AmericanStudies

One Interesting American Thing per Day

Ben Railton

Ben Railton
Location
Needham, Massachusetts, US
Birthday
August 15
Title
Associate Professor
Company
Fitchburg State University
Bio
One interesting American thing per day, from a professor of American literature, culture, history, and Studies. Check out http://www.americanstudier.org for more!

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MARCH 20, 2012 12:52PM

March 20, 2012: Cabrillo National Monument

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[This week, I’ll be blogging about some of the many interesting sites and spaces of public memory and community in San Diego. This is the second in the series.]

Three entirely distinct yet ultimately interconnected sides to a stunning public space.

Point Loma, the peninsula just north of San Diego where Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became in 1542 the first known European arrival to the US West Coast, is home to 360 degrees of amazing views: of the San Diego skyline, of the Pacific Ocean, and of a good deal more of Southern California’s coast and landscape. It’s not hard to understand why the National Park Service chose the Point as the site of Cabrillo National Monument—and when you’re standing beneath the Cabrillo statue, as I was with my boys late last week, it’s fair to say that you’re able to appreciate not only the current view, but also at least a bit of what Cabrillo and his expedition witnessed as they disembarked in this striking new world.

Just up the hill from the statue, the Park Service has created what would seem to be an entirely distinct historic site—a re-creation of and museum dedicated to the Old Point Loma lighthouse, a beacon that opened with the arrival of Anglo settlers in 1855 and lit the point for trading and passenger ships for the next three and a half decades. The lighthouse and museum do indeed do justice to the specific experiences and identities of light’s keepers, especially the Israels, the husband and wife team who kept the light for its final twenty years of service. Yet the Israels are not so disconnected from Cabrillo after all—in part because Captain Robert Decatur Israel (a Mexican American War veteran) had married a daughter of Mexican Old Town, Maria Arcadio Machado de Alipas, providing yet another complex link between the two communities; and in part because for both of them, and the family they raised in the lighthouse, the point remained nearly as isolated, and just as stunning, as it had for those earliest arrivals. The statue and lighthouse thus highlight continuities as well as changes across the Point’s first few post-contact centuries.

Then there are the really long-term continuities. At the base of the Point’s cliffs are the tidepools, both the natural phenomenon and a National Park research center that monitors and learns from their many unique inhabitants. The existence of the tidepools predates Cabrillo, the Israels, and likely any other human arrivals to the Point; the visitor who encounters and explores them is thus, in a significant sense, connecting to the space and history in a fundamentally different way than at either of the historic sites. Yet on the other hand, the research center itself reflects a late 20th and early 21st century engagement with the place, a recognition that Point Loma has always been defined by its natural as well as social meanings, and ultimately is constituted, as is all of America, out of the relationships between communities and the lands and environments with which they have coexisted.

Next San Diego site tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

3/20 Memory Day nominees: A tie between B.F. Skinner, the scientist whose theories of behavioral psychology remain controversial but certainly advanced our conversations about human interactions and identities, and whose Walden Two (1948) does full philosophical and social justice to its titular predecessor; and Fred Rogers, the children’s television host and educator whose long-running PBS show became the gentle and guiding soundtrack to multiple generations of American kids, and whose advocacy for early childhood education and for public television in its early stages were crucially important to shaping late 20th century America.

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Comments

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A nice overview of one of my favorite San Diego locations. Just one picky thing: I would call the lighthouse "restored" as opposed to a "recreation". My understanding has always been that it is the original building and site. Either way, lots of great views and interesting sights at Cabrillo Monument. Nice post.
Hi AZ Girl,

Thanks so much for the comment! Totally agree about the restoration part--I guess I meant the interior re-creations of the Israels living spaces and etc, in an effort to get back to that historic identity/experience. But I believe it was the original building, which makes that re-created interior a lot cooler!

Thanks again,
Ben