Turning on the heat in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter Downtown: The city has revived an old, 16 1/2 -block neighborhood, where shops, restaurants and nightclubs attract crowds of legitimate pleasure-seekers.

June 30, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A dozen pedestrians are huddled on a downtown San Diego street corner. It's some time between 10 p.m. and midnight on a Friday, and they stand a few blocks below Broadway, in the heart of a downtown zone whose Victorian storefronts have seen decades of seriously bad news.

But changes have been made. San Diego has revived the night life of its oldest downtown neighborhood with a success that other cities can only envy.

Those pedestrians are trying to decide on their next club. Latin jazz on Fifth Avenue? Blues on F Street? Flamenco on Fourth?

In the 16 1/2 blocks of this neighborhood, more than 60 restaurants are in business, most of them Italian, a couple Spanish, surprisingly few Mexican. In about a dozen nightclubs, musicians are holding forth, cue balls are careening and mirror balls are spinning. Along Fourth Avenue, at the western edge of the district, the many-colored, phantasmagoric architecture of Horton Plaza covers more than six city blocks with 140 stores and 14 movie theaters. Each weekend, the sidewalks are awash with after-dark shoppers, clubbing young folk, vacationing couples and footloose conventioneers.

For anyone wistful about the lost charms of big-city living, the Gaslamp Quarter is a comforting sight.

From the corner of Fifth and F, where we stand, the blues and the jazz are audible already, joining the din of dinner chat from the block's several sidewalk cafes. Every few yards, another set of "gas lamp" globes glows atop an old-fashioned lamppost, powered these days by electricity. Huffing young men pedal past, delivering diners to their restaurants by bicycle rickshaw.

Finally, we commandeer a sidewalk table and settle in while the Johnny Eager Band rages beneath the lights of an old movie marquee inside Croce's Top Hat (cover charge: $6).

By day and by night, this is a neighborhood alive with all the usual unusual urban things.

In Wonderama at 614 G St., a few blocks beyond the Gaslamp Quarter's official limits, browsers contemplate "fully poseable" Farrah Fawcett-Majors fashion dolls ($40), "Welcome Back, Kotter" trading cards ($2.95 per unopened pack) and "Bewitched" T-shirts ($14). The "Mork & Mindy" lunch box is not for sale.

Inside the Cuban Cigar Factory at 551 Fifth, a crew of 13 cigar makers, most of them exiled Cubans, rolls 4,000 cigars a day -- stuffing panatelas, torpedoes, presidentes and robustos with Cuban-seed tobacco grown in Dominica, Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico -- while prospective customers look on.

Stick to the prosperous blocks of Fourth and Fifth avenues, and you might never guess that San Diego's economy is still suffering through the aftermath of defense cutbacks. In the space of three days, just about every dining room I visited was packed.

The Gaslamp Quarter is no nirvana. The handful of holdover dirty-movie houses, the panhandlers, the unleased live-in lofts, the down-and-out zone that begins on the Gaslamp's eastern edge, the six bicycle police officers assigned to the district day and night -- they're all evidence of that.

But within the Gaslamp's boundaries, the crime rate is falling as the after-dark crowds grow. In 1995, San Diego police logged 865 crimes in the area, down from 1,201 the year before.

After our club-hopping Friday night, we attended a docent-guided tour of the Gaslamp the next morning. (The two-hour tours, which cost $5 for adults, begin at 11 a.m. most Saturdays at the William Heath Davis House at 410 Island St.)

The beginning

As we strolled past the district's 94 historic buildings, I learned that the redevelopment of the Gaslamp Quarter began not in the 1970s but in the 1860s. After Father Junipero Serra founded his mission in San Diego in 1769, the first East Coast immigrant settlers of San Diego arrived in 1850, tried to set up shop on land that became the Gaslamp, but failed. Instead, those settlers retreated to a warmer area a few miles north and east -- Old Town, they call that area now.

Even Wyatt Earp

The failed town sat idle for most of a generation until a newly arrived developer, Alonzo Horton, bought up 800 downtown acres at about 33 cents each, and gave civilization a second try in 1867. This time settlement took, and within a few decades, a gambling-hall proprietor named Wyatt Earp (yes, the same), a thriving red-light district (at least 138 prostitutes in 1912 by police count) and a substantial Chinese population had moved in. Then, in approximate rhythm with the arc of city centers across the country, downtown grew and grew, and peaked and fizzled.

The Gaslamp Quarter's latter-day resurgence began with a clutch of men in suits who offered this novel sales pitch: They were from the government, and they were here to help.

They began in the 1970s by spending millions, designating a redevelopment area downtown, buying up burned-out lots and neglected properties. The local merchants, meanwhile, renamed the oldest area for the gas lamps that glowed there in the late 19th century.

The mall cure

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