,000 to build the plane, hoping Lindbergh would win the trans-Atlantic prize — were St. Louisians. The aviation expertise (president Frank Mahoney, chief engineer Donald Hall, a few dozen workers, and lots of overtime) was all San Diego’s.
First Comic-Con Logo, 1970.
Photo by San Diego Comic-Con International
8. First Comic-Con Logo, 1970
Our glitziest summertime blowout is the San Diego Comic-Con International. Its initial offering was held in 1970 at the US Grant Hotel; 300 attended. O’er the swamp of recent time, the event has mushroomed from a coterie of comic-book and fantasy/sci-fi novel enthusiasts to its present-day circus of geekdom and fandom: superheroes (the fake real, like Captain America, and the real fakes, like Arnold Schwarzenegger), the newest movie-blockbuster and marquee stars, the Cartoon Network, anime, video games, workshops and panels, a costume contest, portfolio review, an art show, an awards ceremony, collectors and collectibles, trash bags full of free merch, and old bald surfer dudes in Tommy Bahama shirts. Tickets sell out in the first hour and a half they’re offered. The four-day party reportedly generates $162 million in tourist revenue. Capped now at 125,000 attendees, Comic-Con attracts T-shirted, swag-cut throngs who sardine themselves in the convention center, the one event that Big House by the Bay seems built for. Like the Alien series, the affair rebirths itself, every year more corporatized and commercialized, a showcase for a fantasy realm where it’s the sponsors’ goal that no one grows up.
Burned Tennis Shoes, Cedar Fire.
Photo by Thomas Larson, courtesy John George, collections manager, Barona Cultural Center
9. Burned Tennis Shoes, Cedar Fire
Not that San Diegans need reminding, but the Cedar Fire was one of the worst catastrophes in the region’s history. It burned 280,278 acres (roughly 28 percent of the county), 2232 homes were lost, and 14 civilians and one firefighter died. This pair of tennis shoes is kept in the 60-degree storage vault of the Barona Cultural Center. Igniting spontaneously from the heat, the shoes sat on the back porch of Charles “Beaver” Curo, onetime vice-chairman of the Barona band, whose house was spared that night, October 25, 2003. At its fiercest moment, the fire roared down Wildcat Canyon at 40 miles per hour. The terror for many victims was unthinkable. Three people perished in their bathtubs, where they huddled, trying to outlast the heat and smoke and flames. Hundreds of survivors have scars, grafted skin, lost fingers, ghastly dreams.
Justin Pearson’s Acrylic Bass.
Image by Justin Pearson
10. Justin Pearson’s Acrylic Bass
San Diego has fostered very few West Coast musical styles. Except one. Punk. Today, it’s variously known as noise rock, screamo, grindcore — bizarre-timed clusters of explosive sounds and blast beats at supersonic speed. But for two decades, punk was largely pure, and one reason is its local crown prince, Justin Pearson. Pearson has played his transparent acrylic bass, built by Dan Armstrong, with the Locust. How to describe their music? IED rhythms. Growled/shrieked lyrics. A virtuosic noise, touched by riotous energy. I recall one Locust tune of 54 seconds and 7000 notes, the playing high-voltage, incandescent. The Locust don matching human-fly costumes with hoods and mesh sockets for eyes and mouth. Few local punk groups hit it big (some say sold out): Unwritten Law, blink-182, Rocket From the Crypt, Black Heart Procession. But the litany of wild-at-heart bands that played all-ages shows — at such venues as the Ché Café, WorldBeat Center, Soma — are legendary: the Cramps, Nomeansno, Head Wound City, Cattle Decapitation, Pitchfork, Tit Wrench. Half the fun was pissing off the parents. Lest we forget, there’s a public service to punk — the audience, mostly teenage men and boys, enjoys its club sport: mosh-pit slam-bang sweat-frenzy workout. Punk cultures rebellion, and seeds a participatory politics for San Diego’s many alienated kids.
Image by Thomas Larson
11. Panama-California Exposition
Held from 1915 to 1917, the exposition presented our city as the initial stop after ship passengers traversed the just-finished Panama Canal. Expositions and fairs used to peddle a city’s newness, all set to grow, by imagining its identity. For San Diego, a few of these events decided that its architectural face would be Spanish Colonial Revival. The consequence launched an ongoing crisis: Was there a here, here? The answer: it’s not necessary. According to our town barkers, Southern California should evoke elsewhere. How strange to think it couldn’t be itself: a U.S.-Mexican crossroads; a marine Eden; abundant, adaptable land, wisely occupied by native peoples for 8000 years. Instead, the park grounds beckoned tourists with what expo builder Bertram Goodhue called “illusion rather than reality.” This postcard frames the theme: the viaduct is a Roman ruin; the city behind and below mixes Florence and Los Angeles; the bay invites shipping; and the scurrying Bible-toting friar — well, he’s no lover of baseball but a force christening canyons and caminos a Catholic colony. That San Diego has been challenging its putative expo identity for nearly 100 years has become its identity. One good thing: the 1915 structures anchor the best stroll in town: Balboa Park.