(Published in the February 2011 issue)
More than a century before celebrities and scenesters were carousing on the roof of San Diego’s Stingaree nightclub, some of the city’s earliest inhabitants were having a bawdy, booze-fueled time in downtown’s red light district, also known as the Stingaree District.
The region, which thrived in a 12-block area bounded by Fifth and First Avenues and K and Market Streets from the late 1800s until 1915, contained enough cheap whiskey, opium and wanton women to satisfy the desires of sailors, politicians and otherwise upstanding citizens (who often escaped over back fences or through foliage during raids).
Like San Francisco’s more famous Barbary Coast, the Stingaree was home to numerous taverns with names like as First and Last Chance Saloon and Old Tub of Blood, as well as an array of cathouses (or “cribs”) such as The Turf and Cozy Cottage.
Though gambling and prostitution were illegal in California after 1855, law enforcement believed these vices were impossible to curtail, tolerating them as long as they remained confined to established red light districts.
Illicit payments to police were a common component of the bargain.
According to the memoirs of Walter Bellon (a document housed at the San Diego History Center), the cribs were typically located above saloons, and the doors to women’s rooms were crowned with red lights, ribbons, horseshoes or other talismans. Prostitutes typically paid proprietors $14 a week plus a percentage of their take. A fee was often paid for the services of a bouncer or "protector” of the establishment as well.
Stingaree’s most upscale bordello was the faded-yellow Canary Cottage, located on the west side of Fourth Avenue between Market and Island. Its proprietor, Madam Ida Bailey, would often rent a horse-drawn carriage to parade her hottest harlots around town in search of new business, a practice referred to as “airing the wares.”
However, despite the laissez-faire attitudes of a majority of the public and lawenforcement, as the Panama-California Exposition (1915 to 1917) drew near, the city was seized by a moral fervor. A group of prominent citizens formed the Vice Suppression Committee, calling for a cleanup of the Stingaree.
Walter Bellon, then a public health inspector and later a County supervisor, is credited with nearly wiping out the Stingaree District singlehandedly. From 1910 to 1912, he walked the streets of the Stingaree, handing out citations. If an owner failed to make even the most basic repairs, he and his henchmen would demolish or torch the building. In November of 1912, a large crowd gathered to watch as he incinerated 13 ramshackle structures at the foot of Eighth Avenue.
On November 10, 1912, police raided the Stingaree, nabbing 138 prostitutes.
Their penance? A ham sandwich, coffee and a lengthy browbeating from a member of the Vice Suppression Committee. After calmly listening to the salvation spiel, the women laughed, smoked and told jokes amongst themselves. Most eventually followed police orders and left town. Only two ladies took the committee up on its offer to help them “reform.”
Former Stingaree hotspots
First and Last Chance Saloon (Fifth and K)
Legal Tender Saloon (Fourth and J)
Old Tub of Blood (Third and Island)
Pacific Squadron Hall (Fourth and J)
Seven Buckets of Blood (Third and Island)
Yankee Doodle Hall (Third and J)
Cozy Cottage (Pacific Highway and Market Street)
Canary Cottage (Fourth, between Market and Island)
The Turf (Fourth and J)
San Diego prostitutes continue to ply their trade
Though history may remember the women of the Stingaree as happy, even liberated hookers, San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means says San Diego’s modern, curbside sex workers are mostly employed by pimps whose management style includes fear, intimidation and violence.
“It is a horrific life,” says Means, who prosecutes felony pimping cases in the Sex Crimes Unit. “These women think they’re strong, but they’re just so broken down. It’s terribly sad.”
Whether working in a minivan, motel room or massage parlor, San Diego prostitutes almost always have a pimp, Means says. Her office has seen women in their 20s turning tricks for extra cash while attending nursing or graduate school, though it is hardly a desired occupation.
“I know that bursts a lot of men’s bubbles,” says Means, “but no girl wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to give blowjobs for a living. I want to be a prostitute. That’s what my dream is.’”
While the world’s oldest profession has largely been eradicated from the Gaslamp District, it continues to thrive along El Cajon Boulevard (east of Interstate 805) and along Main Street, downtown, in the shadowy industrial area west of I-5, just north of National City.
Deputy City Attorney Kristin Beattie, who works closely with the San Diego Police’s Vice Department on Prostitution Abatement, says the city prosecutes about 800 cases of prostitution and loitering with the intent to solicit prostitution per year. The fine is $593, with a possible $100 victim restitution fee, mandatory HIV test and as much as three years of probation.
The Stingaree’s renaissance
These days, neon blinks where red lights did during the Stingaree’s heyday, and bar patrons pay the neighborhood’s bartenders about $14 per vodka/Red Bull-the amount prostitutes once forked over for rent. If history didn’t repeat itself, it certainly ordered itself another round of drinks.
Stingaree nightclub owner James Brennan, who will celebrate the club’s five-year anniversary this month, says he was happy to evoke the Stingaree’s raucous past when christening his establishment.
“I think we’ve always kind of nodded our head to what it was," Brennan says. “It was just perfect for what we were trying to build.”