Recently, some friends of mine who know I serve on the Conservancy’s Board of Trustees, remarked on how great Balboa Park is looking these days. They hadn’t been to the park for a couple of years and were quite impressed by the colorful seating in the expanded, more pedestrian-friendly Plaza de Panama, festive atmosphere on Food Truck Fridays, mounds of blooming flowers around the Lily Pond, and attractive drought-tolerant plantings in the medians of Park Boulevard. They also commented on the positive changes to Village Place (the street that runs behind the Casa del Prado Theater and Botanical Building), and Centennial Walk, the new walkway leading from Village Place to the Zoo.
My friends are right of course. In the historic landmark areas of the park, there have been a number of visible improvements. But for those of us who’ve been involved in the park for many years, there are also major concerns. Outdated wayfinding and signage, the impact of drought and storms on our tree canopy, restoration and revitalization of the iconic Botanical Building, and, last but not least, the need for a dedicated, ongoing source of funding for the park’s infrastructure and future developments are some of the critical challenges the Conservancy is helping address. I’m glad to be part of an organization working to keep our beloved park not only looking great, but healthy for the long-term. And we’re just getting started!
I like to look back at how we got here, beginning with the key decision made almost 150 years ago to set aside a tract of land larger than New York City’s Central Park—in a town with fewer than 4,000 residents. Originally there was no funding to develop it, but San Diego’s early civic leaders fiercely protected our park from encroachment for decades. That early history yields a fascinating story, as does the more familiar account of the audacious idea floated by a group of prominent businessmen in 1909 to hold a world’s fair in San Diego in 1915—when fewer than 40,000 people lived here.
Imagine being in the room at those two points in our history! I’m sure these weren’t “slam-dunk” decisions, most likely involving differing opinions and heated discussions. But at the heart, these citizens deeply loved and desired the very best for their nascent city.
I’ve been involved in one way or another in Balboa Park for 41 years. When I arrived in San Diego in 1976, it was one of the first places my husband took me. I fell in love with it, as so many of us have, and vowed to get involved. I began volunteering and soon joined the staff of what was then called the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. During the 20 wonderful years I worked there, I saw big changes in the park. In 1978, when the Casa de Balboa and, soon after, the Old Globe Theatre burned to the ground, there was a huge outpouring of support from the community for rebuilding, just as there had been 10 years before to reconstruct the Casa del Prado—one of the original exposition buildings that had been badly damaged in an earthquake.
That same year, I was invited to serve on the committee for a holiday event organized by museum store managers and PR staff and several volunteer groups in the park, chaired by Shirley Phillips of the Museum of Man. Christmas on the Prado, with the support of Park and Recreation, drew several thousand people in 1978 and has continued to grow in popularity each year. (Today known as Balboa Park December Nights, this nationally recognized festival organized by the Conservancy drew an estimated 360,000 in 2016.)
An echo of the fairs of the past, this two-day event’s early development represented a sea change in Balboa Park. Diverse park organizations with separate staffs, boards of directors, nonprofit mission statements, and sets of challenges began regularly collaborating on other matters of common interest. Key park stakeholders began meeting monthly to address security and parking, the impact of free days and special events, and other issues affecting every institution—a forerunner of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. The Balboa Park Marketing Program was a product of this effort.
In 1984, museum marketing representatives began meeting to explore the feasibility of a park pass allowing visitors to enjoy a number of museums for one discounted price, something the public had been requesting for years. After much give and take, the Passport to Balboa Park launched in 1986, and grew and morphed over the years to become today’s popular Explorer Pass program. In addition to park-wide marketing, museums began collaborating on summer educational programs for kids and other projects of mutual interest. The visibility of the park was raised, with the public becoming more aware and engaged in what was happening.
By the mid-90s, two more of the 1915 exposition buildings on El Prado were undergoing reconstruction, funded primarily by revenue bonds supported by a 1 percent hotel-motel tax. One of them, the House of Charm, had been condemned for years. When rebuilt, it provided new space for the Mingei Museum and San Diego Art Institute, and rehearsal space for the Old Globe.
The other, the House of Hospitality, had been in almost constant use, including during both world wars. Built to be temporary, its structure was literally propped up in the dirt basement underneath with two-by-fours in some places! As a board member and president of the House of Hospitality (HOH) Association during that time, I was thrilled to see the transformation during and after that remarkable reconstruction.
This building reopened in 1997, winning state and national awards for its historic reconstruction. At the same time, the HOH Association took on more of a leadership role in the park. For many years, we managed Balboa Park December Nights in addition to the Visitors Center, Balboa Park Marketing Program, Passport to Balboa Park program, park website (balboapark.org), and the Prado Restaurant lease.
While a number of other park changes occurred in the intervening 20 years, perhaps none was more significant than this: the House of Hospitality Association changed its name to Balboa Park Central (to better reflect the work we were doing) and merged a few years later with the Balboa Park Conservancy—the nonprofit organization created by the City of San Diego in 2011 to look after the long-term interests of Balboa Park, through a public-private partnership with the city.
The park is not just an historical gem; it’s a living, breathing idea that we can make better. This is why I’m so gratified to be involved with the Conservancy. I’m proud of our big-picture approach, not only to the challenges of the present but also to opportunities of the future. The way we’re open to new ideas and other voices, while keeping in mind the greater good of the park and its benefits for the citizens of San Diego and millions of visitors. And the way we’re methodically working to understand the park’s underlying condition and history for good decision-making on the big problems we face.
We’re at a pivotal point in the future of our Balboa Park, and this time I feel like I’m actually in the room! Through my monthly blog, I look forward to sharing what I’m learning about the park’s early development, exciting projects on the horizon, and the work of the many people and committees behind the scenes. I hope you’ll join me.
Pam Crooks is a member of the Balboa Park Conservancy Board of Trustees and the former Deputy Executive Director, Public Operations at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (1978-98). A long-time board member of the Balboa Park Central/House of Hospitality Association, she is also a former member and chair of the Balboa Park Trust—an advisory committee at The San Diego Foundation. Crooks has written and published numerous books and articles on Balboa Park, including two editions of a comprehensive guidebook, Discover Balboa Park, and two walking guides to Balboa Park.