The Beginning of Linda Vista in the 1940’s
(The following journal article is an award-winning piece that describes how Linda Vista was created as the war effort ramped up in the early 1940’s San Diego. How Linda Vista got started explains many of the problems that still face our community today, over sixty years later.)
The Lost Opportunity by San Diego’s National Defense Housing Projects
by Christine Killory
The Journal of San Diego History; Winter-Spring 1993, Vol. 39, Number 1-2
Throughout the history of the United States, cities have profited from alliances with the military and suffered the destructive impact of a succession of wars.1 Since the era of global warfare began in this century, the Pentagon and its predecessors have had a profound impact on urban development. The increasing technological sophistication of modern weaponry and the unprecedented growth of the military-industrial complex have significantly affected many cities but their specific impact on the process of urbanization remains little understood.2
San Diego’s partnership with the military did not suddenly materialize in the frenzied defense build-up following the outbreak of World War II in 1939. During the period of Spanish colonial settlement, San Diego was founded as a presidio, a fortified defensive outpost on the frontier. Close civic ties with the Navy began to be nurtured early in this century.3 But the Second World War was the cataclysm that transformed the city into an important strategic center, with long-term consequences its local boosters had never imagined. Subjected to strategic imperatives at every level of government, from federal agencies to the city building department, San Diego would become a singular type of urban hybrid shaped equally by military planning and local initiatives.
From the spring of 1940 through the summer of 1943, San Diego’s growth as a military center far outpaced its ability to provide services and sufficient housing for the many thousands of war industry workers streaming in from every state in the union. As in every other defense boomtown, rapid growth combined with shortages of critical materials, created a crisis for the local government. San Diego suddenly achieved national prominence as an urban problem – a congested war production area where the demands of mobilization threatened to stretch municipal resources to the point of collapse.4
A similar set of circumstances was shared by most coastal cities with a military presence, especially those on the West coast. The civic response was also more or less the same, characterized by frantic efforts to provide sufficient housing, services and transportation for war workers and their families. Within the national pattern, however, certain aspects of San Diego’s wartime urbanization were a consequence if its particular long-term ambitions.
The businessmen, realtors, lawyers, and architects who comprised San Diego’s civic elite had fashioned a strategy for growth based on tourism and military development, and excluding such distasteful aspects of industrialism as the immigration of undesirable groups – racial minorities and the poor. The plan was predicated on a process of urban decentralization whereby the entire city, supported by extensive federal military investment, would be available for the construction of single-family housing. Single family home ownership was an article of faith among local property developers. With the introduction of suburban patterns of development, there were enormous profits to be made from converting empty land to building lots and from selling money to home buyers in the form of well-secured mortgages. By the end of the 1930s, the city’s plans for the future anticipated a doubling of the population sometime in the 1960s. In fact, it would increase by 60% within the decade.5 World War II broke out in 1939 and within a year, the national defense build-up had created a homefront crisis in San Diego, the proportions of which its boosters could scarcely have imagined. San Diego’s leaders were determined to meet the war emergency on their own terms, with the original urban strategy intact.
In 1930, with over one-third of its citizens already on the payroll of the U.S.Navy, San Diego’s congressional representatives lobbied strenuously to secure additional military resources.6 The economics of militarization would guarantee the city’s continuing development and ensure that national defense and urban morphology proceeded in tandem. Military installations and aircraft factories required vast tracts of land unavailable in traditional built up urban settings.7 As a small, relatively undeveloped city, San Diego could more easily prove an accommodating urban partner. Large areas of land, including valuable waterfront acreage were removed from the public domain. By the end of the decade, federal military investment had narrowed San Diego’s economic base and at the same time accelerated its growth as a city.
During the same period that the armed forces were consolidating their presence, San Diego was acquiring the reputation of air capital of the West. The same mild climate so successfully marketed to tourists and retirees also guaranteed favorable year-round flying conditions and outdoor aircraft assembly. Soon after the end of World War I, as military installations began to attract business interests eager to exploit their commercial potential, the mutually supportive relationship with the U.S.Navy was extended to include aviation.8 In 1925, T. Claude Ryan bought a military surplus biplane, refurbished to hold a pilot and two passengers, and began roundtrip service to Los Angeles on Ryan Airlines. Ryan then took over an abandoned tuna cannery on San Diego Bay and began to manufacture airplanes. A Ryan plane used by Charles Lindbergh on his celebrated trans-Atlantic flight put San Diego on the aviation map.9 As World War II approached, most manufacturing industries in San Diego were faltering, with the notable exception of aircraft. By 1939, half of those engaged in manufacturing were employed by the aircraft industry; the fraction increased to two-thirds by 1941. Furthermore, one out of every four workers in San Diego was employed by a federal agency. In this peculiar fusion of economic development and militarization, federal subsidies replaced private investment capital.10
The war would transform San Diego into a major metropolitan area, “…fast becoming, because of the extensive federal investment here, a second District of Columbia.”11 First mobilization and then war would reveal that the city’s deepening alliance with the military also had profound social consequences. In 1940, fifty thousand immigrants arrived, swelling the number of defense workers to ninety thousand. In addition there were thirty-five thousand military personnel and an equal or greater increase was anticipated in the following year.12 Aircraft workers were camping in parking lots and makeshift trailer parks. By the summer of 1941 the backwater navy port had become a famous defense industry boom town. While San Diego welcomed the prosperity triggered by the boom, the cheap housing required to sustain it also brought the sort of undesirable development the city’s planners were determined to exclude. Despite the hundreds of square miles of empty land surrounding the city, there were urban slums and a chronic shortage of housing for low income families. In the spring of 1940, the U.S. House of Representatives established a Select Committee “to investigate the interstaqte migration of destitute citizens” in San Diego and other defense boom cities.13
The United State Housing Act of 1937 had empowered the newly created United States Housing Authority (USHA) to develop federally subsidized low-income housing projects through duly constituted local housing agencies.14 Funds were channeled to municipalities either by lending up to 90% of the capital costs of a project to local officials, or by subsidizing construction and maintenance costs. To build subsidized housing projects, a city had to provide tax exemptions for them and to create municipal housing agencies. These requirements allowed every community to make an independent assessment about its need for public housing. Cities had discretion about whether to have public housing, and when and where; those reluctant to tarnish an image of affluence by building public housing could simply decline to establish a public housing agency.
Powerful economic interests in San Diego were more preoccupied with protecting real estate values than housing the poor. No housing agency was created or subsidized housing built. Because resources had been concentrated mostly in defense production, the city was completely unprepared for the massive influx of defense workers. As defense production sharply accelerated, jobs were created faster than they could be filled. The impact of the acute housing shortage was immediate and convulsive. Mission Valley, at one mile wide and three hundred feet deep, the traditional barrier to expansion from the south, was filled to capacity with auto trailers donated by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Crowded together on empty lots, each was connected to a temporary gas meter. Bath, toilet and laundry facilities were located in a shed at the center of the campsite. The maximum number of occupants allowed in each trailer was four, but the limit was rarely enforced. The bare ground between the trailers was filled with extra beds, children, and washtubs.15
In late 1940, aspiring aircraft workers and their families were pouring into San Diego at the rate of 1,500 per week. The population had increased 50% in two years. In the twelve months prior to March 1942, 32,000 families and 6,000 single men filed applications with the local Homes Registration Bureau. Existing housing was filled to capacity. Many families slept in their cars or in all-night cinemas, garages, barracks, or tents.16 Lurid stories of families forced to sleep in abandoned streetcars began to appear in national news magazines. The Tolan Committee found “a seething boom town, with housing as the core of every problem and controversy.”17 As evidence mounted that poor living conditions were having a serious impact on the productivity of defense workers, the federal government eventually intervened over the objections of city officials to begin the Linda Vista Housing Project, the first to be initiated under the Lanham Defense Housing Act of 1940.
At the time it was built, Linda Vista was the largest single defense housing project and the largest low-income housing development in the world with a projected occupancy of 13,000 people. Because of the project’s size, federal site selection agents found the choice of suitable properties adjacent to the existing city limited. Eventually they settled on 1240 acres in the southwestern portion of Kearny Mesa, a plateau north of Mission Valley. The barren but relatively flat terrain was surrounded by jagged canyons on the south, east, and west which offered formidable barriers to encroachment that could “cause blight” or compromise the desirability of the site by blocking ocean views. However, the irregular perimeter also presented obstacles for site planners. The soil was less than three feet deep, therefore cut and fill operations around the numerous arroyos and land spurs had to be kept to a minimum.18
Because the defense plants were sited far from both traditional residential neighborhoods and most new wartime housing, the lack of connections to existing public transport systems became a constant source of inconvenience. War workers urgently needed a few direct routes from their homes to their workplaces. When the aircraft factories and defense plants were built along San Diego Bay in the 1930s, no effort was made to locate them near existing transit lines to attract employees.19 Most were automobile commuters and the trolley system was being gradually phased out in response to suburban expansion from the downtown core. Restrictions imposed on gasoline and tires in January of 1942 after the United States entry into the war forced them to abandon their cars, severely overtaxing the transit system. The trolley network had to be hastily reconstructed with spare parts scavenged from around the country.
The main axis of the project was a two mile long ridge running north to south. Linda Vista Road, the major access route, followed the ridge and arterial roads emanated from it like a spine. In the site plan for Linda Vista, these streets formed pods, and ease of access varied according to housing type. The single-family and duplex units, locate on periphery to take advantage of the views, were served by secondary loops and cul-de-sacs. To segregate cars and pedestrians in the central area, the six-family dwellings situated along the highest ridge and the four-family dwellings one level below could be reached only by paved footpaths. When it opened in 1941, the one route in and out of Linda Vista was a narrow, winding, very dangerous two-lane road usually clogged with traffic, its grades too steep for buses to negotiate.
From the standpoint of construction technology, Linda Vista was a marvel of efficiency. Using assembly line techniques adapted from automobile manufacturing, crews specializing in a carefully choreographed sequence of trades would complete an entire street of houses overnight. However, it was also a worst case scenario for what could go wrong when a vast federal project was built without consultation from the local community. No local officials were consulted during the site selection or planning process. Because Linda Vista had been situated two miles from the nearest built-up area of San Diego, it was difficult and costly to arrange for police and fire protection, rubbish collection, street cleaning, ambulance service, and public transportation. Instead of merely augmenting the capacity of existing networks, entirely new systems had to be built. The 5,400 unit project was initially served by a single 10-inch water main, which soon had to be replaced. There were no existing schools, shops, public services or recreational facilities anywhere in the vicinity.
In the chaos of 1940 and 1941, federal agencies operating on rushed schedules exacerbated existing problems. New defense plants and housing developments for workers were located on isolated sites, stressing service networks to the breaking point; the Azure Vista housing project was located on an ocean bluff in an exclusive neighborhood, miles away from the nearest bus stop. Traffic jams clogged major roads and interfered with the war effort. Had Linda Vista and the other remotely located housing projects been subdivided and dispersed throughout existing city neighborhoods, municipal services networks would have required additional capacity but many of the most serious planning problems could have been avoided.
The wartime housing projects produced clashes with local municipalities wherever they were located. In San Diego, federal agencies intervened without regard for the city’s planning objectives, its tax structures, its capacity to absorb new developments or supply sufficient schools, water and sewer lines, fire and police protection, or transportation to and from the defense plants. If city officials offered any resistance to federal directives, the government arranged for condemnation of the desired property and then took it over. Inefficient central planning caused lags between plant expansion and housing, housing and the construction of schools, lack of coordination between housing and basic services: child care centers, shops, hospitals and highways. The government refused to negotiate the selection of project sites, apply for building permits or pay the fair cost of city schools and services.
Because of the long delays in getting the defense housing underway, there was little built before rationing created widespread shortages of essential materials. By the summer of 1942, the opportunity to build permanent housing developments where the need was the greatest had been lost. Panic set in and temporary or demountable housing was perceived as the only option. However, as temporary housing for families cost only about fifteen to twenty per cent less than permanent housing, there was little economic justification for the policy. The Public Buildings Administration was criticized for “erecting these barracks-like structures inconsistent with the general architectural standards of the locality.”20 Architectural standards aside, between 1940 and 1943, San Diego increased its supply of housing units be more than 30%. However, many needs remained unfulfilled.21
Rents in San Diego quickly escalated to amounts the defense workers found difficult to pay. After a two-year bull market in rental housing, Congress finally authorized a package of price control measures in January 1942. However, rents had risen so precipitously that even a legislative mandate could not restore them to prewar levels.22 Rather than increase the supply of affordable housing, by limiting the landlords’ financial return, rent controls served only to reduce the number of units for rent and encourages the sale of houses at inflated prices. Many war workers found that the only way to secure a bed was to buy the house that came with it. The purchase of a house entitled the buyer to evict any sitting tenants, starting a chain of buying, evictions, and escalating rents. An increased supply of new rental housing would have lowered rents, but too little was produced, too late to meet existing needs.
The Federal Housing Administration permitted builders to construct homes for sales with none of their own money invested, and lending institutions reaped a 4.5% return on government-guaranteed mortgage loans. Everyone profited but the defense workers, forced either into home ownership because there was no alternative, or hopelessness if the downpayment on a house proved too costly. Decent, inexpensive housing for defense workers was as vital a part of the national war effort as were barracks for the armed forces or factories for weapons production. In San Diego, however, the early years of the war were an exercise in collective denial. During the early stages of the defense buildup, good inexpensive housing could have been built which would have been a permanent asset to the city, available for the postwar use of returning veterans and their families. Because the Roosevelt administration lacked any real commitment to its official subsidized housing policies, and the numerous bureaucratic agencies responsible for implementing them were paralyzed by infighting, nothing was built until the need became a crisis.23
An effort to solve the problem by providing dormitories for single men was also a failure. San Diego had no shortage of rooms for rent and single men typically encountered no resistance when applying for them. However, the overwhelming majority of arriving defense workers were married men with families, mothers with children and single women of all ages. Single men without dependents were being drafted. Even had it been desirable for them to leave their families behind in the agricultural areas, of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois or Iowa, it would have been financially impossible.24 Testimony before the Tolan Committee revealed that between 75 and 85% of those offering houses for rent would not accept children, despite stiff fines. Single women encountered similar levels of discrimination; many were forced to sleep in shifts in a single shared room.25
The resistance women encountered in the housing market also prevailed in the job market. As increasing numbers of young men were drafted, efforts were made to draw women into the defense plants. Preliminary attempts were largely unsuccessful because the inflexible structure of daily life for most women made work outside the home difficult.26 Most women had factory jobs also assumed responsibilities for housework, laundry, and shopping. There were no facilities to care for young children or older children after school hours. A single community day care center or nursery school would have supplied more defense workers than several hundred defense houses but awareness of women’s needs and the impact on the war effort when they were overlooked develop very slowly. The high rate of employee turnover at the aircraft plants was even higher among women.
On the job, traditional prejudices about sex, age, and race endured. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the rate of unemployment was three times greater among women and minorities than white males.27 In January 1942, President Roosevelt requested that governors place state employment services under federal jurisdiction, integrating them into a unified national employment system. In November of the same year, the National War Labor Board mandated equal pay for equal work in federal employment and officially suspended racist hiring practices.28 As the pool of white male workers was depleted, barriers to women’s employment began to fall, but never entirely disappeared. Initially there were more employment opportunities in fields traditionally open to women; office work and sales then light mass production jobs, repetitive manual tasks, and those demanding careful observation. Employers hired young single women first, then married women with children. Not until the labor crunch reached crisis proportions did employer resistance to older women and minority women begin to break down. Women had proven their ability to work at least as efficiently as men and substituted for them in a widening variety of jobs. By the end of the war, they would constitute almost 40% of the labor force.
The suspension of racist hiring practices, however temporary, extended as well to federally funded defense housing, where “no discriminations as to race, color or creed” were officially tolerated. In San Diego, defense housing was intended primarily for the families of those who worked in the war industries, The application forms could be obtained on request at the various factories, but few people of color were hired until the pool of white workers had been exhausted. Nevertheless, the defense housing projects presented racial minorities with their only opportunity to escape from the de facto ghetto of southeast San Diego until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Widespread use of racially exclusive real estate covenants had ruled most areas of San Diego off limits since the beginnings of suburban migration early in the 20th century. Data from the 1970 Federal Census revealed that the only concentrations of blacks and hispanics outside of Southeast San Diego were on the sites of former defense housing projects at Linda Vista and Midway.29 Mobilization and war presented unique opportunities to eliminate patterns of segregated living and working in the urban centers of military industry. However, in San Diego, as in most other cities, housing bureaucrats, defense contractors and politicians resisted what they considered to be dangerous social engineering. Women and minorities continued to be methodically excluded from the higher paying jobs and the federal government did little to eliminate discrimination in defense housing projects. With the end of the war in 1945, wartime experimentation was abandoned and discriminatory practices resumed.30
In the spring of 1943, a series of congressional investigations began, sponsored by the Congested Areas Subcommittee of the House Naval Affairs Committee, in five urban centers of defense production adversely affected by wartime conditions. San Diego was at the top of the list. Sworn statements by city government officials revealed that while their opinions were frequently ignored by federal agencies during the defense buildup, they had supported the decision to locate defense housing projects on remote sites and shared responsibility for the ensuing chaos.31
The testimony about Linda Vista offered a revealing post-occupancy report two years after it had opened to tenants in May 1941. The population six months later was 2,290 families, in April 1943 over 4000 families – some 16,000 people. There were no shops, drug stores, filling stations or commercial facilities of any kind until a Safeway store opened in February, 1943. The one store was insufficient to meet local needs and it often took over an hour for a shopper to pass through one of five checkout lines. The original Linda Vista development consisted of 3,001 permanent units, but an additional 1,845 demountable units were added between 1941 and 1943 for a total of 4,846 units. The temporary units were equipped with kerosene stoves but it was over three miles to the nearest kerosene outlet.
In the demountable areas of the project, there were no sidewalks and pedestrians were forced to use the streets. Because there were few alternatives, children also played in the streets and the accident rate was high. A longstanding request to improve the dangerous access road was still pending. A manager at one of the aircraft plants reported that some of his employees spent three or four hours every day commuting back and forth to work. The fire station had been built but it was unstaffed – a considerable hazard in the densely populated neighborhood. Crowding in Linda Vista’s several schools was so extreme that over a hundred houses had to be converted for use as classrooms, interfering with the educational program and exacerbating the housing crisis.32
The optimistic belief shared by many in the public housing sector during the early days of mobilization that enduring neighborhoods could be established within the constraints of the defense housing program had few supporters in San Diego. Had the defense housing program been linked more effectively to its existing communities, San Diego would have been spared the squalid legacy of substandard housing, haphazard growth, demountable slums, and entire neighborhoods which lacked essential services. Post-war, San Diego created a new form of slum – tracts of bungalows abandoned first by their original residents and then by mass transit. As opponents of subsidized housing had hoped, there was widespread support for razing the wartime housing to build houses for returning soldiers and their families.
From a quantitative standpoint, the defense housing program in San Diego accomplished its objective of putting roofs over vast numbers of workers heads in a time of national crisis. Because the Lanham Act stipulated that all war housing units had to be either sold or demolished immediately after the war, there was every incentive to build quickly and cheaply. But as demobilization got underway, and returning soldiers sought decent, inexpensive housing, pressure to save the temporary structures grew. In 1945, despite the official insistence that defense housing be razed as soon as the peace treaty was signed, Congress authorized its reuse by returning veterans. Over 5,000 dwellings were automatically reclassified from temporary to permanent so that they could be sold and relocated in unincorporated areas of San Diego County, where the building codes were less restrictive or nonexistent. Some of the demountable housing was partially refurbished and retained for further use; some was sold to Mexico.33
The defense housing program was a planning disaster for San Diego. Instead of an integrated program based on flourishing neighborhoods, sound dwellings, and access to essential services, substandard, carelessly sited housings was thrown together under pressure in an emergency: temporary solutions for short-term objectives. San Diego’s wartime experience legitimized the notion that limited action would suffice in crisis, particularly a crisis in the housing market. What had been quickly thrown together could be quickly demolished, preventing the formation of any permanent constituency for subsidized housing.
As the vast operations in the Pacific drew to a close in 1945, San Diego was a very different place than it had been in 1939. The population had increased by 67% to almost 400,000 and was still growing rapidly. There were immigrants from every state and territory, and many foreign countries. The city’s racial balance had begun to shift; the number of blacks had more than doubled from 2 to 4 ½%. The number of residents with Hispanic surnames had risen from 3 to 4 ½%.34 Women now made up 40% of the workforce, much of which was using public transportation. A conservative backwater became a cosmopolitan metropolis, frenetic, crowded with strangers, open for three shifts, 24 hours a day. What had been a military presence became military domination in one of the nation’s most important strategic centers. Sailors, soldiers, marines, aircraft and munitions were shipped from San Diego all over the world. For the first time, local events made international headlines.
San Diego had determined that close ties to the military were essential for desirable urban development, but by war’s end, the relationship had established a broad social and economic base unimagined in the prewar era. This alternative vision of the future was a radical departure from the earlier projections of steady incremental growth fashioned by pre-war planners. Multi-racial, multi-ethnic workers left their children in daycare centers and traveled from their multi-family dwellings to factory jobs on mass transit. The rupture in the preferred social order was so fundamental a challenge to the speculative, promotion-based city building strategies of the past that it threatened to overwhelm them.
Civil rather than social engineering would constitute the enduring legacy of the defense housing projects. As before, tourism and the defense industries were the beneficiaries of far-sighted planning. Instead of a comprehensive strategy that would have linked housing, transportation, economic development, public facilities and social services, San Diego’s planners opted for engineering solutions to problems of urban growth. In the process of constructing Linda Vista and the other similar projects, mass production techniques were streamlined to perfection. Earthmoving equipment developed during the war greatly accelerated the process of converting vast tracts of raw land to building sites. The building industry expected huge profits to be reaped from the exploding demand for single-family houses and wanted no competition from a construction business for subsidized rental housing run by the federal government. All San Diegans would be potential buyers of cars, building lots, houses, mortgages.
Instead of eliminating longstanding racial and economic divisions, San Diego’s wartime experience served to reinforce them. The city emerged from the wartime experience of urbanity in extremis with its prewar agenda of military development, real estate promotion and tourism intact. Restrictive zoning covenants kept poor and non-white residents out of the way, carefully confined in what came to be called Southeast San Diego. The dramatically expanded military presence permitted the two seemingly opposed economic strategies of military industrialism and tourism to set the terms for future development, a future which did not include subsidized housing.
- Although this essay was written before the publication of Roger W. Lotchin’s Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), it owes a substantial debt to the pioneering work of Professor Lotchin.
- Kenneth T. Jackson, “Military Cities,” in The Martial Metropolis: U.S. Cities in War and Peace, ed. Roger W. Lotchin (New York: Praeger Publishing Company, 1989).
- Roger W. Lotchin, “The City and the Sword”, in Lotchin, The Martial Metropolis, 54.
- Mary Taschner, “Boomerang Boom: San Diego 1941-1942”, Journal of San Diego History 28(Winter 1982):1-10.
- Carey McWilliams, “The Boom Nobody Wanted”, New Republic 104(June 30,1941): 882.
- Roger Lotchin, “The Metropolitan Military Complex in Comparative Perspective: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, 1914-1941”, in The Urban West, ed. Gerald D. Nash (Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1979), 24-27.
- Jackson, “Military Cities”, 27.
- Edward J.P. Davis, The United States Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps at San Diego (San Diego: Academy Press, 1955), 29-73.
- Richard Pourade, The Rising Tide (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1967), 35.