All eyes were on Shelter Island this past weekend for the Pacific Rim Park Friendship Walk!

Our walk was a fine ramble on a fine day, celebrating the friendship of countries located around the Pacific Rim, enjoyable on every level. The giant Friendship Bell will rung! Friends of James Hubbell and Pacific Rim Park “veterans” gathered to reflect and look to the future.

Even those who know the story always enjoy hearing it again: how did the Pacific Rim Park project come to fruition?

A small group of passionate people somehow pulled off this beautiful place? How did it happen? Read on. James Hubbell’s friend and Ilan-Lael Foundation board member Rebecca Morales tells the story. Let friendship and peace help change the world as we all ramble on…and make new friends! In Honor of the Pacific Rim Park Friendship Walk at Pearl of the Pacific park, we have published the following chapter  from the book “Pacific Rim Park: The Transformational Power of Art” by James Hubbell and  Rebecca Morales, Ph. D.


Purchase the book!

The Vladivostok park experience was so inspiring, the team of James Hubbell, Milenko Matanovič, Lowell Strombeck, and Prof. Gennady Turmov immediately began work on building a park in San Diego, sister city of Vladivostok and homeport of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. It took four years for the second park to be completed under the auspices of the newly created Pacific Rim Park non-profit organization with the culmination of their efforts Pearl of the Pacific located on Shelter Island at the entrance of San Diego Bay.

The centerpiece is a “pearl” fountain surrounded by tile images designed by the students to represent the four quadrants of the pacific Rim; an American shore bird; the Russian Siberian tiger; the Chinese dragon; and the Mexican Quetzalcoatl. Photo: John Durant


Pearl of the Pacific blends the rich artistic traditions of each of the four participating countries — U.S., Russia, China, and Mexico. The walls are suggestive of an open Chinese fan, while an intricate wrought-iron design of vines (reminiscent of Russian lace work) floats atop two columns that form a “gateway to the Pacific.” The centerpiece is a “pearl” foundation surrounded by tile images designed by the students to represent the four quadrants of the Pacific Rim: an American shore bird; the Russian Siberian tiger; the Chinese dragon; and the Mexican Quetzalcoatl. The park stands as a beautiful testament to the efforts of four cultures, eighteen students, and numerous volunteers and institutions collaborating to build a place of peaceful enjoyment that is welcoming and open to all.


In addition to the Russia connection, the San Diego Park had its genesis in a 1986 gift of two-thousand rose bushes from San Diego to the people of the Sister City of Yantai, China, to create a San Diego — Yantai Friendship Rose Garden. Upon their return from building the Vladivostok park, Lowell Strombek saw a video on the San Diego-Yantai Friendship Rose Garden and arranged a meeting with Patty Howell, President of the San Diego-Yantai Friendship Rose Garden Association. All involved realized that an extraordinary opportunity existed to merge the two efforts for the purpose of developing additional parks around the Pacific Rim that would be a powerful symbol of beauty created by mutual cooperation. The next result was the birth of a new project involving the three sister cities of San Diego, Yantai, and Valdivostok.

Embracing the Pacific Rim

A Pacific Rim Park non-profit foundation formed in 1995, with Patty Howell as the first President. In addition to building a park in San Diego and another in Yantai, the group envisioned embracing all of San Diego’s Sister Cities along the Pacific Rim in Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, China, and Russia. This later led to thoughts of constructing parks in the 41 countries and islands that touch the Pacific, but first, the young organization was eager to complete a project that was symbolic of the role of San Diego in the Pacific as the millennium approached. 

Despite the eagerness of the group, the Port of San Diego, which had jurisdiction over the desired land along the Embarcadero, could not embrace a process-oriented design concept. Moreover, after being ridiculed for several previous art proposals and installations, they wanted to know exactly what would be built at the water’s edge. After three years of negotiation, it appeared the project was doomed. But around that time, the Port hired a Public Art Director, Catherine Sass, who started working with Hubbell and Howell. They compromised by defining ahead of time the crucial elements of size, location, view and materials, as long as the students would be allowed to design the details of the mosaic and metal work. This was a far cry from Vladivostok where the team was able to “bend or break many of the city’s regulations because they were building on University land and there was strong support for the project from FESTU and from the local government.” In addition, Sass suggested to Hubbell and Howell that they move the project from the Embarcadero where other public art projects were located to the tip of Shelter Island with its direct view from the harbor to the Pacific Ocean. The site can also be seen by all international ships entering the port.

Clay maquette design for “Pearl of the Pacific. Photo courtesy of Ilan-Lael Foundation

In March 1998, the Port’s Public Art Committee unanimously approved the new design concept and use of land, and soon the Port Commissioners allowed construction to begin with a completion date of July 16th.

The new organization rushed to gather students, get permits, prepare a building plan, and raise funds. Prior communications with Yantai University and the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok had yielded the of selection of top-level architecture students. Among the Russian students were three who had participated in building the Vladivostok park, Aleksey Parniakov, Valery Savostensko and Anna Vysotskaya, who were initially disappointed that they could not be part of the design phase, but this was outweighed by their desire to see their old friends.

On June 13, 1998, eight students and their professor arrived from Vladivostok and were joined by two students from Tijuana and two from the San Diego. The Chinese students initially had their visa applications rejected by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for fear of defection, but with assistance from Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressman Bob Filner, and San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, four students and a member of the Foreign Affairs Office, who monitored the students’ movements, arrived two weeks later. All of the students stayed in University of California, San Diego, apartments and visited local host families on weekends.

During the first five days, the students explored the identity of each country, as well as the meaning of a 21st century Pacific culture. Because the Chinese students were delayed by two weeks, they missed out on the interaction and bonding that took place at the outset. By the time they arrived, the footing was already dug and a rhythm had been established within the group. The Chinese had come with expectations that they would be working under a design apprenticeship with James Hubbell and did not realize they would have to actually engage in hands-on construction. In addition, old suspicions between Russians and Chinese surfaced. The Russian students had been acquainted in their homeland only with Chinese manual laborers, and whether overtly or inadvertently, they distanced themselves from the Chinese students. However, a Mexican student noted a parallel in the unequal relations between Mexicans and Americans to those of the Chinese and Russians, and then one of the Mexicans, Hanni Aburto, did something phenomenal. She turned her dorm room what she called “Hanni’s Café”, a place where students could have casual breakfasts and talk to each other. Through these informal opportunities, the differences soon softened, and this diverse group of students actually became friends.

Volunteers work on the mosaic and pearl at the center of the park. Photo courtesy of Ilan-Lael Foundation

For the next three weeks, students engaged in intense building, lending a hand with formwork and earth-moving, and designing and constructing the tile floor, iron gate, and bronze entrance plaque. They worked under the direction of James Hubbell, Milenko Matanovič, and Kyle Bergman, and side-by-side with local volunteers who stepped up to act as the support staff by feeding 30-plus workers and volunteers. An information table welcomed the media and interested visitors. The site was a beehive of activity with everyone speaking a polyglot of languages.

A Pacific Community

By the dedication on July 16, 1998, the group had succeeded in bringing together four very diverse cultures, and in the process, conveying how these friendships might influence an emerging Pacific culture. The dedication was attended by several hundred people, most of whom had participated in or contributed to the project. It was a colorful affair with music provided by Russian accordion player Lou Fanucchi, Mexican Tenor Marco Antonio Labastida, and American Mezzo Soprano Elizabeth Saunders. Speakers included San Diego Mayor Susan Golding; Port Commissioner Susan Lew; Port Public Art Coordinator Catherine Sass; Chinese Consul General An Wen Bin; Mexican Deputy Consul General Carlos Felix; Dan Hammer of the office Senator Barbara Boxer; Kathleen Roche Tansey, President of the San Diego Sister City Corporation; Pacific Rim Park President Patty Howell; and Artistic Director James Hubbell. Pearl of the Pacific was undertaken jointly with the Ilan-Lael Foundation, Far Eastern State Technical University, the City of Vladivostok, the Architecture Department at Yantai University, the City of Yantai, The San Diego Unified Port District, and the new Pacific Rim Park organization. 

During the design phase of the project, Milenko Matanovič introduced the idea of a Pacific Community. For all of the students this seemed rather theoretical but for the Russian students in particular, and later the Chinese, who had never been outside of their country, there was no context at all for such a concept. It wasn’t until they all worked together as a team did the illusive notion of a Pacific culture begin to make sense as they saw their individual forms of expressions unify into something new. Russian Architecture Professor Valery Moor, who transitioned from being a teacher to a team member during the course of the project (and, in the process, changed his approach towards design and building) simply observed that “Pacific Rim Park is inside the heart.”

The Soil & Soul design-build method was challenged by the San Diego Port Authority’s requirement that the design elements be presented beforehand and by the delay of the Chinese students’ arrival. In addition, Chinese students were hampered by the presence of a Chinese Foreign Affairs Officer monitor. But these impediments forced them to be flexible and respect what they accomplished in the face of unanticipated hindrances, and it strengthened their resolve to engage once again in the building of another park in Yantai, China, three years later (2001). In the end, they were able to bridge cultural barriers through their art. As captured in the words of the Mexican Deputy Consul General, Carlos Felix, at the dedication:

“…with the participation of artists from different cultures it is possible to promote [a] spirit of collaboration and understanding in the new millennium…Let’s continue with the support and promotion of this kind of project. Let’s enter into the new era of globalization with an open mind, facing the challenges and opportunities with determination to build a new community of nations in the Pacific Rim based in the greatness of our cultures.”


Build Dates: June 23 – July 17, 1998

Design/Build Team  •  Elena Alekseenko, Vladivostok  •  Cristobal González  •  Bardales, Tijuana   •  Barshia Cohee, San Diego  •  Hanintzerani “Hanni” Aburto Estrada, Tijuana  •  Gao Hongbo, Yantai  •  Nikolai Kassianov, Vladivostok  •  Aleksey Parnyakov, Vladivostok  • Valeria Prokurova, Vladivostok  • Valery Savostenko, Vladivostok  •  Nathaniel Towl, San Diego  •  Anatoly Tukbatulin, Vladivostok  •  Anna Vysotskaya, Vladivostok  •  Yudan Wang, Yantai  •  Xin, Yantai  •  Ma Zhixin, Yantai

Team Leaders  • Kyle Bergman, San Diego   • Alber Dematis, San Diego  • Kim Emmerson, San Diego  • James Hubbell, San Diego   • Milenko Matanovic, San Diego   • Valery Moor, Vladivostok  • Chen Zhiqiang, Yantai

Support Team  •  Vivian Blackstone, San Diego   •  Diana Chuh, San Diego  •  Brennan Hubbell, San Diego  •  Chuck Lang, San Diego  •  Molly Lee, San Diego  •  Maegan Prentice, San Diego

TOP PHOTO: The San Diego Pacific Rim Park, “Pearl of the Pacific,” completed in 1998, by Tom Lamb

3 responses to “Pearl of the Pacific, San Diego”

  1. Marilyn aBacon says:

    In Gratitude to you for publishing the Book.
    Rembering filming, & working with mosaics on this project with James, staying in the dorms & cooking & sharing meals and art & Spanish being the language
    we all understood a little.
    All Blessings & Love
    Marilyn Bacon

  2. Hello administrator, Thanks for the well-researched and well-written post!

  3. Michael Lehman says:

    Thanks so very much for spotlighting Jim’s work and continuing to building his legacy!

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