Sign up for our newsletter
Community / Public space

San Diego's Panama-California Expo turns 100 this year. Here’s what today’s mega-events can learn from it

Modern urban mega-events have a nasty reputation for sucking up local funds and leaving costly and unsightly white elephants, instead of the lasting civic improvements they inevitably promise.

In Beijing, the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the 2008 Olympics costs £6m per year to maintain and sits largely empty. Only six months after last year’s Winter Olympics, a reporter at Gizmodo described Sochi as a ghost town. And the performance of Brazil’s football stadiums after the World Cup last year has been disctinctly underwhelming.

As 2015 begins, planners should take this opportunity to look back on one city event that really did have a lasting effect: the Panama-California Exposition, which happened 100 years ago. Not just successful in its own time, the event is seen as a foundational moment for the city, turning it from a small town of under 40,000 people into a cultural and economic hotspot.

In its early stages, San Diego’s 1915 exposition seemed doomed to failure. Officially, it was never supposed to exist. When the opening of the Panama Canal was announced for 1915, competition began among port cities across the United States to hold the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The winning bid for the event came from San Francisco, which was eager to show the world it had recovered from its devastating 1906 earthquake.

White papers from our partners

Undeterred, San Diego continued with plans for their own event. Its exposition was to centre on Balboa Park, an area that had been designated as parkland but so far remained completely undeveloped. The project hit a few other snags as it progressed. It was originally slated to be designed by the Olmsted brothers,  famous for designing New York’s Central Park, but they later backed out. Progress was hampered by bickering with representatives from the San Francisco exhibition, too.

Nevertheless, the show went on. Plans for the event called for the creation of a number of permanent structures, including a central tower, several museums, and a large outdoor organ sponsored by a local magnate John D. Spreckels. The exhibition would also host regional exhibits from western states, and displays of plant life and wild animals, including many from Central America (the exposition was supposed to be at least partly about Panama, after all). The festivities kicked off at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1914.

The exhibition swiftly proved a success – not least because it managed to siphon off a number of visitors who had originally come west only for the San Francisco exposition. What was initially planned as a year long exposition was extended to two years, and in July 1915, former president Theodore Roosevelt called for many of the exposition’s temporary structures to be made public. Ultimately, eight of the original structures from the exhibition were preserved. In addition, many of the wild animals were kept to form the new San Diego Zoo.

Ultimately, San Diego had the last laugh. While the San Francisco event was seen as a success, its legacy was hardly transformative. Laura A. Ackley, author of a book on the San Francisco exhibition, said of the event in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “It was so ephemeral.”

By contrast, Ackley said, “the San Diego one lives on”. Today, a hundred years after the festivities first started, Balboa Park still occupies an important place in San Diego public life. On El Prado, the park’s central walkway, tourists drawn by the museums and the zoo snap photos of the gorgeous architecture. But the locals are well represented too; religious organizations set up tents and proceed to hand out bibles, musicians treat passersby to everything from Bach to Bob Dylan for a bit of spare change, while local latina teenagers strut around in their finest dresses to pose for quinceañera photos.

On a recent visit, I was treated to a visit by a procession of low riders, rolling lazily down the street that intersects El Prado and attracting a giddy family of Japanese tourists who deftly whipped out a selfie stick to photograph themselves in front of this automotive oddity. A powerful, if goofy, symbol of how the exhibition has benefited locals and visitors alike.

A low rider. Image: Kennethgodoy at Wikimedia Commons.

The century-long legacy of San Diego’s exposition is certainly something cities hosting mega-events today would want to copy. But it must be said that some of the events that led to its success might not be replicated so easily. For one, the event was slated to last a year, while events such as the Olympics and the World Cup are only in session for a month or less – that’s not much time to build a successful legacy. And unlike other larger cities, San Diego in 1915 lacked cultural institutions of the stature later obtained by today’s crop of Balboa Park museums. For cities that already have well-established museums and cultural centres, a programme similar to that of San Diego might just lead to unnecessary competition.

Nevertheless, San Diego’s event had plenty of features that today’s big ticket events often leave out. One of the biggest was that, whether intentionally or not, the attractions constructed for the exposition were much easier for visitors to access on foot. The exposition could eventually morph into a large collection of high quality museums and cultural centres along the El Prado plaza, all within a stone’s throw of each other. This walkability is a huge contrast with some modern events: in Brazil, for instance, many new World Cup stadiums are surrounded by massive parking lots.

Another element is local participation. Though influenced in no small part by the chest thumping of local elites such as Spreckels, regular people in San Diego still played a major part in making the event happen. In chapter 24 of his extensive history of the exposition, the late San Diego historian Richard Amero described the event as a “city of friends [who] turned the fairs into cooperative day-by-day activities”.

Ironically, he said this to make the point that an event like that could never happen in San Diego again; whether it could happen in any other city is an open question. 2015 is not 1915, and it’s much easier for today’s mega-events to be swallowed up by governments or corporations with deep pockets, promising economic success and delivering little more than architectural graveyards with massive long term maintenance fees.

Nevertheless, cities hosting mega-events in the future would do well to follow San Diego’s example – by fighting to make sure that the design of the event makes for a good place to visit even after the event itself ends; and that local people have a say in its planning.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.