By Katherine Hon
When was North Park most in the dumps? Conventional wisdom says it was during the decades after the 1960s, when the regional malls drew shoppers away from the commercial heart of San Diego’s original streetcar suburbs. But the literal answer to the question is August 1952 to December 1974. Why? Because that is when the city of San Diego operated a sanitary landfill in Morley Field, North Park’s backyard.
The former landfill area stretches from Arnold Avenue at Upas Street southward through the park toward the intersection of Pershing and Florida drives. Nearly 2 million tons of garbage, refuse, trash, rubble and dirt lurk under park lawns, natural vegetation, trails, the City College baseball field, and city maintenance facilities. Before 1952, a natural canyon, apparently just begging to be filled, paralleled Pershing Drive in the park. The operation of a sanitary landfill involves daily compacting and covering trash with a layer of dirt, which is the model for landfill operations even today. In the early 1950s, this was considered a great improvement over transporting trash to outlying areas and burning it or creating open dumps which were breeding grounds for rats. It was thought that the convenient Morley Field location in the heart of the city would save trash hauling costs, and when the Arizona Canyon was filled there would be a flat area available for some useful development.
The long-range plan for the Arizona Canyon Sanitary Landfill unfortunately neglected to consider the continuing ground settlement that occurs as trash decomposes and produces methane gas. A testament to the settlement can be seen on the south side of the baseball field fence, where a gate designed for tall humans has been converted into a dog-door. A fly-casting pond located across from the petanque courts had to be abandoned in the 1990s because it would not hold water due to its continually cracking lining. The problem of seeping methane gas could not be ignored after an explosion on the site in 1987 injured a worker who lit a cigarette near a storm drain. An underground gas collection system now pipes methane to a flare station where the gas is continuously burned off. The station is located just south of the disc golf course. City crews also monitor methane levels in 89 wells scattered around the park for compliance with state regulations. Because of the methane gas problem and land settling, most of the landfill surface will remain a passive area. Even landscaping could cause problems as irrigation could increase methane generation and possibly produce contaminated runoff.
Not that passive use is a bad thing. Some of the most unique recreational activities in the city happily occur on the former landfill surface, including archery, Renaissance reenactment and kickball. Families, runners and dog walkers enjoy the loop trail behind the baseball field, where the Coronado Bridge and Coronado Islands grace the distant horizon. Imagine what could be buried under your feet as you wander the peaceful east mesa. Among soda bottles and TV dinner tins, an archaeologist conducting a “dig” might find the original North Park neon sign hung above University Avenue at 30th Street, which was removed in 1967 and never seen again.
Several aerial photos of the Morley Field area showing the landfill and the canyon before and after are in the North Park Historical Society’s latest book, “Images of America: San Diego’s North Park,” published by Arcadia Publishing Company in 2014. This book, which tells the story of North Park from 1900 to now, is available in North Park at Paras Newsstand, Pigment, Kaleidoscope, and North Park Hardware. Visit the North Park Historical Society website at NorthParkHistory.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
—Katherine Hon is secretary of the North Park Historical Society.