In 1772, Father Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Luis Obispo de
Tolosa in a picturesque region of California's Central Coast.
Before the mission was established, the San Luis Obispo area had been home
to two native peoples for many years: the Salinan and
the Chumash. As was common during the colonization of the United States,
the native population dwindled, but today the descendents of the Salinan and
Chumash still live on the Central Coast.
After the Mexican annexation of California in 1822, the San Luis area
became home to various government officials and Army officers. The Mission
churches themselves were neglected, but the vistas became homes
for Mexicans with status at the time. Economy was primarily based on
cattle ranching. The Golden Age of Mexican control on
the Central Coast was ended by the Gold Rush, which drew people north to
the San Francisco area. San Luis became something of a ghost town for a
while; those left on the relatively isolated Central Coast tended to be
violent miscreants. To combat the criminal element, Walter Murray formed
the Committee of Vigilance in 1858.
The United States began to establish a foothold in San Luis in 1869, when
Murray started the San Luis Obispo Tribune newspaper. More extensive
development of the area began, and soon people began to look to the ocean
for a means of increasing commerce. Ports and lighthouses were constructed,
and the region's economy improved further. More people moved to the region,
especially following the extension of the Southern Pacific Railroad into
the Central Coast. In 1901, the California Polytechnic School was founded;
today, this school lives on as the California Polytechnic State University.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the San Luis Obispo area is
its flexibility of production and diversity of resources. San Luis was
able to switch gears from cattle farming to navy bean production during World
War I. When that war ended, dairy and seed farming increased. During
World War II, the San Luis area was selected by the War Department as a
good location for military training camps. Many military families ended up
staying in the region after the war.
Today, the town of San Luis Obispo has a population of around 44,000. It is
a popular tourist spot, due to its natural beauty and old-fashioned character.
Several Hollywood productions have been filmed in the region, including The Sheik,
The Ten Commandments, and Diamond Jim Brady in the 1920s, and Murder by Numbers
Though San Luis is fairly small, there is a great deal of architectural
diversity. Buildings from the 1800s still stand downtown, but these are
nestled between Victoria's Secret and Barnes & Noble. The Cal Poly campus
is itself a bizarre collage of structures left over from the institution's days
as a vocational school and more modern, experimental buildings designed by
students. In the outskirts of the town, you will find larger department stores
adjacent to farmland. There is a constant battle on behalf of many locals to
maintain San Luis Obispo's charm and character; this resistance of "corporate
invasion" sometimes gets surprisingly violent. A Carl's Jr. fast food
restaurant was forced out of downtown in the year 2000; rocks were thrown
through its windows, and the building was vandalized. Since nobody really
bothered the Gap downtown, one can only assume that the fast food place was
singled out as some sort of symbol.
Every Thursday evening, downtown San Luis Obispo is filled with the sights,
sounds, and smells of the large Farmer's Market. Here, you can sample local
produce and browse the many shops as you and your friends try not to get trampled
by the sizable crowd milling about the streets. College students spend a lot
of time downtown; both at the market and at any of the numerous bars. San Luis
is not "high tech"; the options for entertainment are somewhat limited. You have
to make your own fun, and deal with the occasional smell of fresh manure drifting
on the wind near the college.
The atmosphere in San Luis is one of both cheerful bustle and languid dream-walking.
The people are colorful; there are a number of known "characters" that frequent
the downtown area and transit system. There are artists painting in the parks,
and musicians weaving tunes in front of the fountains. Except for the occasional
serial murderer, San Luis seems almost idyllic.
Many students who attend Cal Poly dream of staying in San Luis after completing
their degree. My boyfriend and I certainly did; we fought leaving until the very
last minute, when we ran out of money! There is a strange sort of magnetism in San
Luis Obispo; for me, it always seems easier to be myself in a small town. Unfortunately,
there is not much work for engineers in the San Luis area; however, there are plenty of
opportunities in the medical and agricultural industries. Cal Poly churns out a
large percentage of engineers, but most of them end up leaving for either the
North (near San Francisco and San Jose) or the South (near Los Angeles).
I will probably continue to be a tourist in San Luis from time to time. Though
I only lived there for two and a half years, it felt more like home than anywhere
else I'd ever been. It is my sincere hope that the town
is able to find a balance between preserving its past and providing for its future.
My own experience living in San Luis