Despite being the hub of many a drunken adventure, downtown San Diego is maturing into adulthood. The urban core still scares some, but like most unknowns, familiarity eventually breeds appreciation or even admiration.
Omnia, a mega-club where the doors thumped open in 2015 occupies the Sixth Avenue nightclub space formerly called Stingaree. But before Stingaree was a club, it was the name of the red-light district south of Market Street, dating back to the late 1800s. You could be "stung" as badly in the Stingaree as you could [by a stingray] in San Diego Bay, according to historical lore provided by the Gaslamp Quarter Association.
This area used to house 350 prostitutes in 120 brothels and saloons with names as welcoming as First and Last Chance Saloon and Old Tub of Blood. The infamous Ida Bailey ruled the prostitution ring in her yellow-painted Canary Cottage (the current site of The Horton Grand) until the police raided the Stingaree bordellos in 1912.
Sailors eventually lost interest and downtown saw a decline in popularity and quality of life, filling with pawnshops and peep shows. Shadows ruled the street up into the 1980s, until the six-ton Gaslamp Quarter sign was installed at the base of Fifth Avenue in 1990 and reputable restaurants, bars and nightclubs started moving in. When Petco Park opened for baseball business in 2004, it marked downtown's official ascent to a topnotch entertainment district.
Looking down, Fifth and Market is aged pavement freckled with blackened gum. Looking up, skyscrapers are the backdrops behind brick and mortar foundations, all tied together by the only diagonal crosswalk in San Diego. The people traversing it are as opposite from each other as the buildings that surround them. On weekend nights women look like they're walking the tightrope in their wobbly, stilted stilettos and duct tape-tight bondage dresses, paying no mind to homeless souls begging for spare change. Lights from the surrounding restaurants beam down in an unnatural fluorescence, illuminating the duality of it all.
Beast of San Diego
(aka The Shake Weight Guy, aka The Shirtless Guy)
Posing oiled up and shirtless, sporting a wrestling mask and rattling a Shake Weight vigorously on his main stomping ground at Fifth Avenue and F Street, Flores is a local legend, and he knows it. He owns seven Shake Weights, which he rotates throughout the week during his nightly two-hour calorie-burning shift around town. In his spare time, he has several hobbies: "I did kung fu, karate and boxing. I lift weights, body build, study medical books, watch television, fornicate." On average, he has 20 photos taken of him per day, netting about $10 and up. But he says baseball season is the best since he can earn three times that amount, which he in turn spends on hookers. At 64 years old, he says he'll continue repping the Shake Weight until he is no longer winning the street fights people pick with him.
San Diego Downtown Residents Group
Smith joined this group of municipal troubleshooters back in 2000 when his friend told him to get off his ass after "bitching" about the same issues that weren't being fixed—like the lack of a quiet zone around the downtown railroad tracks. From then on, he started asking the city questions, playing watchdog from his downtown home. Moving up the ranks from newsletter writer to board member to president, he organizes additional resources to supplement the ones provided by the city, which he says aren't even enough to cover the cost of cleaning up downtown after a Saturday night. His biggest obstacle to date is addressing the hot water surrounding the homeless. "There's a lot of good-hearted people out there trying to solve the problem, but most of them have not played nice over the years," he says. Now that a database has been created to track service providers, he says progress can be made, and resources can be allocated to the most effective programs.
President & CEO
GEM — Gaslamp Event Management, Inc.
Assisting with the opening of nearly 200 bars and restaurants, she's the one to blame for the option overload that goes hand in hand with planning a night out in the Gaslamp. Bosier spearheaded downtown's nightlife revival back in 2000, starting up On Broadway Event Center (now Parq Nightclub) and Bitter End (now The Tipsy Crow) where she says she "brought sexy back to one of the oldest bars in San Diego." The Zombie Crawl, Irish 4 A Day and the upcoming Mardi Gras Block Party and Fat Tuesday in the Gaslamp are all partially her doing, too. She says the key to a successful event is a preplanned route that guides guests through the night, from dining to drinking to dancing. On an international scale, she says the Gaslamp Quarter's walkability puts San Diego in a league of its own, as does the camaraderie between businesses: "We're not cutthroat like some other cities."
Sometimes a bite between bar hops is the difference between rallying and passing out on the curb. Pizza works well, and two busy nighttime slice slingers are Ciro's Pizzeria (536 Market St.) and Gaslamp Pizza (505 Fifth Ave.). Sometimes what gets you through the night is a wrap from Doner Mediterranean Grill (823 Fifth Ave.), or a burrito from Valentine's Mexican Food (1157 Sixth Ave.). Gotta have a hot dog or a brat? On weekend nights Hub Market (748 Sixth Ave.) sets up a barbecue grill on the street. Bun-tastic.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES
If we're dive talking, here are three of downtown's mainstays:
(505 Sixth Ave.) Est. 1885
(423 E St.) Est. 1972
(929 Broadway) Est. 1933
On a scale from one to drunk (in the club scene)
A trip downtown can be headache inducing. One of the biggest contributors comes via your car—driving and parking it. With a few tips, you can cut back on the ibuprofen.
Park It on Market (614 Market St.): It may not be free, but it's a close second. This parking paradise costs just a dollar per hour, or offers the full 24 hours for $15.
Red, White and Blue curbs: Parking peril is a staple of urban America, making red, white and blue curb regulations hue fitting. These patriotic colors are like the hot lava on the schoolyard playground. Any hour of the day, any day of the week, stay away because a boy in blue is probably watching.
Green and yellow curbs: These allow for some rule bending. After the hours designated on the signs (typically 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for green and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for yellow), public parking is permissible along these colored curbs.
Green-topped meters: Parking meters with green tops offer extended parking in some areas and low-cost parking in others. With a deal as fine as $0.75 per hour for nine hours at a time, these little green fairies are peppered around East Village, Cortez, Little Italy and the Marina District. No, not in the Gaslamp.
Horton Plaza parking: Multi-hour parking fees at this downtown mall equate to the down payment on a house. Validation kiosks inside the mall get you three hours for free. Having a 24 Hour Fitness membership (there's one at Horton Plaza) allots free parking for two hours. However, there's no free parking after the clock strikes 9 p.m.
SHOULD YOU PEDICAB IT?
These pedal-powered carriages are by no means the optimal way to travel around downtown. At night, the multi-colored string lights and the boom-boxed dance music is beyond kitsch. However, looking blatantly like a tourist may beat blistered feet. If you do surrender your dignity and hail a pedicab, know this: Set a price for getting to your destination before you get in and the driver embarks on an expensive joy ride.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Daoust
Living on the 17th and 18th floors of a downtown high rise, writer/editor Sarah Daoust (pictured) has a first-class ticket for people watching. She says the best day to live in the middle of it all is Nov. 1, the day after Halloween, or, more specifically, the morning after. Therein lies the mother lode of walks of shame.
"This past Halloween, I saw a pregnant nun, but she had her baby bump on backwards so she looked like a hunchback carrying her shoes walking to the train station at 8 a.m. with makeup smeared all over her face."
But, the tables are turned every so often on Daoust. More than once she has exited the shower in her condo only to be surprised by window washers dangling outside her window.