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Sailor Town Has Changed : Navy Is Less Visible in Downtown San Diego

Times Staff Writer

Where have all the sailors gone?

There was a time when San Diego, with its recruit training center, ships anchored in San Diego Bay, Miramar Naval Air Station and 32nd Street Navy Base had a downtown area that was one of the most visible “sailor towns” in the nation.

Not anymore.

“I remember when you couldn’t walk down the streets here for the sailors,” Ruby Vlach said. Vlach, 72, is a cook at the China Doll coffee shop, wedged between the China Doll Go-Go Lounge and Singapore topless bar at F Street and 5th Avenue, two establishments that have long catered to the sailor trade.

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Vlach, who has lived in San Diego for 30 years, is among the longtime residents who believe the heyday of the Navy in San Diego ended a decade ago.

While the downtown honky-tonks that once made San Diego as famous to “West Pac” (Western Pacific) sailors as the bars of Yokosuka or Olongapo, are vanishing, the Navy’s role in San Diego remains as big as it was 10 or 20 years ago.

The Navy has made some changes, but it is the city that has changed the most, observers say. And among the changes that have made the Navy less visible in San Diego, particularly downtown, are:

- Downtown redevelopment that has eliminated many of the bars and other longtime haunts of sailors.

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- Fewer uniforms. Until 1970, sailors were forbidden to carry civilian clothes aboard ships. That meant that when large ships were in port the streets would be flooded with sailors in uniform. Now many wear civvies ashore.

- Growth of San Diego County. In 1960 the county had a population of just over a million. In 1970 it was 1.3 million, in 1980 it was 1.8 million. Today it is 2 million. While the county has grown, the Navy population has remained more or less static, making the Navy presence less visible. There are approximately 87,400 Navy personnel assigned in San Diego County today. That figure can be deceptive, however, because as much as a third of them can be at sea at one time.

- Different docking arrangements. Most ships now dock at the 32nd Street Navy Base or at North Island. Ships used to “drop the hook” in the bay and liberty boats shuttled sailors to Broadway Pier at the foot of downtown.

- More sea duty. A generation ago, ships often spent more time in port than at sea. Today, with nuclear power and “under way replenishment” (provisioning a ship at sea from a supply vessel), the reverse is often true. There are three aircraft carriers, with a total complement of about 5,000 men each, based in San Diego, but the three are seldom in port at the same time.

For Bob Johnston, 89, downtown just isn’t the same. Johnston has seen the changes that have taken place in San Diego over half a century.

For decades he operated the Hollywood Burlesque Theater and next-door Sportsman’s Palace Bar, decorated with the photos of leading entertainers and top athletes that Johnston counted among his friends. The Horton Plaza parking garage now occupies the spot where the bar and theater stood.

Johnston’s bar and theater were landmarks for generations of sailors. During World War II, sailors lined up around the block to see the scantily clad dancers and comedy revues at the Hollywood Burlesque.

“It was good clean fun, not like what they show on TV today. That stuff is terrible,” Johnston said of the burlesque revues that were almost innocent by today’s standards.

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What is happening in downtown San Diego is being reflected in National City, where ambitious redevelopment plans are doing away with dance halls, bars and peep shows frequented by sailors from the 32nd Street Navy Base.

Kile Morgan, National City’s mayor, won’t be sorry to see them go.

“Thirty-seven percent of all crime (in the city) was committed down there in six square blocks,” Morgan said of the area around National City Boulevard between 7th and 9th streets.

“There are bound to be some sailors come in. We’re a Navy town. But we’ve probably got more than our share of bars in National City . . . . we’re going to tear down 3 1/2 blocks.”

Acting San Diego Mayor Ed Struiksma feels the same way about the removal of honky-tonks.

Sailors “can find other places to be entertained. There are nice establishments in downtown San Diego to go to,” Struiksma said. “There is a very nice bar in the Grant Hotel. I can’t believe the prices of a beer in one of those bars (catering to sailors) and one of the nicer places would differ greatly. A beer is a beer.” (The price of a domestic draft beer at the Grant Hotel bar is $2.25, while a draft beer at most of the downtown bars catering to sailors costs $1.)

Economics have always played an important part in sailors’ off-duty recreation, and for good reason.

A seaman (pay grade E-3) with less than two years’ service makes $744 a month. Many of the bars and other establishments catering to sailors are acutely aware of military paydays and what ships are in port.

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Some of the bars employ Asian barmaids and hostesses, some of them ex-wives of servicemen, hoping to lure sailors with a tenuous connection to exotic ports.

The enthusiasm that Struiksma and Morgan share over the passing of downtown sailor businesses in their cities isn’t shared by everyone.

“A lot of people without cars and some who don’t want to drink and drive come here,” said a petty officer from the destroyer Ingersoll while having a beer in the Westerner Bar in National City.

“Now they’ll probably have to go to the suburbs and there’ll be a lot more DWIs (drunk driving arrests).”

The Westerner has been at 7th and National City Boulevard for 30 years. Bartender Ann Zatarian said that 90% of the Westerner’s customers are sailors and that on weekends it’s “wall-to-wall” people. On April 6 the Westerner will close, shut out by National City’s redevelopment.

Some people, like retired sailor John Hosted, 78, proprietor of The Real McCoy’s Bar on E Street between 4th and 5th avenues in downtown San Diego, believe that cities use redevelopment as an excuse to get rid of what they see as undesirable sailor trade.

Others, like former merchant seaman Ed Morthland, a cook at the China Doll coffee shop, view the passing of downtown honky-tonks with nostalgia.

“In a way it was a lot better,” Morthland said of the past. “It was cheaper. This was a real military town, all sailors and hookers.” Morthland fondly recalls the topless shoeshine stand that flourished briefly on 5th Avenue between F and G streets.

Another sort of business that once thrived on sailors, the tattoo parlor, also is vanishing from the downtown scene.

Buzz Richards, 35, a tattoo artist at a parlor in an amusement arcade on Broadway at Columbia Street, said the parlor was once crowded from opening to closing, but no more. Sailors still comprise 60% of the parlor’s patrons but there are far fewer customers than in the past. The Navy actively discourages sailor from getting tattoos.

Police Lt. Claude Gray said redevelopment has helped reduce the amount of crime in the Gaslamp Quarter, where many of the bars catering to sailors are located.

“Crime in the entire area is going down . . . things are certainly looking much better in the last year,” he said.

Gray said many sailors who frequented the area became victims of crime while intoxicated. A major problem for police has been with the criminal element that preys on sailors, rather than with sailors themselves. These were the prostitutes, pimps and drug pushers who lurked in areas around honky-tonks and often targeted young and inexperienced sailors.

Prostitution has declined in the last year in the downtown area, according to Lt. Craig Kessler of the vice squad, while the drug traffic involving servicemen also has decreased sharply, Sgt. Dennis Sesma of the narcotics detail said.

Some observers believe the Navy itself has been behind an effort to lower the profile of sailors in San Diego, strongly discouraging the traditional hell-raising that once accompanied the shout of “The fleet’s in!”

Stung by anti-military sentiment after the Vietnam War, along with revelations of drug use, misconduct aboard ships and individual criminal acts, the Navy’s top brass has pushed hard to improve both the on-duty and off-duty conduct and image of sailors.

The Navy has programs to weed out drug users, crack down on heavy drinkers and eliminate chronic trouble-makers.

But despite redevelopment in downtown San Diego and National City, and innovations by the Navy, not everything is likely to change, observers say.

There will still be scattered bars, many with the names of exotic Asian ports and almond-eyed barmaids, that cater to sailors.

A chief petty officer blew the foam off a beer at The Real McCoy’s and explained why:

“After you’ve spent four months at sea, cooped up on a ship with a bunch of guys, you’re going to look for a woman--even if it’s just to talk to.”


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