Ghosts of the San Diego Rialto - 005
Working class and marginal institutions symbolized the economic decline of
downtown by the 1970s as Vietnam War demobilization shocked the local economy. For mentally-ill or displaced veterans, the Rialto economy and SRO hotels offered a sense of community during an era of political skepticism and high unemployment. Neil Morgan, San Diego’s epic chronicler of social life, called the area “Back of Broadway.” With sensitive eyes, he believed that this Rialto economy, though not upscale nor respectable to some, had a rich history that connected San Diego’s past and present. He described SRO hotels like the Golden West, the Aztec Theater, downtown’s most popular burlesque club known as Bob Johnston’s Palace Buffet, and the cafeterias and other institutions that downtowners called home. Like the days of the Stingaree, these were important cash and tax-generating businesses for the city during times of municipal budget cuts. When downtown redevelopment began in 1981, the city condemned two businesses at 1111 East Broadway. They had anchored the boulevard since 1944: Bob Johnston’s The Sports Palace and the Hollywood Burlesque House. Now it is gone to clean-up Broadway for the Horton Plaza retail mall, with parking garages facing the fabric of the city.
Whenever I walk up and down Broadway Street today, from the ferry landing to Highway 5, much has changed from the sailor town of my childhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, high-rise construction reoriented Broadway Street towards business use once again. At the corner of Broadway and Kettner Streets sits the enormous Helmut Jahn building with a downtown trolley hub, right across the street from the Amtrack Station. Back in high school, the spot was a popular skateboarding spot because of the slick, marble sidewalk that lay in front of the beer and go-go bars there. It was also a part of West Broadway that maintained social networks of great diversity; you could sit there on a weekend night and see the spectrum of humanity come and go throughout the evening, rich, poor, and in-between. One of the first times I ever learned about the Vietnam War, from a veteran no less, was on that corner. The neighborhood around West Broadway was a literal camping ground for homeless veterans during the 1980s, after the Jarvis/Reagan revolution cut veterans benefits and sent many onto America’s streets. Now you see commuters coming and going, wealthy professionals from downtown condominiums walking their dogs, fauxhemians crawling through the nighttime. Although downtown redevelopment has been a financial success, the old was thrown out with the new. There are very few establishments left downtown for a younger person like myself to connect the city’s past and present. Some come to mind, like the Chinese Historical Society at Third and J Streets and many historical structures on the National Historic Register like the Horton Grand Hotel. But downtown’s history is buried under the current consumer spectacle, barely noticeable. With little of historical interest to view anymore, I’ll head into Wahrenbach’s Books at Eight and Broadway, get something to read, and head down to the Hong Kong, an old beer bar. Mona, the Korean manager of the bar, greets me with “nice to see you again.” An oldtimer will strike-up a conversation with the words, “Let me tell you what is was like in the old days.” With few to tell their story, I put my book down and open my ears to this living history.