My fellow Californians, declare your independence. Skip your local parade and fireworks show. 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.
Personally, it is hard for us Angelenos to acknowledge San Diego’s supremacy in anything. And I’ve always considered the perfect Fourth of July to be a Pasadena barbecue followed by fireworks at the Rose Bowl, which is officially “America’s Stadium.”
What place could possibly top that?
San Diego could.
Last year on the Fourth, 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 of July.
What makes it so special?
It’s not just the fireworks show right there in 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 northern Mexico.
It’s not just the sea breezes or the visitor-friendly attractions (from the zoo to the Gaslamp District) 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.
Before you quibble with this claim, 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. And our inland cities swing too far right of the mainstream.
San Diego County, with relatively equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, represents our middle, and the closest approximation to the American norm that 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 and 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 at Otay Mesa or San Ysidro, 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, Marine veteran and longtime San Diego mover-and-shaker, 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 all 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. And it’s possible more spectacle and more barges could be added in the years ahead.
Last year, my cousins took us out to the old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is part of the national monument named after the Portuguese explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to navigate the California coast. The site, at the end of a peninsula, offered a stunning vista encompassing ocean, Mexico, downtown, harbor and north county.
From that vantage point, we could see smaller fireworks shows from different local communities around San Diego, as well as the 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 with nothing to say except three words, uttered without irony: God Bless America.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.