'People think it's just like Hawaii. It's not. It's an arid desert.' : Historian Captures the Real Past of San Diego

Times Staff Writer

Michael McKeever is fascinated by history. Not so much the myth and romance of history, but details that stand out like brush strokes on a canvas.

McKeever, 41, has just written "A Short History of San Diego," a book that seeks to penetrate the myth and romance of "America's Finest City."

"The true history of San Diego is not overly romantic," he was saying over lunch. "Truth is, it's more or less neglected. If the state park service (Department of Parks and Recreation) saw what Old Town was like in the old days, they'd be horrified."

In other words, it wasn't the sort of place where chichi boutiques flourished alongside gourmet Mexican cuisine.

"It was dusty, dirty, full of fleas," McKeever said. "The plaza didn't have grass, it smelled. . . . If I could go back in a time machine, I, a San Diegan of Old Town, would feel very cut off. When the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, San Diego didn't have a telegraph line. We had to hear from a person riding on horseback from Los Angeles. Isn't that curious how it parallels many of our feelings about L.A. today?

"People here seemed to be running from or to something else. The first really ambitious people came here as a result of the Gold Rush in the 1840s. But gold played out, and many of those people stayed 'cause they wanted to."

McKeever is fascinated by "the Wobblies" of 1910, who coincided with the Mexican Revolution. Jack London, a self-proclaimed Wobbly, once described the group as "socialists, anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws and undesirable citizens of the United States." The Wobblies' claim to fame was invading Tijuana in May of 1911, only to be beaten by the Mexicans and later shunned by the San Diegans. McKeever said the forces at work in the city were of an incredibly conservative posture.

Always Conservative

"San Diego always has been a very conservative city," he said, "a strange mix of idealists and anarchists. The singing group Up With People came here in the 1960s and filled the Civic Theatre three nights running. San Diego is such a conservative city that when the battleship New Jersey showed up in the late '60s, San Diegans filled the decks for hours, walking around, admiring the thing. San Diego was hardly a hotbed of anti-war fever. And yet San Diego had to feel close to 'Nam due to having the naval hospital. Surely, someone must have noticed those pale men in bathrobes sitting on the lawn and wondered, 'Why are they there?' "

McKeever describes the city in large part as an artificial creation.

"People think it's just like Hawaii," he said. "It's not. It's an arid desert. If it weren't for the water from the Colorado River, it could get really rough around here. The Spanish suffered tremendously over lack of water. People reshaped the bay, which is beautiful, to look like it does today. But man had a lot to do in making San Diego San Diego."

San Diego, in some ways, McKeever said, has benefited more from its losses than its gains. It has a splendid natural harbor, but Los Angeles, using a primitive man-made port, became the illogical shipping center. At one time San Diego loomed as the natural terminus of an East-West railroad line, but Los Angeles copped the honor.

Trade-off for Railroad

By virtue of its losses, San Diego may have retained its best asset--beauty--at the expense of one of its worst--inferiority.

McKeever, a tall man of Irish descent with a confident gait and kind manner, knows much about the landscape he's passing, whether it's Chula Vista, his home, or San Diego, the place of his childhood. He has lamented for years San Diego's feeling of being overshadowed by big brother Los Angeles, but thinks the tide is turning, albeit subtly.

"I'll probably be run out on a rail for saying this," he said, "but San Diego, in the past, was jealous of L.A. L.A. has always treated San Diego like San Francisco treats L.A.--with a jaundiced eye. San Diego had the gorgeous harbor, but L.A. goes out and builds the damn thing and becomes an international shipping port.

"You can feel an electricity in L.A. and New York--even Honolulu--that you don't feel here. San Diego is at a crossroads, but it's been at a crossroads so often, it's a wonder it hasn't been busted for loitering. Now I wonder about Tijuana, the sleeping giant, which San Diego regards much in the way that L.A. regards San Diego."

McKeever marvels at the fact that Tijuana is the "promised land" of Baja California. "And can you imagine," he said, "what it must be like for a lonely Mexican child to look across the border at those tract houses and see those fat happy American kids at play? I wonder about the future of Mexico, and Tijuana, and how it's all going to affect San Diego. I think we should sit up and take notice, before it's too late."

The critical side of McKeever laments San Diego sometimes ignoring its unpleasant side effects. He cites the raving of developers--long the power brokers in San Diego--about La Jolla's high-tech "golden triangle," yet caring little about the abject poverty south of Broadway. He cites the San Diego Trolley as being a focal point for boosters, yet wonders if one of its main functions is "just to get the maids in and out more quickly and efficiently."

SDSU Graduate

McKeever has spent years studying San Diego, the detail and incidentals of what is easily his favorite place. He was educated at San Diego State University, a place he hardly raves about, and later worked for KPBS-TV, Channel 15, on a yearlong series of documentaries called "About San Diego."

The program, hosted by Ken Kramer, was nominated for an Emmy Award. McKeever, working as a volunteer, ended up associate producer.

Kramer describes McKeever, a former film critic and costume designer for Disneyland (yes, he dressed Mickey Mouse) as "a storehouse of information about San Diego, a real community resource. To have him write a book on the short history of San Diego is incredibly appropriate.

"He struck me then and still does as a shy, unassuming man. He was very easily touched by people. He can empathize with people, their condition and situation. He's easy to like and has a good sense of the absurd."

Pointing Out Landmarks

Kramer remembers riding across town with McKeever and having him point out landmark after outpost, as if he had built the city himself. His profiles on Channel 15 included children living in squalor south of Broadway in downtown San Diego, an elderly folk artist, and a black church where music and the Gospel mix easily in heartfelt celebration. Kramer so liked the series that he's hoping to renew the show independently, now that he has left KPBS.

McKeever said he mastered much of his sense of detail in working for Disneyland. Learning to separate Goofy and Pluto in a parade--"Dogs, but different types of dogs," he said with an earnest look--may seem trivial to some people, but at Disneyland, it's a hallmark of perfectionism.

He learned from Disneyland "organization, entertainment, quality," attributes he has tried to bring to writing. History he likes, simply because it's fun. "It's full of possibilities, funny people and heroes," he said.

And surprises. Nostalgia romanticizes vaqueros riding across the plains like gallant warriors. But McKeever said many harbored Chinese slave girls who had been smuggled into the United States. This occurred in San Diego and San Francisco, and is hardly a prized piece of regional information.

History painted the myth of the cowboy as a hero steeped in romance. Nothing, McKeever said, could be further from the truth.

"It was a dirty, lonely, lousy job," he said. "How could it not be? These guys didn't look like Clint Eastwood. But we're comfortable with the image, just as we're comfortable with the past."

McKeever likes to put himself in the place of one-time history makers. One of his favorite haunts is the lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma.

'The Past Is Near'

"There," he said, "the past is near. There's a trail near the lighthouse surrounded by brush and scrub. For centuries Indians knew it well. If you go there on a foggy morning you can almost feel the hoofbeats. You can look into the distance and imagine how the natives must have felt seeing the fleets sailing in from Europe."

Isolation has been San Diego's strongest asset, yet its fiercest liability, McKeever said. Spaniards were horrified in the early 1800s, he said, to learn that "the wall" surrounding their paradise had been breached by roving renegade Jedediah Smith. And long before J. David (Jerry) Dominelli and the problems of Mayor Roger Hedgecock, San Diego was, he said, no stranger to scandal.

"We averaged about a police chief a month in the 1930s," he said. "A lot of charlatans knew how to cheat the government, or swindle a neighbor."

He now sees a new city taking shape. Mania for baseball's Padres is only one example of how the transplants of a city--be they from New York, Chicago or even Dublin--have come together with a common bond. And while the city may at times seem shallow and superficial, just about anyone, he said, can construct his own circle of friends and transcend the less lofty aspects of the California experience.

Maybe McKeever's best statement on San Diego is found in the book's closing.

"San Diego," he writes, "is a city whose people do not easily move away. Job seekers readily accept lower pay rather than look where the competition is less fierce. Planners wonder when the city's resources will be taxed to the limit; but new arrivals still come in their thousands each year.

"They come to where, on Sunday afternoons, hundreds of sails, brilliant white against the water, pattern the bay. Where the patina of the past is comfortable against the harsher glint of the present. In the bustling downtown, there is still time for a quiet lunch in the sun."

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