4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Those people in downtown San Diego you don't know

If you lived here you'd be home now

“Horton Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.”  - Image by Ian Dryden
“Horton Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.”
  • “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
  • —Robert Frost, Death of the Hired Man

The Chinese American Market is on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Island, one block south of Market Street. A sign above the entrance says “Chop Suey Supplies.” Dark green paint contrasts with faded red and dirty black. Hundred-pound sacks of rice and onions line the entrance. Ginsing roots lie in little rows beside lush oranges and potatoes. Across the street, men with crusted flecks of yellow in the edges of bloodshot eyes sit on the sidewalk, their backs against the City Rescue Mission. A white neon sign stretches in benediction above them. It proclaims “Jesus Saves” to Franks Pool Hall, the Zebra Club, the ABC Pool Hall, and the Home of God's Extended Hand.

Resident of downtown hotel. "The police came to take him back to the hospital and every time they tried to pick him up, he grabbed ahold of that bed."

Tucked between the market and a vacant store is a narrow stairway. The faded sign above calls it “Callan Hotel” in red letters. Black-and-white marble pillars flank the doorway, repeating the name in black paint and adding “Reasonable Rates.” An empty pint bottle of Petri wine lays on the first step.

For one time, there is truth in advertising. Probably nowhere in San Diego are the rates so reasonable. If you’re poor, really poor, this is home, the end of the line where they'll take you in if you have only $4 a night or $60 a month.

Kevin Eckert: "Why, these people should be given medals. They are surviving on incomes of $270 or less a month. They refuse handouts.”

“I have mostly retired people. Some are winos. I don't like those younger people, they’re too much trouble. But I have some. One boy is mentally retarded, a mind of a child. He came here one night. I told him to put down his last address. He said, ‘Andrew, Texas.’ Well, I told him to put it down. He said, ‘How do you spell Andrew?’ Well, I knew very well he wasn’t from Andrew, Texas.”

The old lady stands at the top of the stairway, solid, like she is part of the architecture. Other forms move around her like shadows, restlessly. Old women in housecoats and worn slippers, hair in curlers. Men of indeterminate age, half drunk, laughing to themselves. A tall blond boy wearing a green silk mandarin jacket smiles vacantly, cheerfully. He has carried up a heavy, battered floor polisher, and lifts it proudly. “Hey, Hazel. Look at this. They threw it away and it ain’t broken hardly. See, it works. Hey Hazel, what do you think?"

Callan Hotel. "If you’re poor, really poor, this is home, the end of the line where they'll take you in if you have only $4 a night or $60 a month."

Two long hallways run the length of the old brick building. On either side of each hallway are individual rooms, called “single room occupancy” in the trade. Each is about ten feet by seven feet in size. A cot fills most of the space, allowing room for a chair, a cardboard box for possessions, and empty bottles. There are 38 rooms like this on two floors. Some people have lived in them for ten years or more. There is a bathroom on each floor, and a shower.

“I come here the 19th of June in '64. Oh, I know all their ills, all their pain, all their troubles. It continues from day to day. I know more about their business than they do. Everybody comes and tells me, because they know that if anybody can help. I’ll help ’em.” Hazel San Nicoles stands five feet three inches, is about 70 years old, with green eyes, wavy gray-brown hair. Shrewd, tough, she comes from the Arkansas hills, half Cherokee and half Dutch. She presides at the end of the line in San Diego. She cares about these citizens of the city that few people know exist and even fewer wish to deal with.

"Wilbur Clark used to live here. You know, the actor. He used to work here as an elevator operator. People like that, and Gloria Swanson used to stay here."

“People do help each other around here, that’s one thing. And just like the people in this here hotel. If something happens to one of these people, everybody’s there to help or do something if they can.” She fondles a white baby kitten. An unshaven man in a dirty T-shirt had given it to her, saying he was too drunk to take proper care of it.

“If I don’t see these people around, the older people, I check on 'em. I know what time they usually come out. I find some dead people here once in a while, and that’s not even funny.”

A small Filipino man sits on a wooden chair in the corner of the landing. His ancient skin looks paper-thin, taut against his high cheekbones. His smile illuminates the dark landing. “He got robbed in here last night. He had $20 in cash on him. Those things don't happen too often, but every once in a while they get someone. Sometimes I see 'em, and I know who the bad ones are. I holler at ’em, ‘Turn him loose and let him go. He ain't got nothin.’

Sponsored
Sponsored

“Some of 'em are pretty big, but they's one thing they don’t know. I'm pretty good at judo." Hazel hugs the kitten proudly, her arms slight as chicken bones resting on a tiny pot belly. “They get the surprise of their life. I've laid quite a few low out there. I flip them and when they hit the floor they know there was something more to me.”

A pretty blond girl comes up the stairs, wearing a halter, shorts, and a pink scarf wrapped around her hips like a sarong. She is carrying a baby tiny enough to be a doll. “That’s one of my tenants,” whispers Hazel. “Just got back from the hospital with her new one. Wants to keep its formula in my refrigerator, but I’m not here all the time. She goes down the street and sits around, and the officers make her move. I know she don't want to leave but she just can't live here anymore. It's not a fit place for a baby. The street's no place to raise a baby.”

The old ladies, the alcoholic men, the young boy react hesitantly as the girl displays the tiny child. It seems to stir memories they wish to forget. In a New York accent, the girl speaks brightly of her child, as if it was a new dress or a new toy; her audience retreats. Smile intact, she cradles the baby and picks up the dragging end of her pink scarf like a debutante’s gown as she flounces down the stairway.

“It's the leaving that’s always most painful.” Hazel tries to still the cries of the kitten in her own arms. “One guy who lived here went to a rest home. You know, some of them rest homes is terrible. And I went to see him and he said, ‘Mrs.,’ he never called me by my name. And he said, 'Mrs., now you take me home.’ And I says, ‘Now Tony, you know I would if I could.’ Well, he told me how he was so hungry, and he told me the stuff they gave him to eat, even when they gave him fish or something, it was in a soup. And that wasn’t his way of eating.

“So I brought him home, back to his room. And then when I went back to feed him, he said, ‘Mrs., I don’t want to eat back here alone. You're all I got left and I want to eat up with you.’

“Then he had a stroke one morning. I was wondering why he was so late coming to breakfast. So I came back and found him lying under the bed. The police came to take him back to the hospital and every time they tried to pick him up, he grabbed ahold of that bed. And he was strong; he wasn’t very big, a little bitty guy, but he wouldn’t let go of that bed. He didn’t want to leave his home and go back to that hospital and nursing home.”

Hazel unlocks her apartment door at the top of the stairway to put in the kitten. The door is metal, two inches thick, with a sliding lock, an oversized deadbolt, and a heavy night-chain. Next to the door is a small open shelf where rent can be paid and questions can be answered. Aware that her limp might bring questions, she says, “Had surgery three years ago and everybody took it pretty hard here. They all come down to the hospital to see me and they acted like they thought I was going to be dead. They come in so sad, so solemn-like. But I had ’em all laughing before they left.”

Like a scolding mother, she tries to quiet the tall blond boy as he makes loud buzzing sounds with the old floor polisher, egged on by drunken whoops from the men across the hall. Then she laughs quietly to herself. “I guess that after a while they see me as family. And I’m also their doctor, their nurse, their landlady. Anything they need. I’m here. I can sew on a button, I can sew up a rip, I can doctor ’em a little bit, anything they want. You’ve got to have somebody to go to sometimes. And you take these people, the way these people live, they got nobody ”


“Dog Five, possible suspicious person next door at the rear. Corner Pacific and

The portable police radio is half the size of a carton of cigarettes. Wherever officer Mark Vattimo is, the staccato gossip of San Diego police work relentlessly intrudes. Everybody knows Vattimo, every pimp, every prostitute, every kid, every old and poor and defeated person south of Broadway. Like Hazel, they see him as family. In spite of his all-American good looks, his dark aviator’s glasses and shiny gold badge, they sense the humanity under his uniform and hardware. He drives a black-and-white patrol car designated Dog Five, but his real element is on the street, in the musty halls of the skid row hotels and the endless activity around Horton Plaza.

“The Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.” Vattimo parks his car just south of the Plaza, next to the underground restrooms. Though it’s just ten o’clock in the morning, the park benches are beginning to fill with retired railroad men, young people without home or much hope, sunbaked men with alcohol-bloated livers.

“In the night you have more of the young people who are out selling dope and drinking wine, but in the day you have mostly old people, nice old people who just want to watch the world and be let alone, or talk with somebody if they want to. And there are business types and tourists who come by, because it’s interesting out here, it really is.”

A young man, not yet 30, ambles over. He looks much older, with glazed eyes and a week’s growth of beard that doesn’t quite cover recent bloody gashes on his upper lip and chin. His too-large white sport coat and brown baggy pants show the wrinkles of having been lived in for some time.

“Say, I was wondering why I got picked up and got hit in the mouth last night.”

“Were you drunk?”

“Yeah.”

“You never know, buddy. The best way to take care of that is don’t never get drunk. Then if you get hit, you know exactly why it happened. The officer hit you, huh?”

“Yeah, he hauled me in for being a public drunk.”

“Well, if he hit you, I’d go right over there to small claims court and file a civil suit against him.”

“That’s what I’m gonna do.”

“Well, you get your witnesses together and go down there. You gotta helluva lawsuit coming. You’ll be a rich man, living in La Jolla.”

“I will. I’ll show ’em.”

“Go right ahead, man. You’ll be wearing $300 suits this same time next week.”


The residents of skid row have been buzzing lately about more than the usual drunken fights and petty crimes. The powers beyond all their control, even comprehension, the they of City Hall, redevelopment, the builders, are coming to get them. Buildings have been torn down and new blacktopped parking lots have been appearing. Hotels and cafes that had survived depressions and wars are now quietly succumbing to the wrecking ball. Four- and even six-dollar-a-night rooms are evaporating in a cloud of dust, and the people on the street are growing apprehensive.

The Golden West Hotel, a sprawling, chunky building, holds about 300 men in tiny, single rooms. It is one of the best workingman's hotels, housing mostly retired men who draw pensions. Today is mailman day, check day, the day the eagle flies and drops a few dollars in their pockets. They line the street outside, hands in those pockets, itching to feel something more than lint. Or they wait in swaybacked couches and chairs just inside the hotel entrance. All are old, except for a boy, late teens or early 20s, who is stretched out on an old couch, mouth open, both eyes blackened, looking like a battered raccoon. Vattimo walks by him, tallying his stranger’s face for future reference but leaving him alone to let sleep heal his pain.

“There are two kinds of people who live downtown,” says Vattimo. “The transients, they pick up welfare, they stay in hotels. And when they run out of money they either beg for it or steal for it. Those aren’t the real downtown people. See, these people here in the Golden West are the real people; these are the senior citizens. They’re the ones you are going to have to worry about relocating if you chase ’em out of downtown. The Golden West is supposed to stay, but there are a lot of hotels which won’t. Some people will hop a freight and head up to L.A., but the older ones can’t do that. They’re the ones to worry about. Those guys have been here 15, 20 years in some hotels. They just can’t get up and move.”

“Five-Three Alfa . . . Stolen vehicle. Tan, ’64 four-door Chevy . ...” the little black radio continues its chatter as Vattimo stops by to see Ernie the pawnbroker on Fifth Avenue. Ernie sits like a judge, his eyes behind the closed doors of rimless glasses expressing the quiet suspicion that comes with the job. A glass-topped case filled with pawned watches, stickpins, and revolvers separates him from the world.

“How you been, Ernie? You busy? Listen, we’d like to ask you if you’ve heard anything about the redevelopment down here as far as you’re concerned. Has anybody said anything to you?”

“You mean from the city?”

“Yeah, anybody. About moving or anything at all.”

“Nah. Haven’t heard a thing. All I hear is what I read in the papers. Nobody says nothin’.”


Bob Sherley is the manager of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Ninety-two units, $85 to $160 without or with bath. It is a higher class hotel with a nice entrance on street level, mirrored walls, and clean windows. Sherley is seated in his small office behind the desk clerk’s cage. One hand is withered. He drinks cocoa and adds up rent receipts with the other.

“Have I heard anything about redevelopment down here? Just lots of rumors. A couple years it’s coming down, a couple of months it’s coming down. Just a lot of rumors as to when they’re going to tear this building down. It’s in the city’s plans, part of the Horton redevelopment plan.”

In his late forties, growing puffy with age and inactivity, he looks a little like a misshapen Milton Berle. “We tried to save the hotel, you know. It’s historic. Wilbur Clark used to live here. You know, the actor. He used to work here as an elevator operator. People like that, and Gloria Swanson used to stay here. Most of our tenants are retired-type people, good people. Was wondering if they were all going to die on me this month. There was two, three died. And two, three of ’em went to the hospital and one of ’cm’s not coming back. Rest home. People really enjoy their independence here, but when they tear this place down, they’ll have to move out.”

He shrugs his shoulders, “I’m really concerned about these old-timers, but there’s nothing I can do about it; my hands are tied. I haven’t got any help from the city, no way. No answers at all. We tried to get the owners and the merchants together several times right here in this lobby. The merchants couldn’t get together with the owners and the owners couldn't get together with the city. So everybody was disgusted and went their way.

“We might be here another six months, another two years. We might be here another 15 years. You don’t know. When we got the word, it was several years ago, like 1975. So all we’re doing is just holding on.”

An old woman, sparrow-thin with short Betty Boop-styled hair, sits in the lobby, watching and listening while pretending not to. She is dressed in white cotton dress, white gloves, white shoes. “Nice day,” she says as the visitors leave. “Getting warmer, isn’t it?"


The Commodore Hotel on Third Avenue, the Las Flores, and the Aztec Theater are all owned by Wesley Andrews. He is a heavy, hearty man with wavy brown hair and gold chains around his neck. On the board of directors of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, he knows as much about the future of the skid row area as anyone, and he takes even that with a grain of salt.

“Everything here on Third is supposed to go. But it seems mostly talk. That’s why I’m remodeling the Commodore. I think it’s going to be another five years before they get on over here. Eight years I been hearing them talk already. There’s people in all these old hotels around here; all are full. I’m curious where the old people will go if the hotels get tom down. I have people who have lived in my hotels for 30 years, long before I ever bought them.”

Andrew’s hotels are almost middle-class, with rooms renting for seven and nine dollars per night. Yet, he predicts, “If they tear too many of these old hotels down, the rates of the others left will go up. Then the poor people won’t have any place to live. I’ve had to raise my own rates 20 to 40 percent as it is.

“The city talks about building big senior citizen's highrises down here, but the people who live in senior highrises are a different kind of people. The folks here are street people, you know what I mean? They’re here because of a certain kind of lifestyle. And when you change that lifestyle, what are you going to do with the people?”


Kevin Eckert works for the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla. He earned his Ph.D. studying the lifestyles of the people who live in San Diego’s downtown single-room occupancy hotels. He, Wayne Rauschkolb, as well as others, lived in skid row hotels for a year or more, gathering thousands of bits of data which they pieced together to form a mosaic of the skid row residents’ lives.

“First of all, they are people,” says Eckert as he sits among gray files filled with interviews and statistics. “They may be ‘lower priced’ and ‘lower pressured,’ but they are not ‘lower class.’ These people are sophisticated. They have dignity and self-reliance. They just decided to pursue their American Dream a little differently. Why, these people should be given medals. They are surviving on incomes of $270 or less a month. They refuse handouts.”

Eckert’s studies show that many have lived in their hotels for 20 years or more. Their average age is 69 years. They are not bums; on the average they have at one time held a single job for 21 years. These are the people, Eckert says, who have followed all the rules. They did what they were told in order to achieve their version of that American Dream.

Rauschkolb, a quiet man with scraggly black beard, leans back in a desk chair. “All they want is to be left alone. They choose not to be bothered with housekeeping or with family. They can’t cope with much pressure, and that single room suits them just fine. If they want to talk, they go to the park. If they want to be touched, they get a cheap haircut from a young girl student at the Barbers College. If they want to ‘act out’ or go a little crazy, they do it. The people around them don’t mind. Their environment is more permissive; it allows people to be a little different, a little strange. There is more compassion in skid row.”

“What impressed us most,” continues Eckert, “was that skid row is a viable society. Sure, it isn’t your middle-class, suburban ideal, but these people have a definite lifestyle which should be respected. They want as much freedom to live their lives as they wish, right up to the day they die. They ask nothing from no one. They have a true pioneer mentality, surviving on their own in spite of too little opportunity and too little money.”


At two o'clock in the afternoon Horton Plaza begins to heat up. The buses snort out clouds of brownish diesel fumes as they inch along Broadway, disgorging crowds of children and housewives. Blacks in platform shoes hold court with casual grace against the iron chains that circle the park. Old folks sit on the benches, watching the swarming pigeons, a man from Iowa carries a sign saying “God’s real truth,” and assorted men and boys carry either packs on their backs or bottles in their pockets.

Howard A. Dingman sits on the middle bench, next to the fountain. He is one of the 2, 233 people who live in downtown hotels. He is also one of the over half who are permanent residents.

Howard looks like the kind of man one might claim for a favorite uncle. Seventy-two years old, he retired from the Detroit assembly lines in 1962. He helped make Chevrolets, tightening the six nuts on the left-rear wheels for 25 years. Now he wears a white nylon, short-sleeved shirt over his plump frame and gets a suntan under the palm trees of the park.

“If they tore down my hotel, I don't know what I’d do. I really don’t know. You just can’t put elderly people out in the street. There’s a lot of good people in these here hotels. You got to have a place to put these people. If you’re on a fixed income and you can’t afford it, what’s the alternative?

“I like downtown. I been a bachelor all my life, and if I went and lived up in Hillcrest or out in El Cajon and got myself in one of those apartment houses, why I’d be setting up there all by myself. It would be a different thing for me to be all by myself with married people all around me. Here, down in the skid row area, I can find all kinds of people to talk with and different people I can have fellowship with, that sort of thing. Otherwise, you can be a lonely individual setting up there in the 14th floor with all those families. You wouldn’t fit in at all. You’d be out of place and you’d be lonely there.

“There’s people of different kinds down here in the skid row area. A lot of people with good habits, and yet there’s a lot of winos and horse-players and whatnot. And that’s what’s so enjoyable about living here. All those different kinds of people can be very amusing, very interesting. Well-to-do people as well as poor people. You can have a lot of relationships with a lot of people here and fellowship with a lot of people here and you won’t ever be lonely.

“Say,” he says, peering up from the circle of his friends, “they aren’t going to tear down these here buildings, are they?”

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Some Kind of Nightmare tours while Social Spit stays home

The difference between young and old punk rockers
“Horton Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.”  - Image by Ian Dryden
“Horton Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.”
  • “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
  • —Robert Frost, Death of the Hired Man

The Chinese American Market is on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Island, one block south of Market Street. A sign above the entrance says “Chop Suey Supplies.” Dark green paint contrasts with faded red and dirty black. Hundred-pound sacks of rice and onions line the entrance. Ginsing roots lie in little rows beside lush oranges and potatoes. Across the street, men with crusted flecks of yellow in the edges of bloodshot eyes sit on the sidewalk, their backs against the City Rescue Mission. A white neon sign stretches in benediction above them. It proclaims “Jesus Saves” to Franks Pool Hall, the Zebra Club, the ABC Pool Hall, and the Home of God's Extended Hand.

Resident of downtown hotel. "The police came to take him back to the hospital and every time they tried to pick him up, he grabbed ahold of that bed."

Tucked between the market and a vacant store is a narrow stairway. The faded sign above calls it “Callan Hotel” in red letters. Black-and-white marble pillars flank the doorway, repeating the name in black paint and adding “Reasonable Rates.” An empty pint bottle of Petri wine lays on the first step.

For one time, there is truth in advertising. Probably nowhere in San Diego are the rates so reasonable. If you’re poor, really poor, this is home, the end of the line where they'll take you in if you have only $4 a night or $60 a month.

Kevin Eckert: "Why, these people should be given medals. They are surviving on incomes of $270 or less a month. They refuse handouts.”

“I have mostly retired people. Some are winos. I don't like those younger people, they’re too much trouble. But I have some. One boy is mentally retarded, a mind of a child. He came here one night. I told him to put down his last address. He said, ‘Andrew, Texas.’ Well, I told him to put it down. He said, ‘How do you spell Andrew?’ Well, I knew very well he wasn’t from Andrew, Texas.”

The old lady stands at the top of the stairway, solid, like she is part of the architecture. Other forms move around her like shadows, restlessly. Old women in housecoats and worn slippers, hair in curlers. Men of indeterminate age, half drunk, laughing to themselves. A tall blond boy wearing a green silk mandarin jacket smiles vacantly, cheerfully. He has carried up a heavy, battered floor polisher, and lifts it proudly. “Hey, Hazel. Look at this. They threw it away and it ain’t broken hardly. See, it works. Hey Hazel, what do you think?"

Callan Hotel. "If you’re poor, really poor, this is home, the end of the line where they'll take you in if you have only $4 a night or $60 a month."

Two long hallways run the length of the old brick building. On either side of each hallway are individual rooms, called “single room occupancy” in the trade. Each is about ten feet by seven feet in size. A cot fills most of the space, allowing room for a chair, a cardboard box for possessions, and empty bottles. There are 38 rooms like this on two floors. Some people have lived in them for ten years or more. There is a bathroom on each floor, and a shower.

“I come here the 19th of June in '64. Oh, I know all their ills, all their pain, all their troubles. It continues from day to day. I know more about their business than they do. Everybody comes and tells me, because they know that if anybody can help. I’ll help ’em.” Hazel San Nicoles stands five feet three inches, is about 70 years old, with green eyes, wavy gray-brown hair. Shrewd, tough, she comes from the Arkansas hills, half Cherokee and half Dutch. She presides at the end of the line in San Diego. She cares about these citizens of the city that few people know exist and even fewer wish to deal with.

"Wilbur Clark used to live here. You know, the actor. He used to work here as an elevator operator. People like that, and Gloria Swanson used to stay here."

“People do help each other around here, that’s one thing. And just like the people in this here hotel. If something happens to one of these people, everybody’s there to help or do something if they can.” She fondles a white baby kitten. An unshaven man in a dirty T-shirt had given it to her, saying he was too drunk to take proper care of it.

“If I don’t see these people around, the older people, I check on 'em. I know what time they usually come out. I find some dead people here once in a while, and that’s not even funny.”

A small Filipino man sits on a wooden chair in the corner of the landing. His ancient skin looks paper-thin, taut against his high cheekbones. His smile illuminates the dark landing. “He got robbed in here last night. He had $20 in cash on him. Those things don't happen too often, but every once in a while they get someone. Sometimes I see 'em, and I know who the bad ones are. I holler at ’em, ‘Turn him loose and let him go. He ain't got nothin.’

Sponsored
Sponsored

“Some of 'em are pretty big, but they's one thing they don’t know. I'm pretty good at judo." Hazel hugs the kitten proudly, her arms slight as chicken bones resting on a tiny pot belly. “They get the surprise of their life. I've laid quite a few low out there. I flip them and when they hit the floor they know there was something more to me.”

A pretty blond girl comes up the stairs, wearing a halter, shorts, and a pink scarf wrapped around her hips like a sarong. She is carrying a baby tiny enough to be a doll. “That’s one of my tenants,” whispers Hazel. “Just got back from the hospital with her new one. Wants to keep its formula in my refrigerator, but I’m not here all the time. She goes down the street and sits around, and the officers make her move. I know she don't want to leave but she just can't live here anymore. It's not a fit place for a baby. The street's no place to raise a baby.”

The old ladies, the alcoholic men, the young boy react hesitantly as the girl displays the tiny child. It seems to stir memories they wish to forget. In a New York accent, the girl speaks brightly of her child, as if it was a new dress or a new toy; her audience retreats. Smile intact, she cradles the baby and picks up the dragging end of her pink scarf like a debutante’s gown as she flounces down the stairway.

“It's the leaving that’s always most painful.” Hazel tries to still the cries of the kitten in her own arms. “One guy who lived here went to a rest home. You know, some of them rest homes is terrible. And I went to see him and he said, ‘Mrs.,’ he never called me by my name. And he said, 'Mrs., now you take me home.’ And I says, ‘Now Tony, you know I would if I could.’ Well, he told me how he was so hungry, and he told me the stuff they gave him to eat, even when they gave him fish or something, it was in a soup. And that wasn’t his way of eating.

“So I brought him home, back to his room. And then when I went back to feed him, he said, ‘Mrs., I don’t want to eat back here alone. You're all I got left and I want to eat up with you.’

“Then he had a stroke one morning. I was wondering why he was so late coming to breakfast. So I came back and found him lying under the bed. The police came to take him back to the hospital and every time they tried to pick him up, he grabbed ahold of that bed. And he was strong; he wasn’t very big, a little bitty guy, but he wouldn’t let go of that bed. He didn’t want to leave his home and go back to that hospital and nursing home.”

Hazel unlocks her apartment door at the top of the stairway to put in the kitten. The door is metal, two inches thick, with a sliding lock, an oversized deadbolt, and a heavy night-chain. Next to the door is a small open shelf where rent can be paid and questions can be answered. Aware that her limp might bring questions, she says, “Had surgery three years ago and everybody took it pretty hard here. They all come down to the hospital to see me and they acted like they thought I was going to be dead. They come in so sad, so solemn-like. But I had ’em all laughing before they left.”

Like a scolding mother, she tries to quiet the tall blond boy as he makes loud buzzing sounds with the old floor polisher, egged on by drunken whoops from the men across the hall. Then she laughs quietly to herself. “I guess that after a while they see me as family. And I’m also their doctor, their nurse, their landlady. Anything they need. I’m here. I can sew on a button, I can sew up a rip, I can doctor ’em a little bit, anything they want. You’ve got to have somebody to go to sometimes. And you take these people, the way these people live, they got nobody ”


“Dog Five, possible suspicious person next door at the rear. Corner Pacific and

The portable police radio is half the size of a carton of cigarettes. Wherever officer Mark Vattimo is, the staccato gossip of San Diego police work relentlessly intrudes. Everybody knows Vattimo, every pimp, every prostitute, every kid, every old and poor and defeated person south of Broadway. Like Hazel, they see him as family. In spite of his all-American good looks, his dark aviator’s glasses and shiny gold badge, they sense the humanity under his uniform and hardware. He drives a black-and-white patrol car designated Dog Five, but his real element is on the street, in the musty halls of the skid row hotels and the endless activity around Horton Plaza.

“The Plaza is a whole different world, the real world. It’s the world the people in the suburbs have run away from.” Vattimo parks his car just south of the Plaza, next to the underground restrooms. Though it’s just ten o’clock in the morning, the park benches are beginning to fill with retired railroad men, young people without home or much hope, sunbaked men with alcohol-bloated livers.

“In the night you have more of the young people who are out selling dope and drinking wine, but in the day you have mostly old people, nice old people who just want to watch the world and be let alone, or talk with somebody if they want to. And there are business types and tourists who come by, because it’s interesting out here, it really is.”

A young man, not yet 30, ambles over. He looks much older, with glazed eyes and a week’s growth of beard that doesn’t quite cover recent bloody gashes on his upper lip and chin. His too-large white sport coat and brown baggy pants show the wrinkles of having been lived in for some time.

“Say, I was wondering why I got picked up and got hit in the mouth last night.”

“Were you drunk?”

“Yeah.”

“You never know, buddy. The best way to take care of that is don’t never get drunk. Then if you get hit, you know exactly why it happened. The officer hit you, huh?”

“Yeah, he hauled me in for being a public drunk.”

“Well, if he hit you, I’d go right over there to small claims court and file a civil suit against him.”

“That’s what I’m gonna do.”

“Well, you get your witnesses together and go down there. You gotta helluva lawsuit coming. You’ll be a rich man, living in La Jolla.”

“I will. I’ll show ’em.”

“Go right ahead, man. You’ll be wearing $300 suits this same time next week.”


The residents of skid row have been buzzing lately about more than the usual drunken fights and petty crimes. The powers beyond all their control, even comprehension, the they of City Hall, redevelopment, the builders, are coming to get them. Buildings have been torn down and new blacktopped parking lots have been appearing. Hotels and cafes that had survived depressions and wars are now quietly succumbing to the wrecking ball. Four- and even six-dollar-a-night rooms are evaporating in a cloud of dust, and the people on the street are growing apprehensive.

The Golden West Hotel, a sprawling, chunky building, holds about 300 men in tiny, single rooms. It is one of the best workingman's hotels, housing mostly retired men who draw pensions. Today is mailman day, check day, the day the eagle flies and drops a few dollars in their pockets. They line the street outside, hands in those pockets, itching to feel something more than lint. Or they wait in swaybacked couches and chairs just inside the hotel entrance. All are old, except for a boy, late teens or early 20s, who is stretched out on an old couch, mouth open, both eyes blackened, looking like a battered raccoon. Vattimo walks by him, tallying his stranger’s face for future reference but leaving him alone to let sleep heal his pain.

“There are two kinds of people who live downtown,” says Vattimo. “The transients, they pick up welfare, they stay in hotels. And when they run out of money they either beg for it or steal for it. Those aren’t the real downtown people. See, these people here in the Golden West are the real people; these are the senior citizens. They’re the ones you are going to have to worry about relocating if you chase ’em out of downtown. The Golden West is supposed to stay, but there are a lot of hotels which won’t. Some people will hop a freight and head up to L.A., but the older ones can’t do that. They’re the ones to worry about. Those guys have been here 15, 20 years in some hotels. They just can’t get up and move.”

“Five-Three Alfa . . . Stolen vehicle. Tan, ’64 four-door Chevy . ...” the little black radio continues its chatter as Vattimo stops by to see Ernie the pawnbroker on Fifth Avenue. Ernie sits like a judge, his eyes behind the closed doors of rimless glasses expressing the quiet suspicion that comes with the job. A glass-topped case filled with pawned watches, stickpins, and revolvers separates him from the world.

“How you been, Ernie? You busy? Listen, we’d like to ask you if you’ve heard anything about the redevelopment down here as far as you’re concerned. Has anybody said anything to you?”

“You mean from the city?”

“Yeah, anybody. About moving or anything at all.”

“Nah. Haven’t heard a thing. All I hear is what I read in the papers. Nobody says nothin’.”


Bob Sherley is the manager of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Ninety-two units, $85 to $160 without or with bath. It is a higher class hotel with a nice entrance on street level, mirrored walls, and clean windows. Sherley is seated in his small office behind the desk clerk’s cage. One hand is withered. He drinks cocoa and adds up rent receipts with the other.

“Have I heard anything about redevelopment down here? Just lots of rumors. A couple years it’s coming down, a couple of months it’s coming down. Just a lot of rumors as to when they’re going to tear this building down. It’s in the city’s plans, part of the Horton redevelopment plan.”

In his late forties, growing puffy with age and inactivity, he looks a little like a misshapen Milton Berle. “We tried to save the hotel, you know. It’s historic. Wilbur Clark used to live here. You know, the actor. He used to work here as an elevator operator. People like that, and Gloria Swanson used to stay here. Most of our tenants are retired-type people, good people. Was wondering if they were all going to die on me this month. There was two, three died. And two, three of ’em went to the hospital and one of ’cm’s not coming back. Rest home. People really enjoy their independence here, but when they tear this place down, they’ll have to move out.”

He shrugs his shoulders, “I’m really concerned about these old-timers, but there’s nothing I can do about it; my hands are tied. I haven’t got any help from the city, no way. No answers at all. We tried to get the owners and the merchants together several times right here in this lobby. The merchants couldn’t get together with the owners and the owners couldn't get together with the city. So everybody was disgusted and went their way.

“We might be here another six months, another two years. We might be here another 15 years. You don’t know. When we got the word, it was several years ago, like 1975. So all we’re doing is just holding on.”

An old woman, sparrow-thin with short Betty Boop-styled hair, sits in the lobby, watching and listening while pretending not to. She is dressed in white cotton dress, white gloves, white shoes. “Nice day,” she says as the visitors leave. “Getting warmer, isn’t it?"


The Commodore Hotel on Third Avenue, the Las Flores, and the Aztec Theater are all owned by Wesley Andrews. He is a heavy, hearty man with wavy brown hair and gold chains around his neck. On the board of directors of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, he knows as much about the future of the skid row area as anyone, and he takes even that with a grain of salt.

“Everything here on Third is supposed to go. But it seems mostly talk. That’s why I’m remodeling the Commodore. I think it’s going to be another five years before they get on over here. Eight years I been hearing them talk already. There’s people in all these old hotels around here; all are full. I’m curious where the old people will go if the hotels get tom down. I have people who have lived in my hotels for 30 years, long before I ever bought them.”

Andrew’s hotels are almost middle-class, with rooms renting for seven and nine dollars per night. Yet, he predicts, “If they tear too many of these old hotels down, the rates of the others left will go up. Then the poor people won’t have any place to live. I’ve had to raise my own rates 20 to 40 percent as it is.

“The city talks about building big senior citizen's highrises down here, but the people who live in senior highrises are a different kind of people. The folks here are street people, you know what I mean? They’re here because of a certain kind of lifestyle. And when you change that lifestyle, what are you going to do with the people?”


Kevin Eckert works for the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla. He earned his Ph.D. studying the lifestyles of the people who live in San Diego’s downtown single-room occupancy hotels. He, Wayne Rauschkolb, as well as others, lived in skid row hotels for a year or more, gathering thousands of bits of data which they pieced together to form a mosaic of the skid row residents’ lives.

“First of all, they are people,” says Eckert as he sits among gray files filled with interviews and statistics. “They may be ‘lower priced’ and ‘lower pressured,’ but they are not ‘lower class.’ These people are sophisticated. They have dignity and self-reliance. They just decided to pursue their American Dream a little differently. Why, these people should be given medals. They are surviving on incomes of $270 or less a month. They refuse handouts.”

Eckert’s studies show that many have lived in their hotels for 20 years or more. Their average age is 69 years. They are not bums; on the average they have at one time held a single job for 21 years. These are the people, Eckert says, who have followed all the rules. They did what they were told in order to achieve their version of that American Dream.

Rauschkolb, a quiet man with scraggly black beard, leans back in a desk chair. “All they want is to be left alone. They choose not to be bothered with housekeeping or with family. They can’t cope with much pressure, and that single room suits them just fine. If they want to talk, they go to the park. If they want to be touched, they get a cheap haircut from a young girl student at the Barbers College. If they want to ‘act out’ or go a little crazy, they do it. The people around them don’t mind. Their environment is more permissive; it allows people to be a little different, a little strange. There is more compassion in skid row.”

“What impressed us most,” continues Eckert, “was that skid row is a viable society. Sure, it isn’t your middle-class, suburban ideal, but these people have a definite lifestyle which should be respected. They want as much freedom to live their lives as they wish, right up to the day they die. They ask nothing from no one. They have a true pioneer mentality, surviving on their own in spite of too little opportunity and too little money.”


At two o'clock in the afternoon Horton Plaza begins to heat up. The buses snort out clouds of brownish diesel fumes as they inch along Broadway, disgorging crowds of children and housewives. Blacks in platform shoes hold court with casual grace against the iron chains that circle the park. Old folks sit on the benches, watching the swarming pigeons, a man from Iowa carries a sign saying “God’s real truth,” and assorted men and boys carry either packs on their backs or bottles in their pockets.

Howard A. Dingman sits on the middle bench, next to the fountain. He is one of the 2, 233 people who live in downtown hotels. He is also one of the over half who are permanent residents.

Howard looks like the kind of man one might claim for a favorite uncle. Seventy-two years old, he retired from the Detroit assembly lines in 1962. He helped make Chevrolets, tightening the six nuts on the left-rear wheels for 25 years. Now he wears a white nylon, short-sleeved shirt over his plump frame and gets a suntan under the palm trees of the park.

“If they tore down my hotel, I don't know what I’d do. I really don’t know. You just can’t put elderly people out in the street. There’s a lot of good people in these here hotels. You got to have a place to put these people. If you’re on a fixed income and you can’t afford it, what’s the alternative?

“I like downtown. I been a bachelor all my life, and if I went and lived up in Hillcrest or out in El Cajon and got myself in one of those apartment houses, why I’d be setting up there all by myself. It would be a different thing for me to be all by myself with married people all around me. Here, down in the skid row area, I can find all kinds of people to talk with and different people I can have fellowship with, that sort of thing. Otherwise, you can be a lonely individual setting up there in the 14th floor with all those families. You wouldn’t fit in at all. You’d be out of place and you’d be lonely there.

“There’s people of different kinds down here in the skid row area. A lot of people with good habits, and yet there’s a lot of winos and horse-players and whatnot. And that’s what’s so enjoyable about living here. All those different kinds of people can be very amusing, very interesting. Well-to-do people as well as poor people. You can have a lot of relationships with a lot of people here and fellowship with a lot of people here and you won’t ever be lonely.

“Say,” he says, peering up from the circle of his friends, “they aren’t going to tear down these here buildings, are they?”

Comments
Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

The Light Church: learning how to be human

Jesus had his diaper changed.
Next Article

Naked man at Santee YMCA produces litmus test

Will Nathan Fletcher trans cheerleading endure?
Comments
Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close