That part of San Diego that rests its bleary head at Horton Plaza

A lullaby of Broadway

Despite its age (built in the early 1900s by John D. Spreckels) and surroundings, the Hotel San Diego is a comparatively tenable abode.
  • Despite its age (built in the early 1900s by John D. Spreckels) and surroundings, the Hotel San Diego is a comparatively tenable abode.
  • Image by Vincent Compagnone

Soon I will join the bulk of you in the suburbs. I can hardly wait. In my mind is a vision of provincial bliss, complete with the aroma of backyard barbecues wafting up tree-lined streets and the redundant melody of an approaching ice cream truck.

The center of the room is occupied by a queen-size box spring and mattress. mounted on a metal frame.

The center of the room is occupied by a queen-size box spring and mattress. mounted on a metal frame.

If I sound foolishly euphoric, let me assure you I never thought I’d actually look forward to a stucco apartment in suburbia. My yearning is symptomatic of a very common twentieth-century disease. Highly contagious, it afflicts people as well as inanimate objects: urban blight.

In the fall of 1976 I moved into a hotel located on Lower Broadway. (Lower Broadway is that part of San Diego that rests its bleary head at Horton Plaza and dangles its feet in the murky waters of San Diego Bay. I live close to the feet.) At that time I had a number of good reasons: proximity to work, a desperate need for any roof over my head, a desire to live alone, and a very, very tight budget. With such solid rationalizing, I convinced myself that it would be an interesting experiment in urban living.

The steam-fed radiator deserves mention if only for its early Industrial Revolution design.

The steam-fed radiator deserves mention if only for its early Industrial Revolution design.

But frankly I never planned on staying here this long, and in retrospect I can see that my reasons were not really good enough. I jumped into this neon-lit arena with a bundle of misconceptions.

For one thing, it simply isn’t possible in downtown San Diego to live by oneself — not exactly. Certainly one can rent a room, single occupancy; but that does not guarantee said individual will be alone. The high degree of privacy that most of us expect in our residence, and even take for granted, is not available here, not with the bathroom located half a city block down the hall, and not with the meager noise insulation provided by the walls and windows.

Hotel San Diego guest bathroom

Hotel San Diego guest bathroom

As for my emaciated wallet, living in an eight-by-twelve room, sans kitchen, didn't improve its condition. In fact, my failure to anticipate the high cost of eating out is one of the major factors contributing to my overlong exile on Lower Broadway. A few sharp raps from the proverbial “greasy spoon,” and my precarious budget, like a row of nickels and dimes balanced on edge, toppled over.

Had I been willing to go just a block or two south of Broadway, I might have cut my expenses by as much as thirty percent. But I wasn't about to take another step down “desolation row.”

Had I been willing to go just a block or two south of Broadway, I might have cut my expenses by as much as thirty percent. But I wasn't about to take another step down “desolation row.”

Once this area gets a grip on a body, it holds on with all the tenacity of an underfed cannibal. The minimum-wage job that lured me here in the first place provided little financial buoyancy — only enough to keep my nostrils an inch or two above the water line. I have found it impossible to save the funds required to move elsewhere (first and last months’ rent; gas and lights deposit; etc.), and have had to live week to week, paycheck to paycheck, like my elderly hotelmates on fixed incomes.

Had I been willing to go just a block or two south of Broadway, I could have lived a lot cheaper. I might have cut my expenses by as much as thirty percent. But I wasn't about to take another step down “desolation row,” not after a quick look at the hotels that line up there. I think I’d rather camp out in Balboa Park than confine myself to one of those hopeless cubbyholes. Instead. I satisfied myself with the Hotel San Diego.

Despite its age (built in the early 1900s by John D. Spreckels) and surroundings, the Hotel San Diego is a comparatively tenable abode. Upon entering the lobby one might even call the place “quaint.” In any case, the rooms don’t elicit severe depression or suicidal tendencies at first sight; the corridors aren’t littered with empty wine bottles; and while I wouldn't suggest eating off the floor, the building is patrolled by a veritable army of service personnel: clerks, bellmen, maids, janitors, and security guards.

My lodgings on the third floor boast many features that are not available in the flat, colorless apartments of prefab America. Consider: a high ceiling with heavy beams, semi-ornate molding along the top of each wall, an inoperable white-washed transom above the door, and above that a deep ledge (which I couldn't resist searching for hidden treasure — but alas, only dust, circa 1930), twin electric fixtures on the south wall that once burned gas, a built-in cabinet commonly referred to as a “hutch," and one small, heavy metal radiator, all silver and rust in the northeast corner of the room. This steam-fed contraption deserves mention if only for its early Industrial Revolution design, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually emits heat. One more relic is the original lock on my door, complete with classic peek-a-boo keyhole. This was plugged up and forgotten years ago. though, when a more advanced device was installed. Now, that too is obsolete.

The above-mentioned items captured my interest and stirred my curiosity. They lend the place a sense of history that a little library research confirms. In its heyday the Hotel San Diego was often referred to as “the Governor’s Southern Mansion." Many celebrities of international repute slept here before me. The building has survived scandals, murders, fires, and other disasters. More recently it played courthouse for this county's judicial system and evidence of this still exists in various parts of the hotel. So, former glories abound.

But there are no crown jewels secreted away in room 306, just a few pieces of resilient furniture. The overall decor is best described as Salvation Army Modern. This: A tan dresser, in which four uncooperative drawers stick firmly together: a swivel stand has been bolted to its top, and into that is locked a temperamental black-and-white TV. Next, a small but handy writing desk (with chair) shows a mysterious nickel-size hole through its lower left-hand surface. The center of the room is occupied by a queen-size box spring and mattress. mounted on a metal frame. West of her majesty’s headboard rests a three-way lamp (with a one-way sixty-watt bulb) on top of a brown nightstand. A hard, unyielding wooden chair serves mostly as a stool, and above it hangs a large mirror.

There, for the most part, you have it — all twenty legs’ worth on a field of much abused, slightly tattered pink carpet. Add to the above a green bedspread, bright orange curtains, and two sets of gritty Venetian blinds (with matching broken pulleys), and the picture is complete. A most eclectic arrangement.

The windows of my Center City digs open to the east, and would have provided a good deal of early morning sunlight had not the Federal Building gone up across Union Street. More unfortunate still, the structure, in conjunction with the eastern facade of the hotel, forms a manmade canyon and echo chamber. This amplifies and repeats every noise from below, and Lower Broadway provides plenty of raw material.

Through soot-encrusted apertures comes a wide variety of tympanic terrors. My least favorite are the early morning Greyhounds and garbage trucks, which bellow and crash like ancient behemoths over some favored bit of asphalt. Occasionally a moaning streetsweeper umpires the proceedings, whooshing its bristles, bouncing its orange lights off the gray, predawn air. Then, from dawn until long after dusk, roam the hordes of the San Diego Transit System. These creatures emit a nearly continuous roar as they scour Broadway for sustenance. The sky brightens, and people converge on the city to fight for parking space; the hiss, grumble, and honkings of countless autos are broken by a lone motorcycle as it yips, minus muffler, down a less congested street. Man-size panes of glass rattle in their frames. Pigeons gnash their beaks. I cover my head with a pillow and try to go back to sleep, but it is hopeless. The day, whether I like it or not, has begun.

Machines are not the only inhabitants of the canyon — just the loudest. But after more than a year here, my ears have become trained to pick out the more entertaining events. One of these I refer to, with a mixture of respect, kindness and awe, as the Vicious Voice.

Somewhere in the last wing of the hotel lives a set of vocal cords, presumably contained in a human body, that would surely be the envy of any large carnivorous animal. Armed with an inexhaustible supply of venom and four-letter words, the Vicious Voice has an effective range of about four city blocks. It cannot abide the sound of people having fun. At the slightest provocation, the Vicious Voice spews a rapid stream of expletives in a high-pitched gravelly shriek. Whether it be a group of noisy sailors, a lone pedestrian whistling “Dixie,” or an S.D.P.D. patrol car does not matter. Anything that even breathes audibly is subject to attack, and the victims of these black blessings are invariably taken by surprise. Most are startled out of their wits.

Take one: It is early evening and most white-collar types have abandoned the city hours ago. Enter a straggler garbed in European suit. He is whistling some golden oldie and his lack of musical genius echoes through the canyon. The sound effects please him, so he experiments, producing a series of shrill pipings.

Suddenly, with characteristic vehemence, the Vicious Voice erupts like a nuclear-powered jack-in-the-box: a few choice criticisms; a little unfriendly advice.

As if running up against a plexiglass wall, the man halts in midstride; he looks around with enlarged Ping-Pong-ball eyes, then sprints toward his car. But the experience has already affected his neuro-muscular control; he drops his briefcase and must perform a few desperate deep knee bends in order to recover it. At his car he rummages frantically for his keys. At the same time his head jerks this way and that — like a deranged puppet — in an attempt to locate his assailant. (Impossible. The acoustics of the canyon play intricate games on the human ear.) He finds his keys, but these, too, hit the ground. More deep knee bends. Nervously he unlocks the car and scrambles inside. Safe at last. The engine starts. He drives away.

Unfortunately, he has forgotten his briefcase; it clatters from the roof of the car, onto the street, and bursts. Sheaves of loose leaf rustle, pencils roll, and erasers bounce. The mess expands, courtesy of an ocean breeze, to cover a large portion of the asphalt. The car stops. The driver does not get out at first, but sits behind the wheel holding his head in his hands. The Vicious Voice has been temporarily appeased.

So the decibel demons of Lower Broadway lake many forms. When it comes to sheer volume, however, the nocturnal varieties dominate. Friday and Saturday, as ever, are the busiest evenings, with the denizens of downtown congregating to play, hustle, or prey. Hunting season opens as bikers rev their chopped Harleys, a collection of chrome and denim at the northwest comer of Union and Broadway. Directly beneath the hotel, the patrons of the Silver Dollar Bar feed quarters to the juke box, and souped cars race their engines, generating noxious clouds of blue-white smoke. Across the street, the arcade plugs in all its electronic wonders, among them a life-size plastic gunfighter who loudly challenges anyone and everyone to a duel. Roving cassette players blare, tweet, and distort, while massage parlors crank up their respective sound systems. Here, a continuous cacophony, spiced by the clackety-thud of some busy pool table, a Confederate war cry, hysterical laughter. And the Vicious Voice, wailing like an obscene banshee above the metropolitan mob.

To put some distance between myself and the rowdy streets I often climb three flights of stairs to the roof. A great vantage point, and an interesting place to explore, it is one of the few luxuries the hotel has to offer. The roof is a fine place to share a bottle of wine with a friend, bask in the sun, or observe meteor showers. There is plenty of room and one could launch a kite if so inclined. Much to my surprise, I have always found it deserted.

The quality of the view depends on the direction one looks. To the west I can watch sailboats skimming the waters of the bay, while low jets thunder toward San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. The community of Hillcrest rolls inexorably northward, a pastel patchwork of older homes and stucco apartment buildings. Immediately to the south stands the ominous tower of the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Beyond it, the Coronado Bridge stretches like a giant blue snake. The Federal Building, among many others, obstructs my easterly gaze, but at night one’s attention is caught by the alternating red and white neon of the El Cortez Hotel and its Skyroom Lounge. The glass elevator shines like a translucent bead as it floats slowly up and down.

Seven stories away. Lower Broadway is a vortex of humanity. I have an excellent view of the seething streets, where anything can happen.

Witness: a commotion at the entrance of the Can-Can Club. Heads turn as the vibrations spread. Two men are ejected from said topless go-go bar. One of them is on crutches, his right leg in a full-length cast. Both are making uncomplimentary remarks to the bouncer who turned them out. He, in turn, offers a few suggestions of his own, but none sounds very practical. Ejectee Number One grabs a crutch from his partner and takes a swing at the bouncer. He misses and tries again, only this time hits a lamp post. The crutch shatters. In a Neanderthalic rage he then proceeds to choose his target with the leftover cudgel. The bouncer, self-preservation in mind, zigzags into the street.

Meanwhile, Ejectee Number Two is hopping around on one leg and doing his utmost with the other crutch. Someone gets hit in the face. Yells. Shouts. Madness.

One, two, three white cars, lights flashing cold blue, arrive on the scene. The doors fly open and all action comes to a sudden pause. Ejectee Number One gets a bit unruly in response to official curiosity about his recent activities. Surrounded by four or five cops, he is quickly subdued, handcuffed, and incarcerated behind wire mesh. But this stirs the imaginations of some elements in the crowd gathered across the street by the courthouse. A cry of “police brutality” rends the air, and the situation seems to be deteriorating when an unmarked car screeches into the intersection. Two very large men in plain clothes emerge, barking orders to disperse. The crowd churns, thins, and trickles up Broadway.

Ejectee Number Two is not unruly, just a bit stubborn. He refuses to get to his feet, even when assistance is offered, and must be loaded into the back of the police car like a sack of grain.

A cop laughs. Car doors thud, thud, thud as the drama sputters to a close. Pockets of bystanders turn their attentions in a multitude of directions, and the customers of Johnny’s Cafe (next door to the Can-Can Club) go back to their coffee. One can almost discern a characteristic hum as Lower Broadway absorbs the incident and returns to “normal.”

From my pigeon’s nest atop the Hotel San Diego I have watched many altercations of the sort described above. After a while one takes such things for granted, as part of the flash and farce that give this neighborhood its “atmosphere.” The carnage, after all, is minimal.

But when it comes to violent crime. Lower Broadway has no shortage of muggings, armed robberies, stabbings, or out-and-out bloody murder.

“I was sitting in my room,” declared one hotel resident, “when I heard a knock at the door. I opened the door and three or four men forced their way in. I was totally surprised. They pushed me onto the bed and put a belt around my arms. Someone kept my face pushed into the mattress until they got a pillowcase over my head. One of them pressed my eyes into the sockets with his fingers. They kicked me in the ribs and head, strangled me until I couldn’t breathe, and punched me in the stomach many times. They told me they would kill me unless I'd tell them where I hide my cash. They said they had knives and someone poked me in the back. I told them where it was.”

When I saw the victim, three days after the mugging, the evidence was still painfully fresh. His eyes, the whites totally obscured, looked like crimson spider webs; his chin and neck were both aflame with abrasions, and the amorphous bruises on his ribs and shoulders were deep purple.

As for myself, the wheels of fortune have turned with considerably less friction. Somehow I have managed to avoid unexpected guests and arm-twisting fundraisers. Though I have been “accosted” a few times, it was never by anyone very insistent or harmful. I brushed them off. The worst thing that ever happened to me (so far) was getting stuck in the elevator for fifteen or twenty minutes. As you know, others have done worse. Some, much worse.

One recent afternoon, upon returning from my daily dinner excursion. I noticed an excited crowd forming up one block west of the hotel. Nothing strange about that, but an unusually large and speedy contingent of police cars was also going in that direction. Obviously, the scene was fresh.

My curiosity aroused, I jogged the short distance and worked my way through the human forest. When I arrived at ringside I took one look, and immediately resolved not to take another. Two men had been involved in a heated argument, until one blew the other away. With a shotgun.

That night I stayed up late. I devoured half a roll of antacids and tried to recall more humorous and less disconcerting events. But my efforts proved fruitless; neither my stomach nor my disposition improved.

Ultimately, I resolved to move. My complacency, my sense of immunity and anonymity. the psychological devices that have insulated me from the demands of this urban environment, all are gone. They were blown to horrid bits on a busy San Diego street in broad daylight. And so, soon, I will join the bulk of you in the suburbs.

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