The Historic Gaslamp Quarter and Stingaree
John C. Putman, November 2009
Brothels, drug dens, and gambling halls once dominated the landscape of downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, where visitors will now discover an array of fine restaurants, trendy nightclubs, and unique shops. The Gaslamp Quarter, the area of downtown directly across from the meeting hotels, is the heart of the city and a fine example of successful urban renewal. Until just a couple of decades ago, few residents or visitors would set foot in the area, but now thousands fill its streets nightly to dine, shop, and enjoy its historic character.
Originally, the center of San Diego was located a few miles north of its present location in what is now called Old Town. In the wake of the Mexican-American War, a San Franciscan named William Heath Davis attempted to establish a town along the waterfront near the foot of Market Street. Davis built a house for his family, the oldest surviving structure in the district, but his efforts failed to attract sufficient support. In 1867, Alonzo Horton, the father of downtown San Diego, sailed into the bay and purchased several hundred acres of waterfront property and proceeded to build a wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue (roughly where the city’s convention center now sits). Within a few years businesses and residences filled in the surrounding area and downtown San Diego began to thrive.
The boom of the 1880s lured new settlers as well as less savory folk who serviced the desires of sailors and other visitors to San Diego. Gamblers and prostitutes prospered, while police and local officials looked the other way. Fresh from the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp himself moved to San Diego in the mid-1880s and operated three gambling halls in what some now called the Stingaree district. Listed in the 1887 city directory as a “capitalist,” Earp was joined by other entrepreneurs like Ida Bailey, San Diego’s most successful and famous madam, and Ah Quin, a successful businessman and patriarch of the Chinese community. By the end of the 19th century, the Stingaree encompassed a large swath of land south of Broadway, including the city’s Chinatown. Immigrants who fled the anti-Chinese violence that struck northern California found jobs building railroads in San Diego or labored on fishing boats that called San Diego homeport.
Prostitution and gambling flourished in the Stingaree district well into the early 20th century. When San Diego announced that it would host the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, city fathers and business leaders urged police to clean up the Stingaree. In November 1912, officers raided numerous brothels, arresting 138 women who, within days, boarded trains heading out of the city. Health officials then descended on the district and condemned a dozen or more buildings and numerous cribs where prostitution had taken place.
Shortly thereafter, the City Council announced a ban against public speaking on downtown streets, purportedly to expedite street traffic. But the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), not public safety, was the real issue underlying this ordinance. The IWW, or Wobblies, as they were often called, used the streets to organize workers and rally the city’s working class against local capitalists like John D. Spreckels, publisher of the San Diego Union. Hoping to impress visitors to the upcoming exposition, police arrested scores of IWW members who attempted to test the new law. But news of these arrests drew hundreds of Wobblies throughout the state to San Diego; they took turns speaking at the corner of 5th and E, before being hauled away to the local jail. On March 4, 1912, the San Diego Tribune published an editorial about the IWW declaring that “[h]anging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion, there to rot in cold oblivion like any other excrement.” Local vigilantes, many of them local real estate businessmen, seized Wobblies from their overflowing cells and marched them to the county line—where they forced them to run a gauntlet of vigilantes who beat and burned the socialists with cigars. By the opening of the exposition in 1915, the Stingaree no longer threatened the favorable, sanitized image touted by San Diego’s leading citizens.
While vice never completely disappeared from the Gaslamp Quarter, the post-World War II years brought significant changes to the downtown area. San Diego’s suburbs swelled with new residents, and shopping malls encouraged many downtown businesses to relocate closer to their customers. The city’s expanded naval presence meant that thousands of young men flocked to the nearby Gaslamp Quarter for diversion. Peep shows, massage parlors, and seedy bars came to dominate the district, tarnishing downtown’s image anew. In the mid-1970s downtown property owners and city leaders rallied together to rehabilitate the Gaslamp Quarter once again, this time by flaunting and preserving the district’s historical character. The 1985 opening of the whimsical and wildly unique shopping center, Horton Plaza, marked the renaissance of San Diego’s downtown. Residents soon returned downtown to discover new possibilities—and with the completion of the city’s waterfront convention center, the modern Gaslamp Quarter was born.
AHA visitors are encouraged to walk under the Gaslamp Quarter’s entry archway and head up Fifth Avenue not only to dine and shop, but also to explore the district’s Victorian-era architecture and rich history. The William Heath Davis Historic House Museum, located at 410 Island Avenue, is a good place to start. There, visitors can find maps and other guides to the Gaslamp Quarter. Be sure also to head a couple of blocks west to the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, where you can learn about Chinese culture and history in San Diego. Finally, no visit to the Gaslamp Quarter would be complete without seeing the dramatic, colorful, and architecturally innovative Horton Plaza shopping center.
—John C. Putman is associate professor of history at San Diego State University and author of Class and Gender Politics in Progressive-Era Seattle.