Posts Tagged ‘walking tour’

Gaslamp Walking Tour

December 28th, 2018

Gaslamp Quarter
Gaslamp Quarter Horton Grand Hotel
 

During my first visit to San Diego I remember walking across a busy street and set of train tracks from the Convention Center to the Gaslamp Quarter (or Gaslamp District, depending who you ask.) According to the big sign crossing Fifth Avenue the Gaslamp is the self-proclaimed “Historic Heart of San Diego.”

The neighborhood’s promotional pamphlets had already turned me off somewhat, and on seeing this stretch of the Gaslamp my tourist trap sensor went off — all the restaurants on the block had barkers out front.

Today that particular stretch of the Gaslamp is even more tourist trap-y with the addition of a Hard Rock Cafe. You can poke around on Google Street View here to see for yourself.

So I was a little apprehensive about signing up for a walking tour of a neighborhood that seemed so touristy. But the organization behind the tour appeared legitimate and I’m always down for an interesting walking tour.
 

This Gaslamp walking tour is specifically the Gaslamp Foundation Thursday Walking Tour although from what I understand you can book the same tour on Saturdays.

The tour meets at the Davis-Horton House Museum, which is operated by the same organization behind the tour.

Early on, the tour throws some shade on that big Gaslamp Quarter sign’s claim to be the “historic heart” of San Diego. The original inhabitants of San Diego were Native Americans, a claim easily verified by anyone familiar with California’s Spanish history — the first Mission was built in San Diego in 1769 to convert the natives to Catholicism — and it’s pretty far away from the Gaslamp.

Second the Gaslamp was originally known as New Town, promoted as the new downtown San Diego, much closer to the port (now where the Convention Center is located) than Old Town further up north. Old Town is still preserved in some capacity and is another tourist attraction. So there’s that.

But by far the biggest blow to the image promoted to tourists about the Gaslamp are the “gas lamps” themselves. Those ye olde fashioned (electric) light posts lining the streets were installed in the 1980′s when city planners became interested in preserving the area, and rebranded it as the “Gaslamp Quarter.” Although gas lamps were installed inside buildings back in the day, the streets themselves never actually had gas lamps illuminating them at night.

Before the Gaslamp rebranding, New Town was known locally as the Stingaree. Nobody calls it that anymore. Marketing is a powerful force.

A few highlights of the tour:

  • Many of the Victorian buildings were renovated to “modernize” or strip them of the Victorian elements after World War 2. Some of them were recently renovated back to appear Victorian again based on photos or even molds of other buildings. To me the ways we “preserve” history say more about the prevailing fashions at the time than anything meaningful about history.
  • San Diego’s Chinatown (or Asiatown, really) once included part of today’s Gaslamp. It’s all but forgotten unless you know where to look. Even then there’s little left to see.
  • Several buildings were moved one way or another, including the Davis-Horton House as well as the nearby Horton Grand Hotel. The Horton Grand Hotel was originally two hotels, ripped down, put into storage, and eventually rebuilt as a single hotel in a different location. This explains why one side has trapezoidal bay windows and the other features rectangular bay windows.
  • Buildings near a port often served as brothels because, you know, sailors. The photo of the ornate Victorian above is a semi-recreation of a building that once housed a particularly well known brothel. The madam sold color-coded marbles, with each color corresponding to a painted door leading to a sex worker in the building. Authorities cracking down on brothels in the area — and there were many brothels — couldn’t touch this simple marble saleswoman. As if that’s not enough supposedly Wyatt Earp frequented the place, but supposedly only the restaurant on the bottom floor.

There’s much more to the tour than this, and my tour guide pointed out that you can wander around and read the historical plaques tacked on to the sides of many historic buildings in the area. That said the early history of the area is often more colorful and complex than the plaques would have you believe.

Our tour entered several buildings to point out historical details not visible from the outside, but officially this walking tour only includes the interior of the Davis-Horton House. That said many of the older buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter are open to the public to some extent (stores, restaurants, etc.) so you can take a peek inside on your own to get a feel for 19th century San Diego.
 

My recommendation: If you’re interested in the history and architecture of the west coast, go for it. For that matter the tour’s worth checking out if you’re curious about the ways history is preserved, or even what’s considered to be historic. Turns out there’s far more to San Diego’s history than navy operations and beaches. Who knew?

Historic downtown LA walking tour

February 18th, 2018

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

I spent the morning on a long walk through downtown Los Angeles on LA Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour. I won’t go over everything on the tour, but I’ll cover a few stops I found interesting.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

The Central Library is actually two buildings glued together, and aside from books and such it’s also home to a variety of permanent and rotating art. The LA Conservancy helped prevent the stately old library from being torn down, although it was too late to save the interior due to a fire. See also the photo at the top of the post.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

One Bunker Hill, aka the Southern California Edison Company Building, is an art deco masterpiece that was also the first building in LA to feature air conditioning. Thankfully, it still does. The building’s land was owned by Henry Huntington who was involved with SoCal Edison among other businesses. And where did he get the money for financing these projects? From one of San Francisco’s railway robber barons, his uncle Collis P. Huntington.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Angel’s Flight is known as the world’s shortest railway, intended to get lazy people up and down Bunker Hill. It raises some interesting questions, or rather one question really — why didn’t they just build an elevator? I suspect the answer is people will pay for train rides but would balk at paying for a very short elevator trip.

Confession: since it’s cash only and I don’t like bothering with paper (their claim to accept TAP cards is a bold faced lie) I skipped the ride and took the stairs instead.
 

I didn’t get any photos but the Grand Central Market is your typical foodie mecca selling everything from raw ingredients to freshly made cuisine. It’s pretty similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike’s Place in Seattle, etc. Bringing the tour through here at lunch time was a poor choice as we lost a couple hungry tourists. I came back after the tour for lunch myself. Finding good food was easy, finding a table was not. Finding a chair was even harder — I eventually gave up and ate while standing.

LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour LA Conservancy's Historic Downtown Walking Tour
 

Last but definitely not least is the Bradbury Building. Also known as “hey it’s that building from Blade Runner!” The iron work in the building was reclaimed from a World’s Fair exhibition. Today tourists are only allowed on the first two floors and not in the elevators as the offices are still actively used. Many of them appeared to be empty, presumably because workers got sick of answering questions about Replicants.

There’s a patio on one side of the building with a wall detailing the life of Biddy Mason, a slave who’s owners moved to California. Mason realized being a slave in a free state made no sense and successfully freed herself through the court system, then took up work as a midwife. Her former home was located nearby on the site of what is now (to the surprise of no one who’s ever spent time in Los Angeles) a parking garage.
 

My recommendation: If you like architecture and public art and don’t know downtown LA (that’s me!) this tour’s a good fit. Be forewarned it’s more strenuous than your average walking tour. A few older folks in the crowd were having trouble keeping up at times.

City Guides tour of Lands End: Sutro Heights

September 6th, 2016

I’m no good at planning, so it comes as no surprise that I’d neglected to make plans for Labor Day and had to find something interesting to do at the last minute. I figured I’d go on another City Guides tour — I’ve been on dozens of these — and somehow managed to pick one of the most interesting tours with spectacular views on a day that was shockingly not foggy. I’d highly recommend this particular tour.

If you’ve never been on a City Guides tour, here’s the briefing: they have many 100% free walking tours in San Francisco led by volunteers every day. The program is run by SF Public Library and paid for through the hotel tax and donations by people like you and me. At the end of each tour they pass around envelopes and you can put in a few bucks if you like, but there’s no obligation. The tour groups range in size greatly depending on a number of factors; sometimes there’s only a couple people, other times — like today’s tour — there’s over forty.

As the title suggests I went on the Lands End: Sutro Heights tour. I’m writing this to entice you to go on it yourself so I’m keeping the “spoilers” to a minimum. But I’m going to bait you with some photos of the views and a few neat tidbits you probably haven’t heard about.

The tour starts at the Sutro Heights park, which is just up the hill from Sutro Baths and across the street at 48th Ave; look for the big lion head statues.

Like many things in San Francisco, Sutro Heights is named after a certain local businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro. The area is now a park, but was originally where his own home once stood. Sutro made the area into a garden with flowers and statues, but the flowers died out long ago and most of the statues mysteriously disappeared. Someone even removed the antlers on this remaining deer statue; now people occasionally replace what’s left of the antlers with tree branches.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Back in Sutro’s day there were a number of observation decks open to the public with a spectacular view of Ocean Beach. The only remaining one was built in stone, and once had an area (now sealed off) that acted as the wine cellar for Sutro’s home.

Not pictured, but just to the right and below is the Cliff House, which Sutro bought and turned it into a restaurant; one factoid the City Guides tour mentions but is strangely absent from most tourist literature is what the Cliff House was used for before it was a restaurant. (Hint: it involved sex.) After Sutro bought the place it was infamously blown up by accident, rebuilt, burned down, then rebuilt as a small cement building that still stands to this very day.

As with other photos in this post, click on the panorama below for a larger version.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Another interesting story is Sutro’s long, expensive battle against Southern Pacific Railway, which he felt was gouging travelers coming to spend money at his attractions. After all, how can you squeeze money out of someone when their pockets are empty? But that’s a story too long for this post, so either go on the tour yourself or read about it online or in a history book.

Which takes us to Sutro’s other attraction, Sutro Baths. Before people had showers and bathtubs in their homes, your average Joes would head over to a public bathhouse to clean themselves. Without getting into how fucking gross this is, the project was a severe miscalculation by ol’ Adolph; by the time he’d built the thing it was already obsolete as most homes in the area had modern bathrooms. Whoops.

The building stood there until the mid 1960′s when it was burned down, probably on purpose. Now it’s this strange modern ruin that attracts tourists for some weird reason that I’m not sure I fully understand.

 
Sutro Baths
 

The City Guides tour itself ended before we walked down to the baths, presumably for liability reasons. But I headed down anyway and have a couple more photos to share.

First, here’s the ruins of Sutro Baths from the walking path just above it:

 
Sutro Baths
 

Next up: until this afternoon I’d somehow never walked through the cave next to Sutro Baths. I couldn’t get any great photos because a) it’s way too dark and b) it was filled with people. Also I was too busy trying not to trip on the rocks inside the cave to get my phone out.

The cave is completely terrifying — you can hear the echo of waves crashing against the rocks and the entire thing feels like it’s going to probably collapse at any second, and one day it inevitably will. Until then, you can see the ocean waves in a couple of spots where it’s already eroded a hole away. Incidentally, these waves were also what fed into the Sutro Baths. The ocean water went through a natural aquifer, then into a steam-powered heater.

 
Sutro Baths
 

On my walk home I decided to head past the beach and through Golden Gate Park, so here’s one final shot of Ocean Beach. It was such a sunny day there were nine (nine!) beach volleyball games going on at once, and that’s only at this end of the beach.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see both of the windmills in Golden Gate Park. But did you know? Those windmills both served an important function in the park back in the day, and there was once a third windmill in Sutro Heights. What where they used for and why? You’ll have to go take the tour yourself to find out.

 
Ocean Beach