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.”

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