WALTER BELLON. In 1936, Max Miller’s I Cover the Waterfront became a national bestseller. Miller wrote about San Diego’s tough harbor district, its “land sharks” and “bruisers.” Fifty-five-year-old Walter Bellon read the book and roared: it was “mostly junk” and “had no punch.” By the time Miller came on the scene, Bellon huffed, “San Diego’s waterfront was as clean as a hound’s tooth, also the Stingaree. He knew nothing of the past!”
Bellon did. In 1910, the Health Department chose him to clean up the notorious red-light district. The task took six years, and during that time Bellon became, in his words, “the most hated man in San Diego.”
When he was 12, in 1893, Bellon quit the fifth grade and worked at an iron foundry in Trenton, New Jersey. He lifted heavy weights from bench molds 12 hours a day, Monday–Saturday, for $2 a week. He always bragged about his strength. “I could swing a wicked right,” he wrote in his “Memoirs,” and his left “carried T.N.T.” As a light-heavyweight boxer in the Army, he earned a reputation among the “cauliflower ears.”
After serving in the Spanish-American War — he enlisted at 17 — Bellon worked as an apprentice plumber in the rougher parts of Trenton. “I always kept aloof, but I never backed away. Standing one’s ground is always an asset when confronted by a bully.”
Bellon came to San Diego in 1908. He’d heard about the climate, and when he arrived on January 17, the temperature was 72. He decided to stay, working as a steam fitter, for $4.59 a day, and part-time plumbing inspector for the city.
In 1910, Dr. Francis Mead, chief of the health department, took Bellon aside. San Diego is hosting the World’s Fair in 1915, he said. The City wants to clean up the waterfront, the red-light (Stingaree) district, and Chinatown. Would Bellon inspect these areas for sanitation problems and unsafe structures?
Bellon thought about it. Offhand, he estimated that over 100 buildings in “the lower part of town” were nowhere near code. Shanties in the tidelands teetered on stilts. Large vermin infested the clapboard saloons and brothels in the Stingaree. Redwood shacks in Chinatown had neither plumbing nor ventilation.
Prominent San Diegans owned property in the Stingaree, the City’s most lucrative district, and their hired hands, called “enforcers,” took “a proprietary interest in maintaining the status quo.”
“For a city official to tangle with a recipient of this tainted business was suicide,” Bellon wrote. And law enforcement would be no help. There were so few officers in 1910 that they rarely patrolled the district, which policed itself.
Bellon took the job — not for the $90 per month, he said, but for the “personal challenge.” And though Dr. Mead tried several times to convince him, Bellon refused a bodyguard. “I was the only one confident of success,” he said. “Even other health employees would ask when I would throw in the sponge.”
He made his first rounds in September of 1910. His companion, Dr. Mead, had never been to the Stingaree. Dressed in business suits and bowler hats, they went straight to Pete Cassidy’s notorious saloon at 452 Fifth Avenue. The owner, in his mid-50s with a face as scarred by fists and broken bottles as wrinkled by time, was one of San Diego’s most infamous entrepreneurs. In 1898, during a court trial, when the bailiff called Cassidy’s name, many in the room craned their necks to glimpse the legend they’d heard so much about.
“Just here to inspect conditions,” Bellon told Cassidy. “Health department.”
Bellon and Mead moved through the bar, taking mental notes. As they were about to enter the back rooms, the sites of high-stakes card games and dopers high on opium, one of Cassidy’s enforcers stood before them, legs spread, arms crossed, chin belligerent.
“It’s my job,” Bellon said, sidestepping the thug and entering one of the Stingaree’s most infamous — and, it turned out, grimy — inner sanctums.
“The hoodlums…were tough,” Bellon wrote, “and so was I. I let it be known that I did not frighten easily.”
Bellon and Mead went to the cribs behind Cassidy’s. The “working man’s brothel” consisted of 20 board-and-batten, one-room shacks where, writes Bellon, “on a busy evening, ladies with tarnished hangovers were there to greet you.” Instead, on this Saturday morning, two of Cassidy’s enforcers, Hosterder and Pigeon, blocked their way. “No one permitted,” one said. “Private grounds.”
“Make no backward step,” Bellon whispered to Mead, whose first inclination was to do just that, since black pistol handles protruded from the men’s shoulder holsters. Bellon pinched his left bicep close to his side, bulging his coat, and pretended to conceal a handgun as well. This trick became standard procedure during inspections.
“I extended the same brand of courtesy the strong-arm thugs handed me. They were never sure if I was armed or not.” Bellon was conducting a complete survey of the district, he explained to the enforcers, and would make recommendations and post citations. The health department’s concerned with how people are living, he said, not with “what they’re doing.”
Bellon wasn’t sure how they’d react. At that time, even among “the best citizens, health inspection was not regarded as essential.” He gave Hosterder and Pigeon two weeks to ponder his request. As he and Mead left the stockade-like compound, maybe 40 pairs of eyes followed their every step from behind dusty curtains and doors ajar.
Two weeks later, Bellon inspected the cribs, joined by assistant district attorney Shelley J. Higgins, who one day would decide the prostitutes’ fate in court. Above the doors hung good-luck charms and women’s names: Sadie, Gwendolyn, Ethelryda. Inside, “where light was seldom seen,” Bellon and Higgins found no toilets (no plumbing, for that matter), lice, clusters of thick mold, gunk.
“Every city has girls like those living on the fringe of the evening hour, making excitement pay the bill,” he wrote. “You call them play girls, but these girls play for keeps.” Though he found them “disreputable,” Bellon conceded that “these unfortunates had sunk so low in the scales of human misery, there was no return.”