Is San Diego a secret city? Or is it just me? In 1993 I moved from Alaska to live in Imperial Beach. There's a detail in the landscape there that I've been aware of since my first week in town that I've never heard a word about until last month. As you’re leaving IB on Coronado Ave. to get on I-5 (The Five if you watch SNL) you can see an individual silver airplane wing mounted vertically on the mesa just beyond the freeway. The leading edge of the wing faces due west so it’s actually much easier to see from the South in San Ysidro where its broadside shines the most light. It’s a wing on a hill. If you saw it you could easily imagine that it’s a military thing. That makes sense. It could be a memorial or a small aviation museum. Or maybe there was an accident and it’s a reminder? It couldn’t be anything really remarkable because you’d hear about that wouldn’t you? Yes you would, if you lived in any other city. On Earth.
This is San Diego though - a city full of secrets. Many of the secrets are by-products of the city’s official business, one of the largest of which is defense. It makes sense then that much of the activity in town has quietude around it. The other big business is tourism. The tourism board, the hoteliers, the restaurants are dependent on selling this as a destination for travelers but that also requires an extreme narrowing of the cities image and identity. San Diego is far more likely to be described by its weather than it is as part of a massive urban continuum that runs from Los Angeles through Northern Baja. The city has very smartly made a great business of selling the air. I’m all for it. I love that people want to come here and I’m always sure to wave at incoming Southwest jets but…we’re missing something.
I went down to see the wing because I want to shoot a video with a low rider club called The Amigos. One of their leaders said that if I film them, it would be most authentic if it were in their neighborhood near Silver Wing Park. I looked it up and my jaw dropped.
The airplane wing denotes the location of the first flight in the USA. I’m talking about the first time an American flew. The FIRST. This is years before the Wright Bros who were the first to succeed at powered flight. A guy named Montgomery build a glider based on his observations and study of bird wings. His design was counter intuitive to him because the wing curved down to the leading edge but he followed nature's cue nonetheless. He took his glider to the top of the mesa, which catches the onshore breeze and with his brother's help became the first American to fly. He later patented his glider design in 1905
Do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that this event happened in Kansas City instead of San Diego. Do you think people in Kansas City would know that the first American to fly did so in Kansas City? Would there be a T-shirt and a tour? Maybe. What about New York? New Yorkers are always bragging so if you offered them a new brag would they take it and actually use it? Why not. In South Dakota they promote Mount Rushmore, which is on the western edge of the state. The eastern edge has the Corn Palace. I can say with total certainty that if Montgomery had flown in South Dakota there would be at least fifty billboards begging you to come and see. Even Hollywood was down with the Montgomery story. Don't be a pantywaist, take a look at Gallant Journey (1946):
So why isn’t this more broadly known? My theory is that it’s because that particular hill lies on the wrong side of our current identity. If it’s in south bay and it’s east of anything, it probably won’t get talked about much. The monument imagined in the film contrasts sharply with the edgy vibe in the park today. The wing looks neglected but the neighborhood around it is vibrant. We’ll see if I can make the low rider video happen. Step by step. Below is the view down the hill where Montgomery made his not so famous leap.