Call to Action
San Diego's Oldest House & the Lost Connections
to our Earliest Historic Beginnings
By Bruce Coons
When I was young it was a well-known fact that San Diego contained some of the most important historic sites on the West Coast of the United States within its Historic Old Town Area. Arguably the most important site on the West Coast, our version of "Plymouth Rock" if you will.
Today, few San Diegans, let alone visitors to Old Town know that the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast of the United States founded in 1769 was right here, on the hill overlooking the state park and the site of the Native American village of Cosoy, which preceded the Spanish Presidio. Few people have any knowledge of why Old Town is where it is and why settlement started here and not somewhere else.
Today, Presidio Park is one of the least visited parks in San Diego, yet it is directly next to the most visited State park in California, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
Casa Carillo in foreground, Old Town and the river, c. 1852
Nowhere to be seen are signs of the Indian village, or the many other historic sites here: Ruiz's pear orchard, which was the scene of one of the most famous love stories in California history (Fitch/Carrillo); the earliest section of California's first road, El Camino Real; the site of the first encampment of the American Army and several early adobes. These sites all lie beneath the pitch and putt golf course. Recently part of this area has been ruthlessly bulldozed by the new city-selected operator of the golf course. The city did not take proper steps to prevent this destruction and also failed to do adequate archeology to salvage what was left. What little excavation work that was done revealed artifacts dating from prehistoric times, remain of adobe structures, Mexican and early China trade ceramics and buttons from the first American Army occupation. They then allowed the operator to alter the historic landform by adding 5 feet of soil to the site and put in a new putting green where none existed before. And as if this is not outrageous enough, the oldest house in San Diego, the 1810's Ruiz/Carrillo adobe, is being used as a pro shop selling potato chips and t-shirts, alongside the golf equipment, as well as restrooms. How many other towns in America that were founded in the 1700's do you know that treat their "oldest house" so disrespectfully? The same lessee that ruined the archeological sites is required by his lease to repair the adobe. This should be of great concern to all, as it at takes special expertise to deal properly with our early adobes and the city should not allow it to be undertaken without close supervision.
This house needs to be restored and opened to the public as a museum, along with its gardens. It needs to be honored and respected as the first house to be built outside the presidio.
Today, because of arbitrary separation and physical obstruction of the historic connections you cannot walk directly from Old Town to the Presidio. Visitors and every child in the fourth grade program in San Diego's public schools, over 14,000 children, must walk an extremely dangerous path alongside and at many sections actually in the busy streets surrounding the golf course and then up a slippery tortuous hillside over gullies where the path has eroded away. It is only a matter of time until there are serious injuries and possible fatalities arising from this situation. Take a walk yourself and you will be absolutely shocked. Instead of a safe and meaningful experience where they could walk the path on level ground along the original El Camino Real, instead our children are at great risk. We don't need to be as concerned about tourists and locals as they simply avoid Presidio Park altogether.
Map of Old Town, 1853, courtesy SDHS
The river and its riverbank that gave life to all the cultures from pre-history through recent times and the site of the first American store in Mexican California and undoubtedly a portion of the Cosoy village is hidden under the old Caltrans building at the corner of Juan and Taylor Streets. This site was promised to the State Park as mitigation for the extreme impacts that the new Caltrans project across the street on Taylor brought with it, which included the demolition of two c. 1930's Spanish revival buildings. However, in a major breach of trust to the community, Caltrans has put the site up for sale to private interests.
From the 1880's when the book Ramona was published until at least the 1969 Bicentennial, we Californians celebrated our Native American and even more so our Hispanic heritage in every way possible, through literature, dance, song, architecture, and by promotion and preservation of our historic sites. Since then we have lost our connections and links with our most important and colorful past.
What can be done now? For the first time in at least forty years, we have an unprecedented opportunity before us to regain a meaningful part of what has been lost and to have San Diego resume its prominent place in the history and development of our country.
Assemblyman Juan Vargas, working with Senator James Mills (who is responsible for creating Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and the Mills Act) and SOHO introduced AB2081 into the State legislature. The bill would procure the old Caltrans site as promised for state parks, which is at the natural front entrance to this most historic of historic landscapes. This site is essential in telling the story of San Diego, the origins of California and the West. Acquiring this site would make meaningful interpretation possible for the first time. We would be able to show our connection to the life-giving river with the recreation of the riverbank and bottom with its native vegetation. California's first store could be rebuilt that stood on the edge of that river and a representation of the village of Cosoy that existed along its banks. Nowhere in San Diego can you find this important early native history represented properly in its historic setting. After all, the proximity of the river is why everything came to be located where it was. Water is the foundation of all civilization and nowhere was this more important than in the arid West. This project can and should be connected to the efforts being coordinated by San Diego River Park Foundation.
If this bill is not passed now we will have a new office development on this most historic of all sites and this opportunity will be lost forever.
It is essential that you contact the representatives listed below and ask that they make sure AB2081 include the acquisition of the old Caltrans site and complete funding for the interpretation of the site is passed.
Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña
1557 Columbia Street, San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 645-3090
Fax: (619) 645-3094
Councilmember Kevin Faulconer
202 C Street, MS #10A, San Diego CA 92101
Telephone: (619) 236-6622
Fax: (619) 236-6996
Senator Denise Ducheny
Senate District 40
637 3rd Avenue, Ste C, Chula Vista CA 91910
Phone: (619) 409-7690
Fax: (619) 409-7688
Mayor Jerry Sanders
City Administration Building
11th Floor, 202 C Street, San Diego CA 92101
Phone: (619) 236-6330
Fax: (619) 236-7228
Assemblyman Juan Vargas
678 3rd Avenue, Ste 105, Chula Vista CA 91910
Phone: (619) 409-7979
Fax: (619) 409-9270
Senator Christine Kehoe
Senate District 39
2445 5th Avenue, Ste 200, San Diego CA 92101
Phone: (619) 645-3133
Fax: (619) 645-3144
Supervisor Ron Roberts
County of San Diego Administration Center
1600 Pacific Hwy, Rm. 335, San Diego CA 92101
Phone: (619) 531-5544
Fax: (619) 531-6262
There is another part of the story: the golf course parcel was originally a part of the bill. Its acquisition by the State Historic Park has been a part of the Community Plan for the City and the Master Plan for the State for decades. Yet when this unprecedented opportunity to right the wrongs of past leaders and citizens finally look like it would become a reality it was derailed by the spreading of blatant lies via email to some residents in nearby Mission Hills claiming that if the State were to get this site that their plan was to close the golf course, pave it as a parking lot, and put in t-shirt shops. In fact the golf course may be historic in its own right. The agendas of those opposing this crucial park planning need to be examined closely. In our years of experience dealing with such situations, we have found that unscrupulous developers often hide their schemes behind protests by well meaning but uninformed citizen groups. These citizens allowed untruths to compel them to write to Assemblyman Vargas and other representatives to kill this bill.
On one positive note, this controversy has resulted in getting people to talk about these issues and to bring them to the forefront once again. Councilman Kevin Faulconer has committed to work to accomplish these long sought goals for the connection of the Presidio to Old Town and proper presentation of the Carrillo adobe. He also supports inclusion of the Caltrans site into the State Historic Park.
It is up to each of us to write our representatives and convince them of the necessity of allowing San Diego to once again regain its most historic past.
Please help, this is one of the most important preservation issues we will ever have a chance to deal with.
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