If you consult any travel source about San Diego, California, Balboa Park will almost certainly be mentioned. Balboa Park is a cultural and recreational resource in the middle of the city and is visited by more than 12 million people per year. It is bigger than Central Park in New York City, 1200 acres of walking paths, gardens, open space, museums, one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, theaters, a carousel, a golf course, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.
This year, 2015, is the park’s centennial. Although the land was originally designated in 1868 as a public space for the enjoyment of the community, known simply as City Park, at that point it was just a huge plot of open space with some native plants and lots of critters. But at the beginning of the 20th century, some people realized that after the completion of the Panama Canal, an increased number of ships would be cruising right by San Diego. To take advantage of this new traffic, it was decided that San Diego would host an exhibition to coincide with the opening of the new canal. The 1915 Panama-California Exposition was so successful that they extended it another year, through 1916.
Much has happened in the last 100 years, in the world and in Balboa Park. I watched a PBS special about “Balboa Park: Jewel of San Diego” which told some of the history and also showed what the park means to the people of San Diego. And while I know that San Diego is a military town, I also learned that the park itself has a military history.
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Department of the Navy and the U.S Army used Balboa Park as barracks and a training ground for over 5,000 troops. That was also the beginning of the Naval Medical Center San Diego, which is still in use today.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, plunging the United States into World War II, the government used war-time powers to commandeer the use of Balboa Park. Part of the park was renamed Camp Kidd and the space was used for troop training, barracks, and especially, hospital wards. Many of the wounded from Pearl Harbor were brought to the Naval Medical Center San Diego. The famed reflecting pool in front of the Botanical Building was put to use as a rehabilitation pool. The museums were cleared of exhibits, which were housed in private homes and other institutions, and used as hospital wards and dormitories for the nurses. By the end of World War II, over 172,000 patients had been treated at Balboa Park.
It is easy to see things only as they are now rather than all the components and circumstances that created them. Balboa Park today is an incredible cultural and recreational oasis, but it was a process that took one hundred years. Just imagine what can happen in the next century.