SAN DIEGO – Under an ornate arch spanning the width of Fifth Avenue, boldly proclaiming the Gaslamp Quarter as the "Historic Heart of San Diego," dogs of many breeds and sartorial splendor roamed free.
Cats and horses, too.
Maybe even a few ferrets.
If you happened to stumble onto the annual Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade last month, you might have thought downtown denizens had taken the phrase "party animal" a tad too literally.
Ranging in size from Dobermans to dachshunds, and in variety from Clydesdales to calicos, these pampered pets wore elaborate costumes. To wit: a duct-taped Xena the Warrior Princess Chihuahua; a hairless Cornish Rex cat in an ugly Christmas sweater; a quarter horse trying to look dignified while wearing red velvet antlers.
Yes, it was just another wacky day in the Gaslamp, San Diego's most popular gathering place for hipsters, clubbers, baseball fans, tourists from the nearby convention center and, especially on this day, animal lovers.
This menagerie march just added to the general hubbub of activity that routinely overtakes this 16 1/2-block slice of downtown.
Streets each weekend teem with young people donning San Diego formal wear (tank tops, camisoles, board shorts and flip-flops) and drinking on rooftop and patio bars. It caters, too, to the city's sophisticates, who sample nouvelle cuisine and frequent wine bars before heading to the theater. Tourists wander over from the convention center or PetCo Park (during baseball seasons) and gladly fork over a felonious $9 for a margarita at one of the quarter's more than 50 bars.
Hard to believe, given this current vibrant scene, that the Gaslamp Quarter once was the dregs of San Diego, a sketchy part of town where crime, drug use and prostitution ran rampant, where century-old buildings fell into disrepair and became squatters' dwellings.
Such stark transformation, from 1970s degradation to 2010s revitalization, still seems to astonish even lifelong residents.
"After dark, you didn't want to be around here back in the day," native resident Mark Shaffer said. "It was really rundown. You could get cut."
Note that Shaffer was not some timid and effete San Diegan. The dude was wearing a black leather Harley-Davidson vest, accentuating an impressive set of guns (biceps, that is), as he strapped his 3-year-old leather jacket- and shades-clad Boston terrier, Chopper, onto his miniature Harley for the parade.
So if this tough guy ever was skittish about being here once the sun set over the harbor, then it must have been quite a dump.
Startling civic transformation
Come the 1980s, civic leaders, with an unflagging faith in the power of retail commerce and the tourist dollar, preserved the crumbling buildings brick by brick, and turned shooting galleries and porn shops into velvet-roped nightclubs, fancy retail outlets and Zagat-rated bistros.
The Gaslamp suddenly generated lots of buzz, where it once was just a place for sailors to catch a buzz on shore leave.
"This used to be as bad as it got," said Lawrence Lane, who narrates Gaslamp walking tours for Another Side of San Diego Tours, as he stood under the arch. "They called this whole area 'Stingaree,' after the stingrays in the bay that'd get you. The saying was, sailors could get stung more here than in the ocean."
Tales of prostitution, gambling and general carousing hold a certain sentimental allure to folks – as long as it happened in the distant pass, say, the late 19th century. Prohibition speakeasies and Wyatt Earp-owned gambling halls do, indeed, burnish San Diego's rascally image as a wild port o' call.
All that remains of the old Gaslamp are the 19th century buildings themselves – some dismantled and moved, like chess pieces, several blocks from their original sites – and the bulbous baroque street lights with red sleeves draped over the lamps for effect.
It's as if a Hollywood soundstage overtook the city and propped up the old Victorian, Spanish Mission, baroque and New England saltbox architecture to front modern, trendy joints.
You will find some buildings, such as the 1910 U.S. Grant Hotel on Broadway, which recently received a $52 million upgrade, that remain rooted in history and provide the same service as when they were constructed. More often, though, the exteriors serve merely as historic facades.
Take the quarter's hottest nightclub, Stingaree. This futuristic, strobe-lit three-level dance spot – plus a rooftop featuring private cabanas and fire pits – is housed in what formerly was the 1918 Produce Market Building.
One recent night, scores of 20-somethings crowded Stingaree's entrance, where a stern-faced bouncer only occasionally gave the nod to let eager clubbers into the inner sanctum. The heavy base of German techno beat spilled into the street, while friends Tatiana Pereira and Gabriel Martinez huddled near the patio fireplace for warmth (the temperature had plunged to 58 degrees, after all).
"This is the place to party," said Pereira, who added that this was only the first spot on a club-hopping tour that would include Side Bar (self-dubbed "San Diego's Sexiest Ultra Lounge"), Fluxx and Voyeur. "I'm from New York, and it's fun coming here."
Farther back in line, clubbers Sean Thomas and Deisarcy St. Andre stayed warm simply because they were wearing "onesies" – full-body fleece pajamas.
"It's their once-a-month onesie party," St. Andre said, "so much better than just a pajama party."
Catty-corner from Stingaree was the green burlap awning of Tivoli Bar & Grill, the oldest bar in the Gaslamp, circa 1865. On the same night that clubbers were jostling to get into Stingaree, just two people sat slumped over beers in Tivoli. Nary a single crack of balls from the pool tables could be heard.
For the older crowd
Do not presume, though, that the Gaslamp Quarter is only for the young.
Classy San Diegans with a little gray around the temples mostly eschew the Stingaree-like booty grinding. Instead, they opt for rooftop bars such as the Altitude Sky Lounge at the Gaslamp Marriott Hotel on K Street, or the Ivy Rooftop at the Hyatt on F Street.
Older Gaslamp habitues also frequent Cafe Sevilla on Fifth Avenue for tapas, Donovan's on K Street for carnivorous offerings and Barleymash on Fifth for drinks that'll put hair on your chest, like the Midway ("Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon, fresh grapefruit, honey ginger syrup, Angostura bitters, topped with Widmer Hefeweizen") washed down with "progressive bar fare."
Falling somewhere between raucous and sedate is the Shout House, a "dueling piano bar" in which two performers bang on baby grands placed back to back while the crowd shouts out requests. On this night, pianists Bill Pomerleau and Jonathan Coyle's repertoire ranged from Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to "Down Under," Men at Work's ode to Vegemite sandwiches.
A woman slipped Pomerleau $5 to play Celine Dion's treacly "I'm Your Lady," and he gamely completed the first verse before a man slipped Coyle some greenbacks.
"Wait, Bill, here is $6 that says no more Celine Dion," Coyle said. "This, folks, gives you insight into what shameless whores we are."
A burly man in a backward baseball cap then waved a $20 and requested Billy Joel's "Piano Man."
"We usually don't do that one 'til later," Coyle said. "But it's 20 bucks!"
Money flows freely in the Gaslamp. Conspicuous consumption is everywhere. One of the first places Another Side of San Diego Tour guides take you is Horton Plaza, a huge shopping mall with, as Lane said, "experiential architecture." Boutiques range from the eco-chic Cariloh Bamboo on J Street to Dolcetti on Fifth Avenue for that perfect little black dress to custom-made bling at Chappellet & Co. jewelers.
The other side of gentrification
Amid the prosperity, remnants from the Gaslamp's past remain.
Apparently homeless people linger in the shadows on some street corners, many in wheelchairs. One of the more outgoing identifies himself only as Hamilton. He encamped on Fifth Avenue and Market Street with a shopping cart festooned with Marine Corps flags and memorabilia from his stint in the late 1970s. Hamilton wore a blue fleece jester's cap, no shirt, surfer shorts and a red-white-and-blue neck brace. He said he once ran a pest control business after his honorable Marine discharge, but later "became one of San Diego's biggest (drug) dealers."
To hit up pedestrians for money, Hamilton cranked up his boombox and danced like a dervish to Fleetwood Mac. Business is pretty good, he says, though "the cops keep making me move, man."
A man with a crew cut stopped and handed Hamilton a few bills. He shook his American flag tambourine in thanks.
"They crack down on people like me just trying to make a living," Hamilton continued. "They even crack down on mimes, man, you know, the dudes who paint their faces and move around. The city don't want anything that stops people from going inside stores and spending."
But not even he wants to go back to the quarter's seedy period.
"My only complaint," Hamilton said, "is that on Saturday nights it gets so packed with people and dogs and cars that there's not enough room for me to set up."
SAN DIEGO: FROM THE DESERT TO THE SEA
San Diego is a diverse metropolitan area, and the county at large holds many recreational and cultural offerings. The Bee's Sam McManis visits three different San Diego experiences.
Dec. 23: A star-gazing overnight camping trip in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
Dec. 30: Whale watching seven miles off the coast
Today: Clubbing and sightseeing in the city's revitalized Gaslamp Quarter
SAN DIEGO: GASLAMP QUARTER
Location: 16 1/2-block area in downtown San Diego stretching from Broadway to Harbor Drive, between Fourth and Sixth avenues.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 to Exit 16B for Sixth Avenue toward Downtown. Turn left on Sixth Avenue and follow it into the Gaslamp Quarter.
Parking: On-street parking is nearly nonexistent. Most parking garages charge up to $25 for 12 hours. You can go to the Horton Plaza (Fourth Avenue and G Street) shopping center garage and get three free hours of parking.
Stingaree: 454 Sixth Ave. Tri-level dancing. Cover charge Fridays and Saturdays. (619) 544-9500, www.stingsandiego.com
Side Bar: 536 Market St. Hanging bird cages and saucy videos. (619) 696-0946, www.sidebarsd.com.
Altitude Sky Lounge: 660 K St. Rooftop at Gaslamp Marriott. DJ spins hip-hop, rock. (619) 696-0234
Fluxx: 500 Fourth Ave. One of San Diego's newest clubs, live hip-hop acts. (619) 232-8100, www.fluxxsd.com
The Shout House: 655 Fourth Ave. Dueling piano players take requests. (619) 231-670, www.theshouthouse.com.
Croce's Jazz Bar: 802 Fifth Ave. Live music venue run by Jim Croce's widow. (619) 233-4355, www.croces.com
Barleymash: 600 Fifth Ave. Upscale pub food. (619) 255-7373, barleymash.com
Cafe Sevilla 353 Fifth Ave. Tapas. (619) 233-5979, cafesevilla.com
Donovan's Steak & Chop House: 570 K St. Carnivore fare. (619) 237-9700, donovanssteakhouse.com
The Tin Fish: 170 Sixth Ave. Fish tacos. (619) 238-8100, tinfishgaslamp.com.
Dick's Last Resort: 345 Fourth Ave. Service with a sneer. (619) 231-9100, www.dickslastresort.com.
Tivoli Bar & Grill: 505 Sixth Ave. San Diego's oldest bar. (619) 232-6754, tivolibar.com
Another Side of San Diego: Walking and Segway tours.(619) 239-2111,http://anothersideofsandiegotours.com
So Diego Tours: Bars and Brothels and Restaurant hop tours. (619) 233-8687, http://sodiego.com
Petco Park Tours: See the Padres' stadium. (619) 795-5011, padres.com
William Heath Davis Historic House Museum: Self-guided tours of the house of a city father. (619) 233-4692, http://www.gaslampquarter.org