From the Stingaree to the Gaslamp: San Diego’s Naughty Past

Although San Diego’s Gaslamp area is a commonly known tourist destination in 2015, that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the Gaslamp used to be San Diego’s Red Light District!

According to the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation, the part of town from the waterfront between 1st and 6th Avenues up to Market Street was formerly known as The Stingaree, as far back as the 1880s. Why? “Sailors joked that it was far easier to get ‘stung’ in this bawdy part of town than it was in the bay with all its stingrays.”

The Stingaree was home to bars, brothels, gambling dens, shooting galleries and other unsavory types of businesses. Interestingly, there was a brief cleanup campaign instituted in 1912, as an effort to make the city appear more hospitable to visitors for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Check out the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History article for more info on the more political side of this conservative crackdown, which concludes: “By the opening of the exposition in 1915, the Stingaree no longer threatened the favorable, sanitized image touted by San Diego’s leading citizens.”

"This is not a brothel" image by Flickr user Tom Coates
“This is not a brothel” image by Flickr user Tom Coates

Of course, the newly sanitized area couldn’t stay clean forever! As the same article notes, after WWII the expanding naval presence in San Diego meant more sailors in search of diversions while on shore leave, and the Gaslamp returned to its carnal nature with dive bars, massage parlors, and peep shows providing entertainment for the saucy seamen.

This reputation for bawdiness stuck all the way up until the 1970s, when local business owners banded together once more and revamped the Gaslamp with its current Victorian theme. Faux gas lamps were installed, along with brick sideways, to recreate the historic feeling of a 19th century neighborhood.

Today you can take a walking tour of the cleaned-up quarter, starting from the William Heath Davis House Museum, every Saturday at 11 AM and every Thursday starting at 1 PM in the summer. Along the way you’ll view such historic buildings as the Louis Bank of Commerce (835 to 837 5th Ave.).

Louis Bank of Commerce, photo via the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation
Louis Bank of Commerce, photo via the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation

The bank’s upper floors were formerly home to the Golden Poppy Hotel, described by the Historical Foundation as “a notorious brothel run by fortune teller and early marketing genius, Madame Cora.” Apparently Madame Cora instructed her stable of sex workers to flaunt their wares by day, offering potential clients marbles that matched their dresses, enticing them to return to the brothel come nightfall to procure a little alone-time with the woman whose lingerie matched the marbles. Stay classy, San Diego!

The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation & William Heath Davis House are located at 410 Island Ave. in the Gaslamp Quarter.

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