On my first morning in San Diego — July 1995 — I set off walking toward downtown. I was young and I didn’t know anybody, so I went to be where people were. Once there, I saw an escalator rising from street level up into I didn’t know what, so I got on. I wound up at the movie theater atop Horton Plaza for a 10 a.m. showing of Species, a film that taught me that Sir Ben Kingsley was willing to slum it onscreen and that, for a lonely young man, a naked woman can be more soothing than arousing, even if she turns into a murderous alien monster from time to time.
I found an echo of that sentiment in a 1986 Los Angeles Times article from ten years earlier about San Diego’s decline as a Navy town (“all sailors and hookers,” as one local put it). “After you’ve spent four months at sea,” said a petty officer, “you’re going to look for a woman — even if it’s just to talk to.” Or look at. The topless shoeshine on Fifth between F and G was gone by that point, but the Singapore topless bar was still jiggling. And even when I showed up, what is now Urban Outfitters on Fifth was the Kitty Kat adult theater, and F Street Adult Video & Gifts endured on Fourth.
Horton Plaza was, according to the plaque out front, honoring developer Ernest Hahn, “the catalyst for downtown San Diego’s dramatic rebirth.” Gaslamp Quarter project planner Michael Stepner had proposed way back in 1977 to “accomplish historical preservation by making the period flavor of the Gaslamp Era an economic asset,” but the thing got done by installing six blocks’ worth of Italianate architecture by way of Duplos building bricks.
The old sleazy neighborhood is now the Gaslamp Quarter and it's Horton Plaza that’s gone to seed, like some kind of architectural Giving Tree. In 1988, it was the third-most-visited place in San Diego after the zoo and SeaWorld. Now it’s not even the third-most-visited mall. When Max Nash was writing restaurant reviews for the Reader, he favorably reviewed the rooftop Napa Valley Grille, taking particular note of its pork chop. That space is now a comedy club, even the Ben & Jerry’s is gone, and Taco Bell looks like the biggest restaurant. Stalking the mall’s staggered levels, I counted over 30 vacant spaces, their windows papered to hide the emptiness within. “They used to have an FAO Schwartz up there,” said a man to his date. Tenants included a charter school, a dress charity, a hair-and-wig lounge, and a project space for the San Diego Art Institute.
Maybe that’s the future, now that the Kids of Today are shopping online and hanging out there, too. Not remodeling, but re-purposing. A poster declared, “Event Space Available: we have several event spaces throughout the mall, including: rooftop locations with breathtaking views of the downtown sunsets to small intimate spaces overlooking Broadway Circle.” I pictured a three-story rave inside the abandoned Nordstrom, with taco carts parked outside. A place where people are.