A tarnished little plaque is embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street. It bears a small legend: “Shirley Bernard, Gaslamp Pioneer.” Thousands of extravagantly attired feet heading for bars, cafés, and various basement disco dens tromp across her name, not realizing it is there. She died in October 1992 at the age of 69, well before the explosive development that has overwhelmed her old neighborhood, transforming it from a once-charming historic district into something more resembling Canal Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The formerly sleepy old harborside quarter has lost its harbor, which has been walled off by the sprawling convention center, blocking the once-sweeping nighttime view of the bridge to Coronado and the twinkling hills of Tijuana beyond. The new Omni Hotel at the Park towers ominously nearby, limiting the neighborhood’s sunlight.
Years ago, on hot summer nights, Shirley would climb onto the roof of her four-story Grand Pacific, the old fleabag hotel she had restored with her boyfriend Glen. She would pour herself her drink of choice — rum and Coke — light up a Marlboro, and breathe in the view. The only voices to be heard would filter up from broken-down drunks coming out of the cramped dive bars farther up Fifth Avenue toward Market. That tranquillity is long gone, replaced by raw commerce.
The insides of historic buildings have been gutted and their legacies shredded, replaced by high-priced designer versions of history. Tourists and conventioneers crowd the sidewalks, marching into trendy “theme” restaurants with names like Gaslamp Strip Club and Acqua. Within a year, the lights of the new Padres baseball stadium will be turned up, flooding the neighborhood with garish illumination and unchecked traffic congestion. Rum-and-Cokes have been replaced by flavored martinis favored by patrons who were born well after 1975, the year Shirley arrived from Rancho Santa Fe. Today’s drunks are under 30 and drive Hummers. Their voices are much louder and they stay out later than the inebriates of old.
It’s hard to know if Shirley would approve of what has become of the Gaslamp. Maybe she’d like it. After all, she was in the real estate business, a true capitalist, and she bought the hotel — for an outrageously low six figures — to make a buck off the eventual rehabilitation of the neighborhood. She never contemplated moving in. That came later, in the late ’70s, as then-mayor Pete Wilson and Ernest Hahn, the shopping-mall magnate from Hawthorne, sought to gain control of the quarter, with the expectation of leveling all but a few token historic structures.
Hahn, the developer of Horton Plaza, was stalling on his promised construction of the shopping center, declaring that he could not interest mall tenants while “bums were pissing in their shoes” just across the street in the Gaslamp Quarter. The solution, he said, was to use the city’s power of condemnation to seize the old buildings, quickly demolish them, and turn the land over to big developers at prices to be subsidized by city taxpayers, just as Wilson had done for him and the Horton Plaza project.
But when his redevelopment czar, Gerald Trimble, declared war on the quarter in 1977, Shirley and her fellow Gaslamp property owners, mostly upper-middle-class small investor types from the suburbs — not your typical radicals by any means — surprised Wilson by fighting back. They formed the city’s first “Project Area Committee” and invoked a state law requiring a “super majority” of the city council to approve a redevelopment project that the committee had rejected. Wilson lost the narrow vote, one of the rare defeats he encountered during his iron-fisted, decade-long domination of city hall. The wrecking ball of Trimble and Hahn was stayed.
After the battle was over, Shirley declared, “Let’s get the bricks in the street,” and a compliant city council obliged, initially dumping more than $6 million of federal funds into installation of new brick sidewalks and wrought-iron light fixtures. More money followed, as did favorable media attention. The Tribune’s Neil Morgan adopted Shirley as one of his regulars and spent months hanging around the Grand Pacific, showering her with glowing mentions in his column.
The battle with Wilson turned out to be the high point of Shirley’s relationship with the Gaslamp. She stayed for a while but eventually seemed to tire of the politics that were an ever-present part of the rehabilitation effort. She sold the Grand Pacific and moved to a house in Golden Hill, which she restored. A chain smoker, she died of lung cancer. After she had passed from the scene, the city made another grab for power and this time succeeded in putting the area under its redevelopment authority. By then, though, existing property owners were powerful enough to bar any future condemnation actions, forcing the city to deal fairly with them.
But that wasn’t enough to save the Gaslamp from drowning in its own success. The once-strict sign ordinances and design controls were ultimately abandoned, encouraging a honky-tonk culture to flourish. As the city packed more and more development into the area, it neglected issues such as parking and traffic control. The neighborhood’s burgeoning popularity led to the construction of condominium projects affordable to only a slim slice of well-to-do residents, many of whom came from out of town to buy second homes they saw written up in the “Escapes” section of the New York Times. The middle-class property owners of yore took their profits and departed the scene. What had started as a grassroots historic preservation effort led by live-in owners morphed into a corporate free-for-all, aided and abetted by a city council dependent on the campaign largesse of well-connected donors such as Padres owner John Moores.
Perhaps fittingly, an overbearing bust of Ernie Hahn commemorates his contribution to downtown development. A similar monument to his friend and beneficiary Pete Wilson is promised. Thanks to Shirley, at least the shell of San Diego’s lost history remains in the Gaslamp. Her obscure little plaque at the bottom of Fifth Avenue is the least she deserves.