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Wide-eyed Higgins, who like Dr. Mead was new to the district, had a different reaction: “Whatever may have been their behavior in secret, in public their comportment certainly was no indication. Their appearance was circumspect.”

The men went across the street to the Stables, a long row of cribs that resembled horses’ stalls, in Wildcat Alley. Inside a crib — where “fast blondes served slow gin” — they found a bed, maybe a chair. A wash bowl and pitcher “served as plumbing.” When the time came, Bellon noted to Higgins, these shacks would have to go: for sanitary, not sanctimonious, reasons.

They crossed Third to Chinatown. “These Orientals were fine people,” Bellon wrote, “and their only desire was to be left alone.” The architecture resembled a maze constructed from the center out: a second room grew from the original, then others sprawled from them in all directions, each with 50 feet of floor space at best. The architects “built the outside walls around the rooms” and left out the windows.

Bellon and Higgins found the inside rooms “as dark as rat holes,” with neither light nor air. They found few mattresses, just planks and a thin layer of matting and a round wooden head rest. “Yet these elderly Orientals could survive such punishment and live to a ripe old age.”

That puzzled Bellon, because his carbon dioxide tests of the sleeping quarters showed 80 parts of CO2 per 10,000 — a high percentage of impure air that could almost “strangle” a person.

After his initial inspections, even though newspapers had announced his aims, most San Diegans didn’t think Bellon was serious. People had screamed “slam the lid on the Stingaree” for decades, even before it got its name. Was the self-righteous Bellon just a gruff-talking, civic bluff?

People began to question his intentions. “The females were nervous,” he said. “They were willing to talk, and I was willing to listen.” A large percentage of the prostitutes had come to San Diego for their health — pulmonary ailments and a fear of TB — so when Bellon announced his mission, he says, “all seemed to agree that something must be done.” He spoke of improving conditions, not moving them out.

Bellon soon became a target. At 10 a.m., every time he turned the corner of Third and I(sland) and entered Chinatown, he saw at least 50 people on the street. They’d be gone in 30 seconds. “They avoided me as if I had smallpox.”

Bellon befriended the district’s leaders: Ah Quin, Tom Kay, Tom Huck, and others. The legendary “mayor of Chinatown,” Ah Quin owned a restaurant on Third, half a block south of I(sland). Unlike most Chinese, who saw Bellon as another symbol of the white harassment that forced an estimated 65 percent to flee San Diego and return to China in 1910, Ah Quin befriended the inspector.

Ah Quin invited Bellon to dinner. Long discussions ensued, in English, which Quin spoke fluently. Quin became more than an ally; he spread the word about improvements and became one of the first Chinese to install plumbing in his home.

Ah Quin introduced Bellon to Chinatown. Bellon grew accustomed to the pungent scent of joss sticks, thin smoke rising before religious icons, and the clack of dominoes coming from numerous, small redwood dwellings on I Street between Second and Third.

Opium was legal in small amounts in 1910. Bellon watched addicts “make and smoke their pills and slumber.” He kept his distance. “Dopesters are a dangerous breed; treat them kindly, then leave them alone. I had enough trouble and did not want to add to it.”

Bellon took two years to make his survey. In that time, he ate in Chinatown’s restaurants and made “small purchases” in their stores. He never forced his authority west of Third Street. Once the Chinese understood his intentions — thanks to Ah Quin and Tom Huck — more appeared on the streets when he walked by. “Many nodded, some saluted, others spoke.”

Stingaree denizens east of Chinatown were another matter. From Third Street to Twelfth, and down to the waterfront, Bellon heard threats from “hoodlums and bouncers.” When it became clear he wasn’t quitting, threats increased. Bellon answered with a chip on his shoulder, but always made his rounds in the late morning, when locals slept off last night’s liquor, and never after sundown.

He was the secretary and “public agent” for the San Diego Rifle Club, which published members’ scores every Tuesday morning. His were always among the highest, he bragged, and he made sure his opponents heard about his marksmanship: “Tough men have respect for one who knows how to handle a six gun.”

In 1912, Bellon moved into the final phase of his “slum radication.” He’d served notices on those buildings needing improvement. Some responded. Those beyond repair received condemnations. When occupants had to find new lodgings, many of the elderly went to Associated Charities. Crawfish Charlie, who had lived in his apartment for over 30 years, expressed gratitude. But even though Bellon claimed that “their welfare was much improved,” not all went happily, and he admitted that a large number of suddenly homeless residents “felt badly wounded by this health movement.” He moved them anyway.

For the demolition phase, Bellon hired a three-man wrecking crew. They had two options: tear down structures with axes, crowbars, and sledgehammers; or torch them to the ground. Sanitary conditions determined which. They would burn the buildings “overrun with vermin” under the watchful eye of the fire department.

Those owners who had made no changes in a year kept a wait-and-see attitude. To prove he wanted “cooperation, or else,” Bellon announced his first strategic assault: 13 buildings, many on pilings joined by a plank walkway, at the foot of Eighth. The area, aptly named Pirates’ Cove, was far more dangerous than the Stingaree. Thieves and guano poachers ruled the rundown locale. If Bellon could succeed here — literally set hell on fire — he’d send a clear message uptown.

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Comments

Silvergate1 July 24, 2009 @ 4:48 p.m.

Great series! Please keep up the good work! I grew up in San Diego and have a sizeable collection of Max Miller books. Some of his stories are better than others, but they are all interesting.

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Jeff Smith July 25, 2009 @ 11:17 a.m.

Silvergate1. Many thanks. I've read a bunch of Max Miller's books too. I like Harbor in the Sun and the La Jolla book (Town with the Funny Name?), in particular. I suspect the reason I Cover the Waterfront became a best seller's the same reason Bellon hated it. Miller made the place quaint and picturesque.

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ENDelt260 July 27, 2009 @ 2:48 p.m.

Where can one find a copy of Bellon's "Memoirs"? A quick search on the websites of the city and county libraries came up dry.

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Jeff Smith July 27, 2009 @ 8:46 p.m.

ENDelt260: The San Diego Historical Society has Bellon's manuscript in its research library. Like so many other local history treasures (especially Herbert Hensley's memoirs), it should have a much wider availability.

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