“For a long time, just for fun, I would go with girlfriends on informal ‘urban safaris',” says Patricia Fares of Ocean Beach. “And we called them that, too. We even got to putting on hats and dark glasses. Then it dawned on me one day, ‘Oh, my gosh! This is a business idea.’ ”
The sole proprietor of Urban Safaris, as well as its only tour guide, Fares (pronounced “ferris,” like the wheel) says she is “a teacher by trade.” The 48-year-old has also led hikes and bike trips here and abroad and worked for the travel industry. A native of Peoria, Illinois, who has lived in San Diego for 25 years, she arrived on the walking-tour scene just as the man known as Downtown Sam departed from it.
In March, Downtown Sam (his real name was Sam Minsker) died at age 73 of a brain hemorrhage. This was after nearly two decades as a volunteer for Walkabout International, the nonprofit “walking club” that offers free tours worldwide. An Air Force retiree. Downtown Sam was known for his wit, which displayed itself in his original ideas for walks. Tours of residential hotels, of buildings without 13th floors, and of contractors’ sidewalk stamps were among his repertoire.
Comparing her walk-and-talk offerings with Walkabout’s, Fares says, “Theirs all depend on volunteers and how much information he or she has. Some of their walks are just literally walks, and that’s okay. Some others have more informed leaders, and one of them was Downtown Sam.”
But Fares, who charges for her tours, doesn’t attempt to compete with Walkabout. “For one thing, I can only take ten people, and they are open to anybody who shows up.” Plus, they offer more than 100 walks a month, while she offers ten at most.
Among the places she walks are the Gaslamp Quarter, Hillcrest, Banker’s Hill, South Park, University Heights, and her own O.B. These are, perhaps, the obvious choices, considering that exploring neighborhoods with distinctive personalities is her aim. But what she points out along the way, particularly to locals if the tourists are scarce, isn’t always predictable.
This Saturday, her venue is the East Village, the former warehouse district where many artists are taking advantage of relatively cheap real estate. Beyond the galleries and the Sushi Performance and Visual Arts Space,
Fares likes her group to note Café Moto, the coffee-bar supplier, where thousands of pounds of beans are roasted each week, and the quirky little “urban-clothing” stores, like the UNUN boutique. “It looks like it’s pronounced ‘un-un,’ but it’s ‘yoon-yoon,’ ” says Fares, like a true insider. “It means University United.”
One of Fares’s stops is the ReinCarnation Project, the former Carnation processing plant that was converted to “mixed use,” including both residential and work space for artists. On at least one occasion, says Fares, somebody’s loft door was open and her group was invited inside.
In the same building, at 1061 J Street, is the San Diego Archaeological Center, and the tour-goers visit here, too. “Whenever anyone who is doing a dig for a new project, like the ballpark, comes across pottery shards and arrowheads or any interesting piece of trash, it has to be examined. This is the group that decides their significance, labels them, and stores them for future research.”
The Urban Art Trail runs like a thread through the neighborhood, Fares observes, and she and her charges follow it. The project was initiated in 1998 by East Village resident Candice Lopez, a graphic arts professor at San Diego City College, and her artist-husband, Rafael Lopez. “There are murals, free-standing art pieces, quotes in the sidewalk by Gandhi, J.F.K., and others. There are mosaic borders, around the bases of trees, made of chipped pieces of colorful pottery, and there arc painted utility boxes. That’s becoming a trend in other neighborhoods, but it was done in the East Village ahead of that trend.”
It is, of course, ironic that as neighborhoods like the East Village are discovered, their characters are inevitably altered. Chances are good that the ballpark will destroy it. “It’s like the SoHo-ization process in New York,” Fares agrees, “or like what happened to the neighborhood in the musical Rent— the East Village of New York. You know, the artists keep moving to where they can afford to live. But then the original people, who were the draw, are driven out.”
To the question whether San Diego’s East Village is the kind of place where some people may feel more comfortable venturing with a guide, at least initially. Fares says, “Yes, definitely. But I do find that once people are over there with me, they are just astounded. It’s much safer than it used to be, and in talking to the police, I have verified that. Actually, some people still have negative impressions of the Gaslamp. They haven’t been down there in ten years, either.”