Over the past year, we’ve all had to adapt to new ways of doing things while discovering new ways of experiencing Balboa Park. One of the constants throughout all of this has been the dedication of the Conservancy’s Visitors Center volunteers and Park Ambassadors. We were lucky to count among our volunteer corps a semi-retired medical doctor from Kaiser hospital, Dr. Jonathan Siegel, who helped us prepare to safely welcome and orient park visitors. Dr. Siegel took some time out of his busy schedule volunteering at vaccination sites to discuss his lifelong connection to Balboa Park.
How long and in what capacity have you been volunteering in Balboa Park?
I started in 2018 after receiving training—all at the Visitors Center. I’ve also been working as a Park Ambassador and leading tour groups. I had been doing that for about a year before COVID.
What got you interested in volunteering in Balboa Park?
My parents were both big advocates of giving back to the community. They both volunteered for a lot of different political and social causes. With those kinds of role models, I always knew I’d be giving back in some way. Balboa Park has always meant so much to us because we spent so much of our childhood in the park. When I give tours, I like to point out the garden behind The Prado Restaurant because there’s a family photo of my mom while pregnant with me, holding my sister by the wishing well. I have a lot of stories to tell. My father took us to the Organ Pavilion for the Sunday concerts, and we used to go to the Zoo a lot.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
My father was a dentist in New York, and after visiting San Diego to help a friend move in 1954 on a warm January day, he told my mother we were moving. That’s why I was born here. I grew up in Talmadge, and in ’68 my family moved to Princess Del Cerro. I started working at Kaiser Zion in 1990, technically with the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. I was a hospital internist taking care of the sickest hospitalized patients. So anything that didn’t involve a scalpel, I took care of—infection, heart attacks, strokes. I retired five years ago, but I still work as a per diem. And my wife is a pediatrician and is currently the medical director for a special education school. Before COVID, my wife and I enjoyed travel and photography—our real passion. I’m a very bad, but avid photographer.
I understand you’ve helped the Visitors Center prepare to reopen safely during the pandemic. How did you add value to this process as a medical professional?
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty. I worked with Grant, the Director of Visitor Experience, to help translate and implement CDC protocols in setting up the outdoor tent when the Visitors Center was closed. When we were getting ready to reopen the inside of the Visitors Center, we set up plastic barriers and talked about ventilation, opening up all the windows, and directing the flow of people through the space to help make it as safe as possible.
Tell us something most people don’t know about Balboa Park.
That about half the park, east of Park Boulevard, is how the park looked originally. That Balboa Park is larger than Central Park. The history of the Expositions. I like to tell stories of how individuals affect communities, people with a vision, like John D. Spreckels with the Organ Pavilion, and Kate Sessions, who got an area in the park to set up her shop in exchange for planting plants in park. How the buildings, most of them designed to be temporary, were preserved from destruction for many decades by the needs of the military in the World Wars, the popularity of the buildings, and then intentional reproductions.
What are your favorite areas of the park to take tour groups?
I like taking tour groups to the pedestrian bridge over Park Boulevard, because I get to show them both sides: Here’s the Rose Garden and Desert Garden, but look over there and you can see what the place looked like before people added water. I like the hidden gardens, like Palm Canyon. I enjoy telling people about little secret places, like the site of the nudist colony [during the 1935 Exposition] and the garden behind the Prado because I have a photo of my mom there when she was pregnant with me. There’s no place I don’t enjoy showing because every place has a story, and every place has something in it.
What are some of the things you liked to do in the park before the pandemic?
We’ve been members of the Zoo pretty much since I was a baby. My wife and I like to go at odd times to walk the Zoo. If I did an overnight hospital shift, sometimes the next morning I would go into the aviary to read a book. And the Organ Pavilion, sitting in front of those 5,000 pipes, you can feel it in your chest. People with their Bluetooth speakers and ear buds don’t get to experience that. It’s literally a visceral feeling.
What are you most looking forward to when things completely open back up?
I’m looking forward to the museums. We have an annual Explorer Pass, and one of my favorite museums is the Museum of Us, because it’s so unique. You don’t find anthropology museums in many other cities. Also, sitting in some of the restaurants again, including The Prado.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience volunteering in Balboa Park?
We have a unique gem. There is something in it literally for everyone. You can be an outdoors person, a culture person, a science person. You can like plants, you can like animals, almost anything. And all of this in a place with some of the best weather in the world. A lot of native San Diegans haven’t explored the park in a while, so I would encourage anyone to come check it out and take one of the tours when the tours come back.
I’d also like to give a shout out to Grant, Radka, and Jordan. They took a very difficult year, handed not just lemons but a whole boatload of lemons, and made pretty good lemonade out of it. They were agile, they listened to feedback, all with good humor.