By Katherine Hon | PastMatters
Social media buzzed when the small nonprofit organization in charge of the North Park Toyland Parade canceled this year’s event five days prior due to financial difficulties. Some said it was time to let the parade die because it was nothing like it used to be. But North Park Main Street, local businesses, city of San Diego’s Special Events Department staff, and community members stepped in to save the day.
Was all the scrambling and last-minute effort worth it?
It is true that the Toyland Parade is not the juggernaut it once was. The tradition traces its roots at least as far back as 1934, when the North Park Business Men’s Club and local merchants sponsored a Christmas celebration that featured decorated floats and four brass bands marching on University Avenue.
The following year, a police motorcycle escort led a procession of more than 50 local business entries in nine divisions, each division accompanied by a band or drum corps. Except for a short break during World War II, the parade continued to grow for the next three decades.
In 1954, an estimated 300,000 people flocked to North Park to watch 200 entries march more than two miles along University Avenue from 32nd to Arizona streets, and south to Morley Field. The parade included 30 floats, 24 bands, 26 marching units and five live reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. In 1958, the San Diego Zoo provided camels and handlers in costumes. That year, the U.S. Marine Corps drove several tanks along University Avenue advertising its Toys for Tots campaign.
The 1966 parade included 25 bands and was led by the 30-member Long Beach Silver Mounted Police posse riding matching palominos. The parade was described as “one of the biggest holiday events in the county” in the San Diego Union’s Dec. 4, 1966 issue.
In spite of this success, the parade did not happen in 1967.
“The North Park Toyland Parade — San Diego’s biggest — has been canceled. The reason: freeway construction in the vicinity of 32nd & University,” Frank Rhoades reported in his Oct. 6, 1968 San Diego Union column. The parade would remain canceled for nearly 20 years.
North Park Business Club members confessed they allowed the Toyland Parade to die because it was a complicated event and the construction of the Interstate 805 freeway at University Avenue was an excuse to give it up. The decline of neighborhood retail due to the rise of regional shopping malls contributed to the loss of the parade. The San Diego Union’s Sept. 22, 1969 issue predicted: “Chances are it never will be revived.”
But that prediction was wrong.
In 1985, the parade came back to life. Patrick Edwards — long-time North Park businessman and the 2018 parade’s Grand Marshal — petitioned the City Council to create the North Park Business Improvement District (BID) in 1984. The city approved the request in 1985.
Edwards’ wife, Kristen Arrivee, told him it was important to restart the Toyland Parade, which had been a regular event in North Park when they were growing up. And with the help of the community, they did. The 1985 Toyland Parade famously featured an elephant provided by the zoo.
“The parade was more or less a statement that we are a community and that we cared enough to come together,” North Park resident Midge Neff-LeClair said in an interview, which was referenced in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Dec. 3, 1993 issue.
That sentiment still holds true. What the current parade lacks in splendor it makes up for in homegrown charm. The entries may not include horses, camels or military tanks, but this year there were dogs on rolling paddle boards, floats created by Jefferson Elementary School students, and two water tanks: the North Park Historical Society’s dancing water tower, and a two-dimensional version constructed by North Park Little League.
For Edwards, the effort has always been worth it.
“I must say that when the community joined in and walked University Avenue after the last entry, I felt that I was part of a real community,” Edwards said after this year’s parade. “Seeing the parents and kids join in celebrating the parade like that gave me a lot of pride to have played a part in the renaissance of the North Park Business District.”
For Angela Landsberg, executive director of North Park Main Street — the successor organization of the 1985 BID — saving the parade was essential.
“The North Park community is deeply connected to its history and the Toyland Parade is a big part of that,” Landsberg said. “When I heard that the parade had been canceled, I knew our job at North Park Main Street was to ensure that the show would go on!”
And with the help of the community, it did.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.