Viewpoints

San Diego boasts the finest Fourth in California

San Diego’s fireworks show went awry in 2012, but it’s the biggest on the West Coast for July Fourth.
San Diego’s fireworks show went awry in 2012, but it’s the biggest on the West Coast for July Fourth. Associated Press file

My fellow Californians, declare your independence. Skip your local parade and fireworks show. And head instead to San Diego, where this truth will be self-evident:

No place in California celebrates the Fourth of July half as well as San Diego.

For most of my life, I’ve considered the perfect Fourth to be a Pasadena barbecue followed by fireworks at the Rose Bowl, which is officially “America’s Stadium.” But last year, my wife, kids and I went down to San Diego to visit cousins, and by the end of the holiday it was clear: San Diego has America’s finest Fourth.

What makes it so special?

It’s not just the fireworks show over the harbor, even though it’s the biggest show on the West Coast, televised live from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs, in Los Angeles and even in northern Mexico. It’s not just the sea breezes, or the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar (which always coincides with the Fourth), or the baseball and hot dogs in Petco Park (where the Padres host the Yankees this weekend).

San Diego’s Independence Day advantage runs deeper; it is the most American of California cities.

Consider the competitors. The Bay Area and Los Angeles are technological and cultural oddballs, proudly out of step with reality, not to mention the rest of the country. Our inland cities swing too far right of mainstream. San Diego County, with relatively similar numbers of Democrats and Republicans, represents our middle and the closest approximation to the American norm California can offer.

It also may be our most patriotic pueblo. While the military no longer is the engine that drives the city, the visibility of the armed forces, its ships and installations offers a constant reminder of America and its history that you don’t get in the rest of the state.

Being on an international border plays a role, too. San Diegans, particularly those who cross the border for work or family reasons, must pony up proof of their U.S. citizenship more often than most Californians.

Beyond the fertile patriotic environment, there’s San Diego’s theatrical geography, perfect for a show.

Sandy Purdon, a marina owner and Marine veteran, was building a home out on Point Loma more than 16 years ago when it hit him: San Diego’s downtown waterfront sits at center stage of a massive natural amphitheater created by Mission Hills to the north, the hills east of downtown, Point Loma to the west and the Tijuana hills to the south. So why not fill it with a fireworks show that would draw big crowds over the July 4 holiday?

The Port of San Diego and port-affiliated businesses agreed to sponsor it, with proceeds going to the Armed Services YMCA, a charity supporting military families. The show started small in 2001, and there was a famous mishap in 2012, when 18 minutes’ worth of pyrotechnics fired off in about 30 seconds.

But the show has grown into a reliable giant, with four barges in the harbor now serving as staging ground. The effect is powerful – like four simultaneous Rose Bowl-sized fireworks displays, with an impressive water feature thrown in.

Last year, my cousins took us out to the old Point Loma Lighthouse, part of Cabrillo National Monument named after the Portuguese explorer who first navigated California’s coast. From that vista, we could see smaller fireworks shows, including one at Sea World.

The explosions of the main show, called Big Bay Boom, were bigger and more beautiful than any fireworks I’ve ever seen. The majesty of the lights and the setting, at the southwestern edge of our country, left me with nothing to say except three words, uttered without irony:

God Bless America.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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