In a two-part series, KPBS reporter John Carroll examines how some of the park’s cherished institutions are holding up during the pandemic.
Photo by John Carroll
Balboa Park is many things. Among them, the jewel of San Diego is home to most of the city’s museums. But in a transcendental sense it is also a place of peace.
It is the primary mission of the International Cottages to take the concept of peace and make it reality. The House of Pacific Relations is the umbrella group that oversees the Cottages, pacific of course meaning peace. Eugenie King is its vice president.
“They are a jewel of the park. They are something to explore, to develop, to discover,” she said.
At some point in 2021, probably in the spring, visitors will discover new cottages, the first built in decades.
Once complete, the countries of Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Korea, India, Peru, Turkey, as well as the cultures of Palestine and Chamorro, which is part of Guam and the Marianas Islands, will all be welcomed into new cottages.
The first cottages were built for 1935’s California Pacific International Exposition, meant to foster a spirit of understanding, tolerance and goodwill. There’s no doubt that mission is still very much alive today, symbolized by the primary sponsor for the new House of Palestine.
“The first vote to approve their membership and to recommend them for membership in the House of Pacific Relations was done by the House of Israel,” said King.
The International Cottages are faring pretty well during the pandemic. The buildings are owned and maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and they’re run entirely by volunteers.
And though volunteers are an important part of just about every museum here, most rely on paid staff.
At the Fleet Science Center, like everywhere else in the park, it’s been a challenging year.
The Fleet’s Communications Manager, Karla Nafarrate, said, “It has been a time of learning to adapt quickly to whatever comes our way.”
The Fleet is fortunate in one way. They are able to host what they call distance learning hubs, places where young children can come and learn about science in a COVID-19-safe way.
“(They) come into the Fleet Science Center and do their online learning as well as combined with science activities,” Nafarrate said.
But like Balboa Park’s other museums and attractions such as the Spreckels Organ concerts, the Fleet has had to move whatever they could online.
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The essence of the museum experience, visiting in-person, is not available for now.
“We haven’t been able to have anyone in our galleries or in our theater, which was our number one revenue generator, so we have relied a lot more on donations and grants and just people in general being generous,” said Nafarrate.
With news that vaccines are on their way, Balboa Park’s museums are eagerly looking toward the time they can reopen. When they do, the changes in the way they do things brought on by COVID-19 won’t entirely disappear.
“We’re definitely gonna keep doing things virtually. We have Fleet TV, which we started to keep engaging with our audiences online… however things change in the future, we’re looking to adapt to whatever that looks like,” Nafarrate said.
There are exciting things to look forward to. In addition to the new International Cottages, the Comic-Con museum is expected to open sometime next year.
But for now, the outdoor pleasures of the park are still here, the buskers, the food vendors. The Japanese Friendship Garden has stayed open. All of them things to enjoy while we wait for the institutions that are so much a part of Balboa Park to once again open their doors.
Read the first part of the series here.
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