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Old Town San Diego and the New Children's Museum

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Among the many attractions in San Diego, two of the most compelling are the historic Old Town district and the New Children's Museum. This week L.A. Letters spotlights these two places and reveals how together they epitomize both San Diego's storied past and the city's bright future.

Before discussing Old Town San Diego, the historical context is important to establish. A great source for the city's early history is "San Diego in the 1930s," a book originally published in 1937 as a part of the Federal Writer Project (FWP), which funded and supported writers during the Great Depression. Republished by the University of California Press in 2012, the slim and efficient guide offers a lively account of San Diego's rise as the southernmost city on the West Coast. A new Introduction was written by David Kipen of Libros Schmibros for the reissue, in which he connects the dots between the city's early roots and its more recent perception as a military town. Between his Introduction and the book's several chapters, the spirit of what its boosters call "America's Finest City," is vividly painted. (On a quick side note, Kipen's Boyle Heights' lending library, Libros Schmibros, is celebrating its 4th anniversary on August 10, and will be honored by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for its service to the city.)

Kipen writes, "San Diego erected California's first presidio before it built its first mission. Later, the city burned that mission to the ground. Los Angeles and San Francisco can feud all they want over who really deserves the laurels as the 'Athens of the West.' But the Sparta of the West's stripes are hardly in question." Presidio Park, the site of this early activity, sits right above Old Town and is considered the birthplace of California and identified with the founding of San Diego. The Junipero Serra Museum remains in Presidio Park, named after the celebrated Spanish Padre who first established the military post at the presidio in 1769 along with a group of soldiers led by Gaspar de Portolá.

The Museum was built in 1928-29 by architect William Templeton Johnson in the Spanish Revival architectural style to house the collection of the San Diego Historical Society. The museum site is the actual location adjacent to where the presidio and first mission were built. Artifacts included inside include firearms, branding irons, saddles, bridles and many other relics preserved from the early days. The Historical Society now calls itself the San Diego History Center and the museum is not only open to the public most days, but often hosts special events like weddings and private parties. Double check with their website before visiting because the hours can change from time to time.


Presidio Park, San Diego | Photo: Ben Lovett/Flickr/Creative Commons
Down the hill from Presidio Park is the heart of Old Town San Diego. The spirit is akin to Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles, but Old Town San Diego is actually an even bigger area with several blocks of museums, parks, historic buildings, and no shortage of shops, curios, cantinas and eateries. Another thing Old Town San Diego and Olvera Street have in common is that they were both redeveloped around the Great Depression in order to celebrate California's historic Mexican and Spanish heritage. Olvera Street was redeveloped first just after 1929, and Old Town San Diego witnessed similar efforts around 1937.

In the 1937, WPA guide to San Diego, the authors write, "Like a sleepy, dilapidated ghost town forgotten in the swirl of modern industrialism, Old Town lies northwest of Middletown, radiating in its own quiet nostalgic way a dignity and repose reminiscent of the old Spanish and Mexican regimes." In the years just after those words were written, many of the adobe homes and early structures were renovated, and like Olvera Street cleaned up to celebrate the Fantasy Mexican and Spanish heritage promoted by city boosters. The core of this district is now known as the Old Town State Historic Park, and contains six blocks of a pedestrian-only area with many of San Diego's oldest buildings. In addition to several old adobe homes like the Casa de Estudillo, one can find the first office of the "San Diego Union" newspaper, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and the Seeley Stable Museum, a reconstruction of a stagecoach stop from the 1850s.

One of the main thoroughfares of Old Town is San Diego Avenue. Close to two dozen restaurants are sprinkled across the stretch of several blocks. The Whaley House, built in 1857, is often considered San Diego's most haunted building. The San Diego Ghost Hunters run a 90-minute tour for those into investigating the paranormal. The adjacent Fiesta de Reyes overflows with several shops and more eateries. Seven historic Victorian buildings are housed in nearby Heritage Park, and further down is El Campo Santo, San Diego's first cemetery dating back to 1850. There are also a few historic churches, like the Church of the Immaculate Conception from the late 19th Century and Southern California's first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, built in 1889.

There are several other sites in Old Town worth visiting. Perhaps the best way to see most of it or get a big picture perspective is to take the Old Town Trolley Tour, which circles the district in a trolley led by knowledgeable guides. Obviously there is no shortage of Mariachi musicians and several venues with dancing and live music.

In the years after California transitioned into the American era, San Diego's civic axis gradually moved south from Old Town to the current downtown area. "San Diego in the 1930s" attributes the rise of the new San Diego to "1867, when A.E. Horton purchased a thousand acres and laid out the present street plan. At first the center was Fifth Avenue and Market Street, but following the real estate booms of the 1870s and 1880s, the trend was northward and Broadway has become the main artery."


Old Town Market, San Diego | Photo: The City Project/Flickr/Creative Commons
Downtown San Diego these days is well known for the Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park, the annual Comic Con convention, and many other attractions. Similar to Downtown Los Angeles there is no shortage of nightclubs, places to shop, new high rise condos, and historic buildings recently converted into galleries and living spaces. One of the most popular sites in Downtown San Diego for locals and in the know travelers is the New Children's Museum.

The New Children's Museum is one of San Diego's newest landmarks. Designed by architect Rob Wellington Quigley, the 50,000 square foot, three-floor structure is across from the Convention Center and situated between Seaport Village and the Gaslamp District. A tasteful mix of concrete, metal, and glass create a space with ample natural light and many scenic vistas within the site. Quigley is also one of the architects for the award-winning New Central Library that opened in Downtown San Diego last year.

The older version of the museum, located in the same place, already had an excellent reputation for innovative programming back in the 1990s, but following the completion of the new structure in 2008 there has been lots of press and a great buzz for both the space's exhibits and innovative design. San Diego urbanists are quick to note that it was also the first "green" building constructed downtown. Beyond these attributes, the biggest testimony to the museum's success is the sheer number of happy children and their parents that can be found there daily.

On their website they explain their mission: "The New Children's Museum empowers children to think, play, and create through participatory exhibitions, engaging art-making activities, captivating artistic performances, and in-depth educational opportunities." To this end, the exhibits change from year to year and they commission noted contemporary artists and designers to create site-specific "pieces with tactile, physical and participatory components."


New Children's Museum, San Diego | Photo: Mike Liu/Flickr/Creative Commons
Ranging from hands-on activity like painting and building with clay, to their current exhibition, "Feast: The Art of Playing With Your Food," which includes 13 art installations and 8 other related projects, everything in the museum encourages children to dive in head first and even get dirty. Many sinks for hand washing are spread throughout the space for kids to clean up before they move on to the next activity.

We were there for close to three hours. As I watched my five year old daughter engage with the different interactive art exhibits, a father next to me told me that he comes there monthly with his children and that "this museum is one thing that San Diego has done better than any other city." Across the street is a pocket park and plaza area that meshes seamlessly with the museum space. The New Children's Museum, perhaps more than any other site in the city, is ground zero for the city's bright future.

Between the historic legacy of Old Town San Diego and the innovative spirit of the New Children's Museum, the past, present and future of America's finest city is in very good hands. Salute to these two venerable spaces for celebrating San Diego's historic legacy as well as promoting the city's future generations. Old Town San Diego and the New Children's Museum are critical touchstones in the topography of California and L.A. Letters.

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