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History Of Downtown San Diego

History Of Downtown San Diego

GLORIA PENNER (Host): In her continuing series, “San Diego’s Evolving Downtown,” KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr is looking at a variety of influences on the city’s urban core. Here she takes a look back at some of places that helped make downtown San Diego what it is today.

KATIE ORR (KPBS News): Today downtown is full of skyscrapers, condos and businesses. But amidst all this new development, several historic sites are still standing. While these sites have seen their ups and downs, some have managed to survive and even thrive in San Diego's evolving downtown. The US Grant hotel sits at the top of the Gaslamp Quarter on Broadway. This year it will celebrate its 100th birthday. The hotel was opened by Ulysses S. Grant Jr., son of the President. Ken Kramer, host of the KPBS Show "About San Diego," says the hotel was the center of downtown life for a long time.

KEN KRAMER (Host, "About San Diego"): This hotel was, into, I would say, about the 1970's, really the heart of our downtown. This was the place where there were meeting rooms. This was where you could hold gala events. Mamie Eisenhower came here. Albert Einstein came here. This was the elegant place in San Diego. But things changed after that.


ORR: In the 1970's many hotels moved to Mission Valley. The US Grant closed but eventually reopened in the mid-80's after an $80 million renovation. Today the hotel is owned by the Sycuan band of Kumeyaay Indians. There's another hotel in the neighborhood that provides perhaps one of the most recognizable landmarks for downtown.

KRAMER: Generations of San Diegans know the El Cortez Hotel. This was where you came for your senior prom. This is where you came to elegant wedding receptions. This place, the El Cortez Hotel, was just the place in San Diego.

ORR: The 15 story high El Cortez opened in 1927. Kramer says in the 1950's the hotel was known for its posh nightclub and famous glass elevator.

KRAMER: 1956, it was called the Star Light Express and it took you up to a place called the Sky Room. And they even wrote songs about it, "Sitting in the sky, me and my baby, drinking scotch and rye." And you'd ride this elevator all the way up, and it was glass. So it really had this effect of elevating you over the downtown area of San Diego and all the way out to sea. It was quite a ride.

ORR: Following its heyday of the 1950’s, the hotel fell into disrepair and was almost demolished. But today a newly restored El Cortez is home to 85 luxury condominiums. The vibrant character of the Gaslamp Quarter today differs greatly from that of the late 1800’s.


KRAMER: In the 1880's we're talking about a place that is frequented by prostitutes and gamblers and Wyatt Earp is listed as a capitalist in the local phone book. Again, not a very, very nice place to be.

ORR: The Gaslamp Quarter retained its somewhat seedy reputation up until the 1980's when the city began redeveloping the area. But while the bordellos may be gone, their history lives on. In the 1920's the balboa theater was on the national vaudeville circuit. But it took on a more important role a couple of decades later.

KRAMER: During World War II we were shy of enough accommodations for sailors here in San Diego. So many of them actually slept upstairs, kind of behind the loft, while performances were going on pretty much around the clock. So if you came into town, you had a little liberty or something like that, you could take in a show almost any time at the Balboa Theater.

ORR: many of these sites are centered on or close to Broadway, which runs through the heart of downtown. But before 1914 Kramer says the street was known as "D" street. It was changed to "Broadway" to make it sound classier. He says in many ways, the street is indicative of San Diego's aspirations.

KRAMER: We've always had a certain insecurity in this corner of the country, especially compared to Los Angeles. And you can look at the streets and you can look at the development of downtown and through the years you can kind of see how we have always embraced elegance. We have always embraced, wherever we could find it, those special little things that made us as good as some of those other cities and towns.

ORR: As downtown San Diego continues to evolve with officials deciding on big projects like ballparks, city halls and convention centers, many of these historic sites will continue to define what San Diego was and what it can be.

PENNER: For our ongoing coverage about downtown development, we'd like to know what you think the city should invest in in downtown San Diego… is it a new central library, a new city hall, a football stadium, or none of the above? Log on to and take part in our poll.