Is Downtown eating its own?

This week's departure of Croce's makes you wonder why the good places downtown so often die young.

Sometimes it seems like once any café gets too big for its boots in the Gaslamp, it gets ejected and has to start again out in some suburban wilderness, just because it won't — or can't — pay the rent that the downtown landlords think their success justifies.


802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Case in point: Croce's is being levered out of the space it has held for, what? Nearly 30 years? New Year's Eve is their last night downtown. Reason? Follow the money. There was also the issue of thumpa-thumpa-thumpa coming up through the floorboards of the club the landlord let in below, which sure didn't help Croce's musicians and diners.

So now Croce's has sounded the retreat and is regrouping on Bankers Hill (Croce's Park West, 2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-232-4338 x14), still serving food, making music, and keeping alive the memory of owner singer Jim Croce (think "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown"), owner Ingrid Croce's first husband.

Jim died in a plane crash in 1973. One week before that, he and Ingrid had discovered the Gaslamp, and together they had the idea of creating a bar/eatery/live music venue right there to revive the gone-to-seed Gaslamp-Stingaree district.

"I vividly remember...we stopped on the corner of Fifth and F... looking for a place to eat and a club where we could listen to live music," Ingrid writes on Croce's website. "We were disappointed to find only tattoo parlors, ladies of the night, and people begging for change."

A week later Jim was dead, killed in a small-plane crash in Louisiana.

Fast-forward twelve years. Ingrid returned, and created basically the first live-music eatery downtown. Croce's was an important anchor for much of what became the Gaslamp.

A few blocks down at Fourth and Market, in 1991, a Jordanian Palestinian named Bassam Shamma opened what he claimed was "the first real coffee house in California." It sure felt like a real Euro coffee shop. Sold Gauloises French cigarettes, wine, exotic teas and way-good coffees. Maybe more than anyone, Bassam created an eco-system for the New Settlers of downtown. He made downtown cool.

Café Bassam

3088 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Did success spoil Rock Hudson? You betcha. Around fifteen years later, Bassam's new landlord thought he ought to get a bigger percentage of Café Bassam's profits. Bassam had to move. Up to...Bankers Hill (3088 Fifth Avenue, 619-557-0173). The new place is cool, but, well, the area is residential, doctorland. Why would you be up here?

Cafe Bassam

Cafe Bassam

Even so, Bassam brought everything up with him: the ancient rifles, cigars, model schooners, the baby grand piano, a thousand nicknacks and a hide-away feeling that's great for studying and having intimate conversations in. And customers followed.

Olives, bread, port

Olives, bread, port

Me too. Last week it was just for a $5 glass of port and a bowl of olives and bread ($8). It's a nice way to put a space-bar in the day, at the slat tables outside, as the sun slides across the Park, a block over.

But you've got to go up there. And even when you've settled in, got your port, nibbled an olive, you wish this was back in the Gaslamp. You miss the bustle, and even the hustle around you down there.



You have to ask: At what point does one landlord's profits trump the happiness that a place like Bassam's or Croce's creates for thousands in an area like the Gaslamp?

With the forced retreat from downtown of successful and beloved places like Bassam's (back in '07?) and this week Croce's, you realize that okay, the landlords may be getting richer, but the Gaslamp is definitely the poorer.

Last night at Croce's downtown: Tuesday, December 31 (New Year's Eve). Official opening of Croce's Park West: Sunday, January 19, but "soft" opening starts Monday, January 6.

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Tip to owners of retail businesses - own your building!!!! Looking back, I'm sure Ingrid could have bought the Croce's building 10 times over by now. I'm sure she regrets not doing so. The only reason iconic stores like Frank the Train Man (Hillcrest), Lou's Records (Leucadia), and El Corral Pottery (Carlsbad) are still in biz is they own the land. No landlord to seek to maximum dollar kicking out long term tenants.

When it comes to downtown, owning a building is little or no guarantee of maintaining your business there. A lot of people know our city's "Redevelopment Agency" pulled "eminent domain" tricks allowing them to literally steal the buildings where around 30 adult-oriented business operated. What most people DON'T know is that the city didn't stop there. It also named around 75 non-adult businesses and individuals in an eminent domain lawsuit filed December 31, 1979. The hit list included the Commodore Hotel, as well as the Buccaneer Lounge, the Equitable Trust Company, Fourth Street Arcade, the Horton Hotel Grand, Joe's Barber Shop, the Right Spot bar, Security First National Bank, Terminal Auto Parks, and the Western Union Telegraph Company.

The city's eminent domain grab even included San Diego's Department of Internal Revenue building! If the city can rob THOSE guys of their downtown property, do you really think anyone is safe??

Good points. It comes down to societal values, I guess. Our servants in city government always end up listening to those with big sticks who only have to speak softly to power. The actual people who voted them in sit up in the far bleachers and have to shout, while the brokers of this world just have to lean forward from their ringside seats and whisper. Long live Frank the Train Man!

Many of Croce's regulars will follow Ingrid to her new location on Fifth Avenue. She may also get many new patrons who never went to her Gaslamp location (like me). You don't have to be located in the Gaslamp to be a cool place.

I've been to Croce's three times, each time trying to impress a date with my own coolness. The third time, we never got in the door. Had to park a few blocks away, and as me and my soon-to-be impressed date got within a few yards, she said, "Let's not go in there; this whole area is skeevy." She was referring to the douchebags waiting to get into the club downstairs. "No, once we get inside, you'll like it!"
No sale. We ended up going to a decidedly uncool restaurant down by the Embarcadero. Dinner was okay, and the walk along the bayfront. "See? This is way better than watching a bunch of drunks fighting in the street." Her words, not mine.
That was a few years back....I think the Gaslamp has already jumped the shark as far as a "cool" destination.

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