“It’s awfully quiet for a Friday night, I remarked to the driver.”
The cab driver looked at me and sniggered, “don’t be deceived, ” he continued in his Jamaican accent, “don’t be deceived. The life they is in the city, this man, this the outskirts we ain’t no there yet…. there those girls now are beautiful in them beautiful skirts and makeup. But after 1am they is not pretty no more.”
“Yea, them beautiful ladies, now is dressed to kill to club and to have a good time, but come 1am, they is sitting on the roads puking. Then them no pretty no more…”
“Ah”, I remarked. I needed sleep.
“You is here for the conference, noh?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Ya boss I could tell, from looking. Ya’ find time go to the Gaslamp Quarters this weekend… them place is beautiful…”
The Gaslamp Quarters was where new San Diego sprung forth. Made up of a total of 16 and a half streets, this is where nightlife in San Diego is centred around.
The old town was a poor site and a new one was first chosen in 1850. When Alonzo Horton arrived, the real estate mongul purchased 800 acres of land and led the development of the Gaslamp Quarters built in the Victoria era.
The first five streets were home to many undesirables and was given the name Stingaree. It housed gambling dens, brothels (or bordellos) and saloons. Although the United States then was then a conservative country (recall its Puritan background) and went as far as the Prohibition in the 1920s, crime and vice especially in the West was seen as being too pervasive to persecute and so controlled red light/vice districts were set up. Stingaree was San Diego’s vice district. At its height, in 1888, more than 120 illegal establishments could be found on these short 5 streets. As with most Chinatown’s in the world, part of Stingaree was home to a substantial Chinese population.
The Victorian-era buildings (and the strict controlled behaviour of the era) heavily juxtaposed with the vice all round.
After years of lip-service, anti-vice campaigns began in 1912, just as the strict Prohibition was beginning. More than 120 vice dens were destroyed, prostitutes were chased out of town, Chinatown was razed to the ground.
From the 1950s till 1980s, the place was nicknamed “Sailor’s Entertainment” because of the number of pornographic theatres, pornographic bookshops and sexual massage parlours were hidden all around. The open vice was removed but hidden vice still remained with massage parlours, strip clubs and gambling dens still operating until the 1980s, and at least to the signs I saw, probably even today. The streets of Stingaree remained filled with vice and poverty until the redevelopment and gentrification in the 1980s.
It’s still full of nightlife and the open vice is probably driven into the dark, but nightlife is nightlife, the money now is just a lot better and the people look a lot more glamorous.
Of these raised buildings, 94 Victorian era. Stingaree was renamed the Gaslamp Quarters.
The last vestiges of downtown’s red light past were forced out through political strongarm tactics. Perhaps the only homage to the Stingaree past is the current nightclub, Stingaree San Diego, one of the hottest clubs in the city.
Gaslamp Quarters is more than clubs, but also restaurants, pubs and bars. This is where the locals come out to party and enjoy themselves. The establishments may be cleaner, safer and more expensive now, but people still want to enjoy themselves – that doesn’t change.
ON THE MAP