Scholarly Publishing and Social Provision

Andrew Schiffrin

*** I had the opportunity to contribute this piece to the “Tenured Radical” section of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, however, some mitigating circumstances at work prevented me from publishing the essay. I’ve retooled it somewhat and made some updates, but it remains close to the original draft. Thanks to Heather Stauffer, my colleague, for giving it a thorough reading ***

In the recent past, academics and university press publishers have had conversations about the “crisis” in scholarly publishing and the attending devaluation of academic labor. As the ranks of tenured, research professors decreases, the sacrifice to become a scholar and publish research monographs is often met with disappointment at low sales from their university press publishers. Nonetheless, scholars show intense dedication to research and scholarly inquiry, and university presses continue to innovate in an evolving marketplace to maintain the quality of publications and deliver the tools with which scholars generate discourses in their disciplines and fields of inquiry. This national research matrix in the university system is central to the knowledge economy in the United States. Every non-profit, scholarly publisher certainly recognizes and sympathizes with the amount of time and resources each and every one of their authors dedicate to their work. However, the rise of the research library aggregators and book vendors’ demands for e-publication formats as a quid pro quo to marketplace entry is often met with dismay by scholars. To phrase scholars’ concerns simply, monographs offered for free on research library portals and e-pubs for e-readers has created the perception of the devaluation of academic labor. I will admit here that I fully understand how scholars feel that their abilities are being devalued within their university systems and on their campuses, myself having been an academic who now works in scholarly publishing. However, the university presses that represent and publish scholarly monographs are key partners in helping to elevate the value of scholars’ academic labor, while navigating a scholarly book marketplace and larger domestic and international book market that is heavily slanted against non-profit, university presses.

Where I work as a senior acquiring editor, we believe all of our authors deserve compensation from the sale of their work in all formats. Much like the devaluation of academic labor, non-profit university presses exist in an ecosystem of scholarly communications similarly devalued by the national, public fiscal climate that rolls back public spending for social provision, particularly funding for public universities. Public universities typically offer small subsidies to their university presses to manage annual budgeting, so presses are affected by lack of commitment to social provision. This is the current fiscal environment for university press publishers, in addition to external market forces that impact our organizations and define the size of the reliable, yet shrinking, scholarly book market. Fewer tenure-track scholarly researchers causes this market to contract; larger trends in the domestic book marketplace can reduce our access to the national marketplace; and our large, corporate vendors make demands to university presses for simple, marketplace entry for our book products that causes our costs to rise. Therefore, scholars and university presses feel the impact of the segmented, academic labor market, public spending for research universities, and book marketplace competition that shapes the size of the scholarly book market and the aggregate, national research matrix.

In essence, scholarly publishing has always been part of a larger, public fiscal outlay for public universities, as well as private universities that receive federal student loan and research grant subsidies. Scholarly publishing is also a critical part of the 20th Century expansion of social provision that began during the New Deal and Postwar WW2 Eras. Tony Judt, the noted European historian, wrote about the quality of our public universities in his last two books before his untimely death. In Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, Judt marveled and cherished our public, land grant university systems in the United States as shining exemplars of social provision, for these “internationally renowned institutions have no peers outside the US,” including our underestimated community college systems. The fate of public universities as well as other government agencies of social provision suffer under a general and “marked reluctance to defend the public sector on grounds of collective interest or principle.” The rise of state and federal disinvestment in social provision ultimately affects university presses and their ability to furnish the tools of scholarly discourse and contain rising costs to meet their primary market.[1]

In the most practical terms, university presses produce, manufacture, and market scholarly book products in much the same way that record companies, for example, produce, manufacture, and market slabs of plastic and digital sound recordings. Scholarly books exist as tools of the academic trade primarily. However, scholars also create works in their disciplines that can also be entertaining or timely to current events, and these books can resemble the majority of commercially-published books in the US. In this wider, domestic book marketplace, trade books at commercial publishers originate as entertainment products and key investment vehicles meant to sustain the stockholder and investor value of the commercial publisher, and boards of directors’ control these imprints on behalf of multi-integrated, media holding companies. This national trade marketplace is extremely difficult for non-profit, university presses to compete within, since the key vendors in this largest marketplace, book distributors, discount bookseller chains, and online book retailers like Amazon and others, earn the majority of their own annual net profits from the largest book publishing groups. All these book marketplace actors are also highly reluctant to cede any domestic market-share when possible to other publishers. The books that university press publishers sell do not wholly sustain economically the US domestic book supply chain, and there are both upsides and downsides to the limits of this trade marketplace. Andre Schiffrin, the celebrated book publishing intellectual, noted in Words and Money that multi-integrated media holding companies receive roughly 80-85% of annual US domestic sales; religious and vocational publishers receive roughly13-19% of those sales; and university presses receive roughly 1-2% of sales.[2] This shows that non-academic readers do not buy books that are meant for research and study; they buy books to be entertained. However, the “entertainment-book” in the trade market can also be ephemeral and have a short life on a publisher’s backlist, where the scholarly book marketplace is highly-reliable, almost recession proof, and books last longer on the publisher’s backlist, with backlist sales typically contributing 50% to as high as 65% of annual sales for university presses. Scholarly book publishing entails less financial risk and is overall more highly-stable than the commercial book marketplace because university presses create books that facilitate scholarly discourses, and the advancement of research and discovery of new knowledge.

The only comparison or metaphor I can use to describe university presses would be an independent record label; much like independent record labels such as Dischord Records, In the Red Records, or Subpop Records, university presses cater to a niche marketplace of scholarly communication in the sales of hundreds and thousands of copies of scholarly and trade books. It is a rare occasion that a university press will have the music equivalent of a Fugazi, selling well beyond 100,000 copies of a book. The economies-of-scale between university presses and independent record labels are comparable, and university presses could learn much from consulting with independent record labels for that very reason.

The comparatively low, lifetime sales of scholarly books does not indicate a trend of anti-intellectualism in my opinion; rather, it shows that the current reading trends among the public-at-large have changed since the early to mid-twentieth century, when knowledge acquisition among ordinary citizens was central to aspirations for social mobility more generally. Needless to say, there are “intellectuals” in many sectors of the workforce in the US and perhaps they are purchasing their own books in the religious and vocational book marketplace, as Schiffrin’s statistics indicate; that is, people who possess impressive historical knowledge of their vocational fields, whether it be welding, furniture design, ministering, health care services, music recording, or what have you.

Scholars need university press books as tools to perform their teaching and research duties in the end. However, there are some unrealistic and disturbing trends on university campuses and in federal and state government agencies for “open access” publishing, which means to offer scholarly or research content for free in the public domain. In the recent debates about open-access publishing, its proponents rarely have insight into the value-added that university presses contribute to scholarly publications and communication. In university press book publishing, peer review, sometimes developmental editing, copyediting, book composition and design, and typesetting are services that solidify the reliability and integrity of scholarly books, since all disciplines in the world of knowledge demand the high expectations of accuracy and reliability for research. In that case, there is only slight cost-savings to open access publishing; the savings are only reflected in paper, printing, and binding costs, as well as some savings of inventory carrying costs in publishers’ warehouses. But even at that, many university presses are moving to print-on-demand for cloth and paperback editions of scholarly books. Per project, paper, printing, and binding is roughly 15%-20% of the cost of a book.

Among the nation’s research libraries if they could have their way, in my opinion, they would try to obtain our authors’ books for free. I have found this development somewhat odd, since one would believe that both university research libraries and university presses share so many common interests. And there are segments of the research library world that embrace the university presses as key partners in the organization and dissemination of knowledge. However, I am afraid that the differences between a fixed-budget university unit and a profit-oriented state agency like a university press presents limitations to partnership based on budgetary and financial expectations within the larger university fiscal environment. In the end, I feel the enthusiasm for open-access publishing has some deeper thinking to do about how their model is problematic from the practical and fiscal standpoint. Research librarian hostility to university presses’ model of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination seems misplaced in some of the recent debates on open-access publishing.

There are also some negative perceptions of university presses by scholars that I meet on my regular travels to academic conferences, and they are a challenge for acquiring editors, editorial directors, and press directors to quell. Some scholars I meet believe university presses view scholars as uninformed about publishing and publishers, and take advantage of them. Among acquiring editors, I feel this is quite the contrary; it is the wide availability of very good books on the economics and how-to of publishing that keeps negotiations transparent between editor and author. White lies from publishers can be easily detected in the vast secondary literature on commercial and non-profit book publishing. More so than commercial publishers, university presses tend not to view our authors, scholarly or otherwise, as uninformed dupes to be taken advantage of, indeed, university presses are consistently strong advocates of each and every author we publish, all the way through the compensation we provide on royalties and subsidiary rights. University press book contracts are very fair and transparent on the rights and responsibilities of each party in the contract, unlike, for example, contracts that exist in other art and entertainment industry sectors, the music industry being the worst offender in supporting recording artists’ interests. When a scholars’ book does not sell as well as they think it should, that is fine with us, some scholarly fields have very small markets and we are not upset with the sales performance of a book that has a market of perhaps 200-400 scholars working in the subject area. However, university presses always love it when a scholarly book does much better than we expected. We also do not “blame” our authors or the quality of their research for lower than expected sales, indeed, we feel proud to have published the book. The expectations for a “break-even” point in sales is roughly 175-270 copies of each title. University presses are non-profit entities and our thresholds for break-even are not extremely high. With over 300,000 individual titles published in the US annually, sales competition for scholarly books in the domestic book market is often intense, however, university presses exist in a smaller-scale, niche marketplace that is highly-reliable and for the most part, stable and predictable. Schiffrin explained in Words and Money that the lifetime sales history of scholarly books averages 350 copies or less today.

In scholarly publishing, we would certainly be envious to have access to investment and working capital, much like Time-Warner Corporation, Bertelsmann SE & Co., Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, Sony Group, and The Walt Disney Company, which are publicly-traded and investor-driven, multi-integrated media corporations. In lieu of the immense economic scale of these corporations, university press publishers recycle profits into future fiscal years or into endowment funds, and rely on press friends and benefactor donations to endowment development for extra working capital. In many respects, this makes scholarly publishing a mix of annual net revenue; university support; and voluntary giving. Where I work, our mission-driven editorial program finds reflection in the need for roughly 5% or less of annual support we receive from our university system. We strive to close it and there is also a lot at stake when we invest sizable direct and indirect costs in a scholarly author and their work. We mind the gap on each project we acquire. It makes me feel bad when I hear scholars express the opinion that university presses should go out of business, for example, since we cannot organize investment on the scale of major, multi-integrated media holding companies, or create literary celebrity for our scholarly authors. These considerations exist on a larger economy-of-scale in the commercial publishing world. This leads me to believe that the current neoliberal economic thinking about social provision, which Tony Judt wrote about with great insight, has made significant inroads into the professional culture of academics. Where else will scholars publish the tools of their trade if non-profit university presses go out of business and declare bankruptcy? It will certainly not be commercial publishing imprints, and it might be for-profit scholarly publishers like Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group) if they deem a discipline or subject area of sufficient profit to their publishing group. It might also be some other platform where profit is not a consideration and the premium, and the offset printed book is not the final format. But why leave the future of scholarly communication to chance or sheer market forces or the adoption of for-profit business models? The attitude reflects the punitive side of neoliberal disinvestment in social provision more generally. I cannot fathom the harm that would result from the bankruptcy of university presses upon the US domestic research matrix across all science, humanities, social sciences, and arts disciplines. This is why non-profit, university press publishing is such a critical part of our nation’s willingness towards social provision. New discoveries in the world of research knowledge are often not easily monetized, nor should they be held to the standard of the economic marketplace.

The most significant force currently driving the contours of the scholarly book market is technology. With the rise of digital book content, either direct-to-consumer e-pubs or research library aggregation formats, new external variables present new challenges for all publishers. An experienced publishing colleague of mine once remarked to me that technology is the genie in the bottle and it is not wedded to any particular ideology. He believes this is why so many businesses and publishers want to bend the potential of technology to their interests, either through law, court decisions, or new products and formats. However, university presses especially will want to employ the advantages of new technology vigorously to promote and sell books if a market exists in a new, technological format. In my opinion, the multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone corporations have exerted an undue and intense market volatility for all publishers, since they have moved into a book business sector seeking profits where they have historically had no marketplace presence or influence until the recent past. Due to the immense economic scale and large consumer market portals that Apple, Amazon, Nokia, Microsoft, and other corporations exert on the book market, they dictate the terms in vendor to vendor relations on profit margins, suggested list price, returns, and other market considerations. Amazon, for example, will not carry a title if a direct-to consumer e-pub is also not offered, even though for a scholarly book this format constitutes 1%-5% of lifetime sales in all formats. This industry quid pro quo passes the costs of e-pub preparation onto the publisher, when we’d rather do without it. This is more acute for commercial publishers than for non-profit university presses, however, especially conflicts over suggested list price (SLP) of direct-to-consumer e-pubs. Both commercial publishers and university presses are somewhat caught up in the “market share” wars of the multi-integrated computer, cell phone, and tablet manufacturers whose lawsuits against one another can be followed regularly in the business section of the Wall Street Journal and other business publications.

John Tebbel, the historian of book publishing and a former editorial director at a prestigious commercial house, states that during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, the average profit margins for all publishers existed in the range of 3%-4% net revenue per year.[3] More recently, Andre Schiffrin revealed in The Business of Books that publishers “have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” Since the rise of multi-integrated media holding companies, the historical rates of annual net revenue in commercial book publishing exist within an historically aberrant and skewed range of 10-15% and even higher, and, as Schiffrin explains, it “is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible.” Due to the rise of multi-integrated media conglomerates within the publishing industry generally, “publishing diversity,” which entails the aggregate and healthy variety of nonprofit, corporate commercial, and independent commercial publishers, has decreased significantly since the mid-1970s and the origins of discount book-selling. With monopoly and even oligopoly conditions, the variety of publishing imprints, and different types of books involving financial risk has decreased vastly in the international book marketplace.[4]

Monopoly if not oligopoly rules the US domestic book market today by the top 10-20 commercial firms. Independent commercial publishers and non-profit university presses would benefit from greater regulation of the book publishing sector through anti-monopoly laws already on the books in the US Code. A publishing colleague of mine who is a university press director and former American Association of University Presses president, talked with me once about the significance of the Bell Cases of the 1970s as the legal template by which the US domestic book industry could be broken apart to restore publishing diversity and better marketplace access, since those cases offer precedent to federal regulators to dismantle an industry sector monopoly. We agreed this was wishful thinking due to the lobbying obstacles with the US Congress. Schiffrin echoed similar thoughts about regulatory laws in Words and Money, stating that “to stop or slow the increasingly rapid disappearance of independent bookstores and publishers, the most important step these governments could possibly take would be to use these laws to break up the vast media conglomerates.”[5] This proposition is certainly appealing to non-profit and independent publishers, but regulation is very unlikely to happen given recent US circuit court decisions regarding publishers’ business relationships with multi-integrated computer, tablet, and cell phone manufacturers’ marketing portals that have favored these manufacturers almost exclusively.

In the short term, the market conditions are somewhat unfavorable to both scholars and university presses, but university presses are fortunate to exist in the reliable niche market of scholarly communication to compensate for limited, trade marketplace access. In the long term, and I’ll share my optimism, there may not be a continuing trend of public disinvestment in social provision that includes our public and private universities, and by extension, the health and growth of university presses in the United States. But university presses will not be the primary agent to improve public investment in the knowledge economy of the university. My own feeling is that the consumers of education, mostly parents and family shouldering the burden of tuition or repaying their kids’ student loans, will not tolerate rising tuition costs and the lower level of instruction provided by provisional faculty in our public and private university systems. My thought is that once the intrinsic quality of a product, in this case higher education, is decreasing yet costs increase (due to bulging administrative hiring), consumers will notice and let their concerns be known to their elected representatives. If such a backlash leads to greater public investment in higher education, this will certainly benefit both scholarly authors and university presses as the US domestic research matrix increases by hiring more tenured academic researchers with expertise for the classroom.


[1] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010); and The Memory Chalet (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[2] Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (New York: Verso Books, 2010).

[3] John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 1 (Reprint: Clock & Rose Press, 2003).

[4] Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (New York: Verso Books, 2000).

[5] Schiffrin, Words and Money (Verso Books).


A New Historical Narrative for San Diego (2009)


*** In 2007, the Journal of San Diego History invited me to participate in a round table discussion of Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book on San Diego, published in 2003 by The New Press. I thought I would re-post it again since JSDH is published by the San Diego History Center and is often not consulted by the larger historical profession since the journal mainly goes to members of the Center ***

I appreciate the invitation to join the forum on Mike Davis, Kelly Mayhew, and Jim Miller’s book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. I was quite excited when The New Press released the book in Fall 2003 because there was no scholarly interest, critical writing, or research being published about any aspect of San Diego history, except in the Journal of San Diego History, where I was book review editor and interim co-editor from 2002-2005. At the time, I was finishing the final revisions for my book on San Diego’s two world’s fairs, and was fortunate to meet all three of the authors at the San Diego Public Library one summer day. As you can imagine, the mutual interest in San Diego’s history led to professional relationships based on shared research interests. Those who write on the city’s history constitute a very small circle. I know the authors quite well, but I also feel that I can speak objectively about the significance and problems with the book.

There are very few writers and scholars involved in writing book-length works about San Diego. Kevin Starr has written brief sections on San Diego in his volumes on California history, but most of the information comes from the Journal of San Diego History. Roger Lotchin included two chapters on San Diego in Fortress California (1992), but most of the material was also drawn from secondary works. An older generation of scholars, including Harry Crosby, Raymond Starr, Iris Engstrand, Ramòn Ruìz, Paul Vanderwood, and Richard Griswold Del Castillo, has done important work on the city. Their collective work has focused on either San Diego proper or the relationship of Tijuana to San Diego. However, these scholars have retired or are close to retirement, even if most of their work is fresh.

The study of San Diego skipped a generation and no baby boomer scholars write about the city, except perhaps Larry Ford and Lawrence Herzog at San Diego State University and Mike Davis at the University of California, Irvine. Some journalists, editors, and lay historians like Gregg Hennessey, Rick Crawford, Richard Amero, and Roger Showley have written some very good works in San Diego history as well. Some younger scholars like Miller and Mayhew and myself have published book-length works on the city’s history (University of Oklahoma Press published Miller’s San Diego novel Drift in Spring 2007), and Kyle Ciani, Theodore Strathman, and Judith Schultz have written dissertations on social welfare and water development respectively in San Diego’s history that will reach publication soon at university presses. So far as I know, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 (2005) is the only scholarly book researched from archives to be published in a generation, except for the two chapters on San Diego in Phoebe Kropp’s new book California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (2006).

So grandparents and grandchildren appear involved in writing the history of the city. There are almost no parents. For some strange reason the scholars at University of California, San Diego in the humanities have shown almost no interest in examining San Diego within the larger history of Southern California, California, the western U.S., or the United States. The exception at UCSD is Abraham Shragge, who wrote a very impressive dissertation about the role of the military-industrial complex in the urbanization of San Diego, which is necessarily a post-1941 phenomenon. He has published a number of fine articles from the dissertation in Pacific Historical Review, JSDH, and the Southern California Quarterly. Yen Le Espirtu’s work in Asian American Studies has utilized San Diego’s diverse Asian communities, particularly Filipino-Americans, and a few scholars have considered the large Vietnamese American community in Linda Vista. San Diego history is strongest at both University of San Diego, under Engstrand’s guidance, and at San Diego State University. However, these programs only offer master’s degrees in history, although the M.A. theses from these programs are often indispensable reference works on local history. The finest, most artful and insightful work ever written on the city is a product of fiction. The novelist LÍ Thi Diem Th·y’s wonderful novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) is arguably the greatest work ever written about San Diego.

Despite some excellent contributions, scholarly work on San Diego pales in comparison to the literature on cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, or Philadelphia (where urban social history was codified through the Philadelphia Social History Project). In addition, San Diego history has rarely shown conceptual innovation and often lags far behind the main fields and sub-fields of American history.

I believe Under the Perfect Sun helps rectify this problem. The authors succeed in constructing a new narrative for San Diego history. This has not been done since Richard Pourade’s multi-volume History of San Diego commissioned by the Copley’s San Diego Union-Tribune Company during the 1960s. Regardless of whether one agrees with the arguments in Under the Perfect Sun about power and injustice in the city’s history, it is an achievement in terms of scholarship and cultural criticism.

When scholars and even ordinary people think of “Southern California,” the importance and image of Los Angeles invariably comes to mind. I often wonder whether Under the Perfect Sun will generate new scholarship on San Diego history, as Davis’s famous book City of Quartz (1990) did for Los Angeles. Thanks in part to City of Quartz, the study of Los Angeles has become somewhat of a cottage industry within academe. With this book and future books on San Diego history, one hopes that San Diego’s historical significance will be greater recognized and that this will alter our understanding of both Southern California and California history.

It is true that Under the Perfect Sun does not make comprehensive use of archival research. If they had drawn extensively from archives, they never would have finished this book. I spent close to ten years researching my book on San Diego’s world’s fairs, and I only peeled off a thin layer of San Diego history. The lack of a rich historical literature makes works of broad synthesis, such as this, extremely difficult. That said, the book does use enough primary sources to forge its arguments, and the book does uncover and synthesize the “public transcript” of magazines and newspaper sources, municipal government publications, and secondary sources.

The one section that draws on original primary-source research, Kelly Mayhew’s oral historical investigation, will remain of interest to both general readers and scholars for a long time. The sections by Davis and Miller are compelling interpretations of the city, but they but they compress far too much history (over one hundred years) into their respective essays. When the next young writer or scholar does necessary work in the archives, the story and interpretation laid out by their essays will be revised and find more nuance. Still, their essays are as fruitful as Carey McWilliams’s bold, ambitious, and generous work from the 1940s.

The book is bold and ambitious, constituting an entire research agenda for future San Diego scholars. The essays offer a modern, sophisticated conceptual framework for local history. It replaces the empty rhetoric of years worth of Chamber of Commerce and local booster histories with serious and unsentimental portrayals of how private interests, greed, and power have shaped the city over time.

When The New Press released Under the Perfect Sun, it pleased me to see largely positive reviews. It received very few scholarly reviews, which is appropriate for a commercial trade title and for cultural criticism. When scholars did review the book, I could not feel anything but disappointment at the reception. Los Angeles scholars largely ignored the book, perhaps since a high-profile title on San Diego competed with the master narrative of Southern California history under their complete dominion.

The review of the book in the San Diego Union in September 2003 by Elizabeth Cobbs-Hoffman from the history department at San Diego State University focused on whether the book reached the level of muckraking insight achieved by Lincoln Steffens or Upton Sinclair, with much of her critique focused on recasting the authors’ criticisms as “cynicism.” She believed the authors had not been fair and had not cataloged the city’s triumphs over time. The reviewer thought Davis’s focus on white-collar corruption excessive, yet the Los Angeles Times recently ran a story in April 2007 entitled “San Diego Elite Shun Public Spotlight” to indicate the “closed door” nature of politics and influence-peddling in the city, thus confirming Davis’s compelling argument about the problems of “private government” in the city over the twentieth century. I believe Davis nailed San Diego’s historic lack of coalition interests on the head, and Paul Vanderwood’s new work on the “Border Barons” will also confirm Davis’s view when published.

Cobbs-Hoffman also takes Miller to task for his “Marxist interpretation” of local politics and his focus on social movements, like the Magonistas and the Industrial Worker’s of the World Free Speech Fight during the 1910s. Yet those familiar with San Diego history know that a very concerned San Diego Chamber of Commerce between 1912 and 1916 asked Governor Hiram Johnson repeatedly to mobilize the state militia to deal with the I.W.W. and border insurrectionists. The correspondence is in the Hiram Johnson Papers at the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley.

Cobbs-Hoffman had almost no criticisms of Mayhew’s interviews. Overall, the review focused on what the book lacks rather than evaluating its stated intent. To this writer, Cobbs-Hoffman, like some conservative reviewers of Mike Davis’s other books, engaged in ad hominem attack rather than seriously addressing the intent and achievement of the book in question. The review certainly did not live up to the infamous and generous suspension of belief seen in the criticism of Susan Sontag or Joan Didion.

In the end, Under the Perfect Sun should be evaluated within both the corpus of work on San Diego history and also according to its stated goal: it is a work of both history and cultural criticism that hopes to initiate discussion about the city’s future by looking at its past. The book inherently calls for a sense of civic and municipal accountability rather than allowing private government in search of generating wealth for the bipartisan political elite of the city to undermine a larger sense of the “commons.” I think the authors offer important historical context for understanding the city’s political instability and financial insolvency since 2000. The authors also offer some road maps to a more progressive and accountable politics as the city moves into the twenty-first century.

Ghosts of the San Diego Rialto



This was first published in Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, ed., Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana (San Diego City Works Press, 2005). Other contributors were Mike Davis, Roberta Alexander, Marilyn Chin, and Mark Dery.

Downtown San Diego today has become the faux historical stage set for the city’s nouveau-riche and young members of Idiot Nation. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, crowds of college students, underage revelers, urbane wannabes and White suburban gangsters cruise the streets of lower Broadway. They make their way west of 7th Street down south into the Gaslamp Quarter, the city’s answer to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Do not get me wrong, the crowds that frequent San Diego’s downtown share enthusiasm for an exciting evening on the town after a week committed entirely to work. However, one has to wonder if all the slickness, bright lights, and consumer dreariness of the bars and clubs will wear off one day. Unlike the street-level gravity that absorbs tourists who view the historic structures of New Orleans once they leave Bourbon Street, the Broadway Street and Gaslamp Quarter historic districts serve as mere decoration for the distraction offered by chain retailers, gawdy bistros, frat bars and sorority sister clubs, and MTV-like street life. For locals and tourists alike, there is simply little of historic interest beyond the consumer pageant that is now downtown San Diego.

With a mood reminiscent of a perpetual spring break, the new San Diego signals the revitalization of downtown after 50 years of unlimited suburban land development. With the completion of Petco Park, John Moore’s $453.4 million extortion scheme to deliver a spanking, new downtown baseball stadium to his Padres, hefty returns roll-in as the dreams of former mayor Pete Wilson and San Diego’s downtown, old money are realized. The coffers of the bars and clubs, restaurants, real estate developers, and city tax-base flourish as well. With the backdrop of history only 80 to 100 years old, Broadway and the Gaslamp district are commuter fun zones for the newly entitled: relatively empty and business-like during the day; choked full at happy hour and beyond to last call.

Will it last? Perhaps, but maybe the restaurant and entertainment zones of Hillcrest, Middletown, North Park, or Mission Hills will lure the revelers away. With more attention to history that is actually local, these areas will seal the fate of Broadway and the Gaslamp district in the near future. Downtown San Diego’s revitalization differs little from other efforts across the country: it is the site for global consumer and real estate capitalism. Over the years that I lived in San Diego (1976-1999), I’ve seen the center city transformed from a ghost town for homeless Vietnam veterans, the mentally-ill (50% of vets), and the working poor to a shining exemplar of urban gentrification. The old “sailor town” I knew as a teenager lives only in memory. Downtown had its theaters, libraries, art galleries, and symphony hall that shared an urban environment rife with funky street life, SRO hotels, check-cashing places, modest department stores, go-go bars, book stores, cafeterias, liquor stores, massage parlors, and porn movie houses. San Diego used to be a real city. The heart of this glorious San Diego Rialto used to be Horton Plaza until the suburban-type mall at that site was completed in 1987, defended and turned inward from the fabric of the city. In only twenty years, downtown has become an “upscale” leisure zone of luxury apartment blocks with little housing for the working poor.

San Diego joins other cities in urban gentrification to erase the diverse social networks of urban living, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Albuquerque, San Antonio, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Gentrification is the velvet glove of class warfare. Public policy formulated to redeem downtown San Diego has not been able to integrate the older constituents who depend upon center city with new economic and cultural enterprises. Should not this redevelopment benefit the broader public that calls downtown its home, since municipal bonds, public tax subsidies, and public policy shapes the new urban environment? With development in eastern San Diego County at capacity, downtown real estate becomes valuable once again. With real estate interests historically serving as the private government of the city, the public interest has been subsumed to private profit.

The diverse social networks of downtown San Diego are the casualty of progress, like every major American metropolis today. Through the efforts of the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), charged with public/private urban redevelopment since 1975, much of sailor town and its citizens have been cleansed through the exerted pressure of the private sector. By the 1980s and 1990s, the variety of businesses and people who had fully sustained downtown San Diego since 1900 were defined as “criminal” and a “nuisance” during the latest land grab. Similar to so many other American cities, the homeless, the working poor, and the Rialto economy held downtown San Diego “hostage.” It is without question that this older sailor town economy had at least anchored the tax-base of center city during its most trying times from the 1950s to the 1980s. All American cities depended upon the economy of the marginal during this era as federal housing policies pushed new development to cheaper suburban lands after WW2. However, San Diego’s new cheerleaders of progress, with their pet city councils, will never acknowledge the favor. Once the critical lifeblood of a vital, although poor, downtown, the current urban renaissance has been built upon the ashes of SRO hotels, homeless shelters, and working class economic and entertainment institutions. Perhaps it is built upon more. Recent investigations show that the city’s pension fund suffers a $1.15 billion deficit with possible accounting fraud. The city manager and council are under SEC and grand jury investigation. As of this writing, no city official can explain where all the money went. Of course, we can guess by all the recent downtown development. If historic preservation has been the organizing principle for downtown revitalization, private interests have piggy-backed on the city’s history to great profit to erase the vital social networks of San Diego.

Until the late twentieth century, the history of San Diego town development always catered to a variety of social classes, and people of vastly different cultural heritage and racial ancestry. Indeed, one might say that the founding of San Diego in 1769, like Los Angeles to the north, was christened with the mixed racial origins that are the hallmark of cultural fusion in the southwestern borderlands. San Diego has never had the equivalent of Carey McWilliams to document it diverse origins. But Harry Crosby reveals that the Serra Expedition of 1769 brought españoles, mestizos, color quebrados, mulatos, and indios to the frontier of northern New Spain to settle Alta California.* In the first fifty-two years of the new settlement, the mission, presidio, and pueblo community emerged as a racially-mixed society engaged in agriculture, cattle raising, and illicit trade with British, American, and French merchant vessels. During the Mexican era after 1822, Old Town San Diego became the center of commerce, politics, and trade, but remained a territorial outpost of southern North America. As the pueblo attended to its daily activities around the plaza, there were Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos engaged in a profitable hide and tallow trade with New England merchants. Richard Henry Dana and other Euro-American travelers in the early nineteenth century noted significant populations of Hawaiians (known as Kanakas), desiccated Anglo adventurers, and Christian and gentile Indians who worked on the ranches, ships, and wharfs engaged in trans-Pacific and Atlantic trade. With powerful creole sons and their wards closely bound together, town development relied, historically, on social networks of great diversity.

After the Mexican-American War, William Heath Davis, a hide and tallow merchant, and rancher Miguel Pedrorena developed a “new town” San Diego several miles south of the pueblo on San Diego Bay, believing the town would be a terminus for Southern cotton shipping. It failed with the Lost Cause. In 1867, Alonzo Horton, a wealthy San Francisco furniture merchant, bought Davis’ failed town site and the coastal plain south of Old Town, known as Horton’s Addition. He built a pier and warehouses that lined Fifth Street south to the bay and a luxury hotel at Third and D Streets (renamed Broadway in 1910). Again, San Diegans were promised a direct railroad link from the East, but the spasmodic economy of the post-bellum period halted these plans, it seemed, indefinitely. The boom of the 1880s rekindled hope for a railroad and civic greatness, but the land boom turned to bust with spurious fortunes lost. Nonetheless, New Town resembled the frontier outpost of westward expansion. It was a get-rich-quick environment. Chinese fishermen had left railroad work and the mines of the Sierra to dominate the local fishing industry and settled in an area known as “Stingaree Town,” the city vice district.

On the southwest corner of Fifth and K Streets stood the First and Last Chance Saloon, the starting point of the Stingaree district which extended westward to First Street and northward from K Street to Market. This lively area was filled with middle class fortune seekers and courthouse politicians, but also husksters and confidence men, painted ladies, retired gunfighters, scallywags and wharf ruffians, saloon kings and queens, and an ever-ready vigilante squad of rural Whites available to San Diego’s leading citizens. They caroused saloons and gambling parlors like the Railroad Coffeehouse and Wyatt Earp’s three gaming joints. The population dropped from a high of 40,000 to 16,000 people by 1890. Portuguese fishermen had arrived in Loma Portal and southern blacks found their way to the Stingaree’s outer reaches at Imperial Avenue in search of freedom. At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, San Diego maintained first-rate establishments, commercial districts, and buildings grouped around the area of Fifth and G Streets, but working class neighborhoods ringed the downtown with an economy of labor power, entertainment, and vice.

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw significant growth in San Diego County, with the downtown moving northward to the intersection of Fifth and Broadway Streets. San Diego held 39,578 people by 1910. The central business district became somewhat respectable with George Marston’s department store, real estate offices, particularly that of Ed Fletcher, and the completion of the luxurious U.S. Grant Hotel in 1910 on Horton Plaza. The Civic Improvement Committee, led by George Marston, hired urban planner John Nolen in 1907 to redesign commercial San Diego into an exemplar of Spanish colonial beauty. With Progressivism flourishing locally, city leaders announced in 1909 their intent to hold the Panama Exposition within Balboa Park. However, the Stingaree district had grown considerably. With business growth and anticipation of the world’s fair, the district attracted ever more numbers of the merchant marine, prostitutes, bunco men, hopheads, and the city demimonde to its vibrant establishments. The Stingaree sported parlors, opium dens, and saloons such as the Old Tub of Blood, Seven Buckets of Blood, the Green Light, the Bullpen, Yankee Doodle Hall, Pacific Squadron Hall, the Legal Tender Saloon, the Turf, and the high-class parlor house run by Mamie Goldstein. The wharf area at Fifth Street was a hangout for San Diego’s guano pirates, a rough lot who worked Baja’s islands on fertilizer ships often owned by esteemed San Diegans.

The Stingaree contained a majority of the radical movement in San Diego that led the infamous Free Speech Fight from 1909-1914, such as Wobblies, anarchists, socialists, and Marxists. The notorious soapbox orations of the local radical movement were located at Fifth and E Streets at Heller’s Corner. The Mexican Revolution spread to the border in January of 1911 when Ricardo Flores Magón and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), captured the border town of Mexicali, then took Tijuana. This alarming event created local anxiety until 1917, and led the San Diego City Council to ban street speaking in 49 square-blocks of downtown to silence radicalism. A local vigilance committee composed of leading citizens and their henchmen formed to battle labor militants in the Stingaree. They intimidated local social progressives and labor leaders with terroristic threats and physical harm.

The situation appeared threatening enough from 1914 to 1916 that William Tompkins, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, asked Governor Hiram Johnson to mobilize the state militia, explaining that “here we are convinced that the situation is grave enough and respectfully urge that you take immediate and favorable action for our protection.” Edward Stahle, the new chamber secretary, pleaded with Johnson to protect lives and property in 1916 because of “the imperative necessity of guarding the Mexican border line from ocean to Imperial Valley – Mexicans becoming restless [and] are congregating and growing arrogant.” With an unlikely revolution at hand, the city council empowered Walter Bellon, the city health inspector, to raze the heart of the Stingaree through building and health surveys. To redeem the image of San Diego before millions of tourists traveled to the exposition, the City Health Department demolished 120 buildings and condemned 500 rooms in the Stingaree. Many lucrative and tax-generating businesses, though morally suspect, were forever destroyed. It did not stop working-class entertainments, prostitution, or vice, but merely moved it all “uptown,” or closer to the business district at Fifth and Broadway. Through fervent reform, San Diego Progressives laid the historical foundations for the city’s diverse social networks located along Broadway Street down south to the Gaslamp Quarter.

During the 1920s, San Diego grew significantly as a younger bumper crop of entrepreneurs and Midwestern retirees sought to live the Golden State lifestyle of health and repose. San Diego led the way in 1919 when the All-Year-Club of San Diego, founded by Oscar Cotton, sang the city’s song. And Broadway Street became the premier boulevard of the nouveau-riche. The new men of wealth, however, ceded the city to the Navy Department, remaking downtown San Diego into “sailor town.” But the money generated from the naval infrastructure brought John Nolen back to San Diego in 1925 to plan for downtown and general civic beautification. Writing from Nice, France in October of 1926, Nolen told Marston how southern France reminded him “again and again of Southern California, especially San Diego. That region is full of suggestion for the development of the waterfront, parks, boulevards, play space, public buildings.” From 1925 to 1937, Mayor John L. Bacon, the city council, and the park commission re-instituted piecemeal the 1908 Nolen Plan like the waterfront civic center, preservation of Presidio Hills Park, and a general plan to modernize Balboa Park. With prohibition keeping sailor town at bay until 1933, downtown remained in the hands of the nouveau-riche, with speakeasies, vaudeville theaters, and dance halls barely besmirched the area. But the inter-war years brought significant numbers of Italian and Mexican-Americans to San Diego to work in the local canning and fishing industries, and downtown catered to their daily needs.

Visiting chroniclers, however, painted San Diego as the backwater of the United States, where civilization dropped off the continent. Edmund Wilson, the besotted tastemaker of modern letters, brought his acerbic pen to bear on San Diego in 1932. West Coast cities lacked the emotions and moods necessary for great American cities. For Wilson, San Diego became “The Jumping-Off Place,” the literal dead-end of the American Dream. Walking the streets of downtown San Diego, he believed the city suffered from a cheap re-creation of high culture with its little business blocks, one-star hotels, and real estate offices. Wilson lamented the city had no cultural core, only enervated, status-conscious club women among dying retirees and pulmonary disease patients. With great glee, Wilson dubbed San Diego the “suicide capital” of the United States, where the little men and women “stuff up the cracks of their doors and quietly turn on the gas – drive their cars into dark alleys, get in the back seat and shoot themselves” among other ghastly deeds. Under their sunny dispositions, San Diegans were a morose lot. “Here our people, so long told to ‘go West’ to escape from ill-health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression,” Wilson noted with sarcasm, “are discovering that, having gone West, their problems and diseases remain and that the ocean bars further flight.” Vividly painting the San Diego cultural landscape as pathological, Wilson believed San Diegans had “come to the end of their resources in the empty California sun.”

It was remarkable that a provisional bourgeois radical like Wilson missed the labor turmoil racking San Diego, especially from the local Communist Party, Trade Union Unity League, Unemployment Council, and Cannery Worker’s Union (UCAPAWA). After prohibition, downtown transformed into a hardcore sailor town. The WPA City Guide for San Diego noted that south of Broadway Street was “one of the play areas of the navy enlisted man,” a Trocadero of “hash houses and honky tonks, drinking parlors with jazz bands and tiny dance floors, trinket shops, shooting galleries, and the ever-present pawnshop.” These working class businesses revived the Stingaree district of the 1910s “to make ‘south of Broadway’ a distinct area.” With the coming of World War Two, the honky-tonk of downtown San Diego defined a city turned upside down by Southern Plains migration.

Wartime San Diego grew from 203,341 to 362,658 people from 1940 to 1944. The population explosion of war production created a pressure-cooker social environment in the city. Jim Thompson’s Now and On Earth, a wartime novel of socialist realism, captures the bleak landscape of downtown San Diego under racial violence, anti-communism, wartime housing shortages, and social dislocation. Now And On Earth is a story about a failed “hack writer” and aircraft industry clerk caught in a web of graft whose radical past puts him in double jeopardy. In the summer of 1940, Thompson and his family traveled from Pampa, Texas to San Diego in the Oklahoma Communist Party automobile, a gigantic four-door Plymouth donated by Woody Guthrie. Recently fired as director of the Oklahoma Federal Writer’s Project for his communist politics, he took a job at Ryan Aeronautical scrapping paint off the floor and moved to inventory clerk. He later worked as a timekeeper for Solar Aircraft. The Thompson’s lived in a small Spanish mission duplex in Middletown at 2130 2nd Avenue, a hilly neighborhood wedged between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park. It also had commanding views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Despite the natural beauty of the city, San Diego’s diversity and cultural fusion fascinated Thompson under the stress of wartime competition and scarcity.

Often prone to periodic drinking binges in the San Diego Rialto, Thompson described the alienation and the broken dreams of war workers found in places like Eddie’s Bar, the Bomber Café at 849 Broadway, and other downtown jazz clubs, dance halls, and juke joints. With the city filled with sailors at all hours, downtown was a 24/7 environment of cafes, restaurants, and entertainments. Many of the dance halls were fronts for prostitutes and drug dealers, who made their living from the meager wages of young servicemen. For Thompson, the difference between work in the war industry and the leisure found downtown had eroded, offering only new forms of degradation and exploitation. Portuguese and ethnic Mexicans stand as the only redeemable characters in the novel, generous and non-materialistic to a fault. In the end, Now And On Earth opposed the orthodoxies of Marxism to argue that ordinary people deserved social democracy in their own lifetime due to the human indignities caused by a country at war.

Downtown San Diego flourished as an economy for the marginal from 1945 to the 1980s, filled with locker clubs, burlesque theaters, beer bars, cocktail lounges, tattoo parlors, old men’s rooming houses, and pornography shops. The business district at Fifth and Broadway still existed, but shared downtown with the poor, addicted, and unemployed. After WW2, downtown’s underemployed Pacific veterans were often some of the first cases of methamphetamine addiction in the United States. Locker clubs, where enlisted men could change from uniforms to street clothes, could be found on West Broadway, like The Seven Seas, the Four-O, Salty’s, and the Harbor. With an array of entertainments, the locker clubs also took mail for sailors, cashed checks, and offered some social grounding when men came into port. With unlimited suburban land development, some of San Diego’s important businesses moved uptown. West Broadway went into economic decline when the Navy stopped docking ships at the Broadway pier in 1969. The area attracted low-income amusements, like the Green Goddess, Show Place Nudity Dance Hall, and a plethora of massage parlors for the enlisted man.

Working class and marginal institutions symbolized the economic decline of downtown by the 1970s as Vietnam War demobilization shocked the local economy. For mentally-ill or displaced veterans, the Rialto economy and SRO hotels offered a sense of community during an era of political skepticism and high unemployment. Neil Morgan, San Diego’s epic chronicler of social life, called the area “Back of Broadway.” With sensitive eyes, he believed that this Rialto economy, though not upscale nor respectable to some, had a rich history that connected San Diego’s past and present. He described SRO hotels like the Golden West, the Aztec Theater, downtown’s most popular burlesque club known as Bob Johnston’s Palace Buffet, and the cafeterias and other institutions that downtowners called home. Like the days of the Stingaree, these were important cash and tax-generating businesses for the city during times of municipal budget cuts. When downtown redevelopment began in 1981, the city condemned two businesses at 1111 East Broadway. They had anchored the boulevard since 1944: Bob Johnston’s The Sports Palace and the Hollywood Burlesque House. Now it is gone to clean-up Broadway for the Horton Plaza retail mall, with parking garages facing the fabric of the city.

Whenever I walk up and down Broadway Street today, from the ferry landing to Highway 5, much has changed from the sailor town of my childhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, high-rise construction reoriented Broadway Street towards business use once again. At the corner of Broadway and Kettner Streets sits the enormous Helmut Jahn building with a downtown trolley hub, right across the street from the Amtrack Station. Back in high school, the spot was a popular skateboarding spot because of the slick, marble sidewalk that lay in front of the beer and go-go bars there. It was also a part of West Broadway that maintained social networks of great diversity; you could sit there on a weekend night and see the spectrum of humanity come and go throughout the evening, rich, poor, and in-between. One of the first times I ever learned about the Vietnam War, from a veteran no less, was on that corner. The neighborhood around West Broadway was a literal camping ground for homeless veterans during the 1980s, after the Jarvis/Reagan revolution cut veterans benefits and sent many onto America’s streets. Now you see commuters coming and going, wealthy professionals from downtown condominiums  walking their dogs, fauxhemians crawling through the nighttime. Although downtown redevelopment has been a financial success, the old was thrown out with the new. There are very few establishments left downtown for a younger person like myself to connect the city’s past and present. Some come to mind, like the Chinese Historical Society at Third and J Streets and many historical structures on the National Historic Register like the Horton Grand Hotel. But downtown’s history is buried under the current consumer spectacle, barely noticeable. With little of historical interest to view anymore, I’ll head into Wahrenbach’s Books at Eight and Broadway, get something to read, and head down to the Hong Kong, an old beer bar. Mona, the Korean manager of the bar, greets me with “nice to see you again.” An old timer will strike-up a conversation with the words, “Let me tell you what is was like in the old days.” With few to tell their story, I put my book down and open my ears to this living history.



Harry Crosby, Gateway to Alta California: The Expeditions to San Diego, 1769, (San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2003).

Hiram Johnson Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley, California.

Elizabeth MacPhail, “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego: The Little Known Story of San Diego’s ‘Restricted’ District,” Journal of San Diego History, 20, no 2 (Spring 1974).

George Marston Papers, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, California.

Neil Morgan, San Diego: The Unconventional City, (San Diego: Morgan House, 1972).

San Diego: A California City, (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1937).

Abraham Shragge, “Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, California, 1900-1945,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1998).

Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth, (1946; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1994).

Edmund Wilson, The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twneties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal, (1958; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996).

     * This caste/race system noted Españoles were “pure-blooded Spanish”; mestizos were Indian and Spanish; color quebrados were “broken color,” Spanish-Indian with dark skin; mulatos were Indian and Spanish, with a trace of African ancestry; and indios were “pure-blooded Indians.”