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A Criminally Brief History of San Diego

On our walking tour we tend to focus on contemporary topics, like the constantly changing street art and graffiti, or the best current bars and restaurants in San Diego. However to better understand San Diego we do delve into our fascinating history on the tour!

At some point I’d love to share about our geological history here, going back megaannums (did you know that’s the unit of measurement for a million years? Neither did I until I Googled it). I’d also like to explore many of the topics below more deeply. But for the time being let’s quickly take a look back at our city’s history to build some foundation.

Like many cities in the United States, San Diego's history begins long before the arrival of European explorers. The area was originally home to the Kumeyaay people. For approximately 12,000 years they had been living as far north as modern day Oceanside, as far south as modern day Ensenada, Mexico, and east as far as the Colorado river.

The first European to explore the area was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542. (Some might recognize that name from the giant bridge into Balboa Park. The closest thing we see to it on our walking tour are depictions in murals, but the bridge itself is only a short drive away!). Cabrillo claimed the area for Spain, but colonization wouldn’t begin until centuries later. In 1769 Spanish settlers led by Junípero Serra established a mission known as the Mission San Diego de Alcalá. This marked the beginning of Spanish colonization.

As we unfortunately see so often when looking at American history, European colonization had devastating impacts on the indigenous population and way of life. The Kumeyaay Nation has powerfully shared their history, more information can be found on California Parks and Rec website or

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, so San Diego became part of Mexican territory. During this time the land was divided and given to Mexican citizens. In 1848, the U.S. won the Mexican-American War (that’s what we call it, but Mexico calls this event “The U.S. Invasion”). This officially transferred California, including San Diego, to the United States.

With the Gold Rush of 1849, San Diego experienced a giant boom, both in population and economy. It was during this growth, in 1850, that California was admitted as the 31st state of the United States, and San Diego became a key port and military outpost. In the early 1900s the U.S. Navy, recognizing the strategic value of San Diego's deepwater harbor, created naval facilities. These played vital roles in World War I and World War II.

Our walking tour is in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. In the 1920s this area was growing into a commercial and cultural hub. At the center of it was the North park Theatre. This was a desirable area to go, in part due to its location between downtown San Diego and North County areas such as Oceanside, Escondido, Carlsbad, and Encinitas.

North Park sign in San Diego

The iconic North Park sign at 30th and University. This version of the sign was erected in 1993.

After World War II, San Diego again experienced rapid population and economic growth. Many U.S. cities did during this time, but San Diego was unique in that it became a hub for military-related industry and later, biotechnology. As well as tourism — thanks in large part to our unbeatable weather!

However the North Park neighborhood hit an economic downturn, and the neighborhood became much less of a destination for arts and entertainment as it had been before. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that it started to move back towards its original, lively atmosphere. The North Park Theatre was renovated in 2005, both a symbol and a catalyst for the neighborhood's change. Over the proceeding decades North Park would begin to thrive again, and now is largely considered one of the most hip and fun neighborhoods in San Diego.

We have a long and complicated history, but we’re fortunate to stand tall today with many amazing opportunities and experiences. Aside from the aforementioned weather, San Diego is a destination for our art, bars, breweries, restaurants, parks, surf, hikes, plant life, and so much more!


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