Sam Is Your Man for Downtown : He's a Walking Map of San Diego's Odds and Ends

Times Staff Writer

Did you know that Enrico Caruso performed in San Diego and autographed the wall in his dressing room, and that his signature is still there, sealed in plastic?

Do you know the location of the sign downtown that advertises "Complete 35-Cent Meals"? Well, if you don't, just see the man known as Downtown Sam.

He's the Top Gun of Walking, his business cards proclaim. "No Thanks," reads the button on his visor, "I'd Rather Walk."

From basements to rooftops and everything in between, if it's downtown and accessible by foot, it's likely been trodden on by Sam Minsker and his twice-weekly convoy of walkers.

A gregarious Air Force retiree turned parking lot attendant turned walking tour guide, Sam, 59, is no Sunday afternoon stroller. He's sturdy and purposeful, a brisk mountain climber unleashed on city streets. He doesn't walk the sidewalks and byways, he devours them.

A Familiar Downtown Sight

Dressed in his customary shorts, T-shirt and visor and wearing dark, horned-rimmed glasses, he is a familiar sight to many of downtown's denizens.

"Hey," the strong voice yells at Sam from across the trolley turnaround at the foot of C Street, "don't worry about it!"

Sam, in the midst of describing yet another eccentric tidbit to a companion, turns around and immediately recognizes the wave and the broad smile. "Hey, Waterfront Al," he replies, and quickly moves on.

Sam doesn't know Al's last name, only that he lives in a nearby residential hotel, and Al doesn't know Sam's full name either. It's just Downtown Sam and Waterfront Al, and that's enough.

Walking through the lobby of the Golden West Hotel--a tired but tidy 4th Avenue residential hotel--Sam halts the only way he ever does, suddenly. If he were a car, his tires would screech at every stop.

"John Spreckels originally built this for his workers," Sam says.

"Here look at this." Nearby, next to the front counter, is a big-screen television. It faces several rows of old wooden rocking chairs, most of them empty. Sam laughs at the incongruity.

Meese the TV Attraction

On this afternoon, a handful of elderly men sit in the front seats, watching a larger-than-life Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III testifying at the Iran-contra congressional hearings.

Sam Minsker's conversion from mere mortal to walking encyclopedia of downtown trivia, history and stories is a rather recent one. In 1972, he retired from the Air Force after 24 years and found himself in New York.

His two daughters (he also has two sons) were living in Los Angeles. He wanted to be closer to them, although he'd never visited Southern California.

"I looked at the map, and the distance between San Diego and Los Angeles looked about this far," he said, measuring the distance between two of his fingers. So Sam and his family moved to Hillcrest. He went to City College and San Diego State University, more for the learning than for a degree.

He wound up working as a parking lot attendant downtown in 1979, a job he still holds, as does his wife. He didn't walk much but people were constantly asking him for directions and information. Thus began his love affair with downtown.

He studied about it in books at the library, he talked to old-timers, he went out and discovered on his own.

"It just grows on you once you start," he explained.

A Novel Idea

In 1984, he took part in a tour given by Walkabout International, a San Diego-based group that sponsors a wide variety of free walking tours throughout the county. Sam decided to approach them with his idea of leading trips through downtown--which, given its tattered condition, not to mention its tarnished image, was something of a novel idea.

"The first walk I had there were three people," Sam said. "Now if I don't get at least 25 people, it's unusual."

On the 4th of July, Sam broke his personal record when more than 100 people took park in his Celebrity Walk, a pedestrian parade past places where famous people--from Whoopie Goldberg and Pat Benatar to Hawaiian King Kalakaua and Will Rogers--lived, worked, visited or stayed.

He figures that in the last four years, he's walked 3,000 miles in the company of 6,000 fellow walkers on scores and scores of three-mile, three-hour wanderings.

Not one to stand pat, Sam has almost as many variations on his walks as there are streets.

Today, for example, Sam and his crew are visiting the six high-rises downtown that don't have a 13th-floor. Last week, he led a journey through downtown's basements.

There have been tours of thrift shops, hotels and sidewalks. He knows, for example, the location of the last two original horse tie-ups downtown, dating back to the 1880s; the site of a three-year-old palm tree growing out of a crack in the sidewalk on Broadway; where the last alley downtown is located, and the site of a trolley track on the sidewalk leading into a 1911 trolley barn.

One of his most intriguing journeys is his ants-eye view of lowly but historic sidewalks.

History in the Sidewalks

When cement contractors in San Diego began stamping their work in the 1890s, never could they have imagined they would be providing fodder nearly 100 years later for Downtown Sam.

Sam knows the oldest stamp in existence, a badly worn 1892 marker on G Street. There are, he points out, many 1895s and 1897s, bearing the names of people like "J. Engelbret and O. Nelson Contractors." What few people know, Sam said, is that Engelbret was short for Engelbretsen and that he was the Swedish and Norwegian consul in San Diego in the early 1900s. But that's just another plum in Sam's cornucopia of trivia.

His wanderings through the city's streets have left Sam with some definite opinions. What downtown needs, he says, is more affordable housing. "We have plenty of housing for the rich people," he said.

The solution of the homeless problem, he says, lies in turning Balboa Park's Marston Point into a homeless center, with showers, a mess hall and temporary shelter.

Sam would, if he could, change the name of Broadway Circle to Martin Luther King Way, as a way of deflating the controversy surrounding the renaming of Market Street.

And he is concerned about many of the people who are plotting downtown's future--the persons who sit on the various civic boards and commissions. "There are investors . . . speculators, architects, people in real estate--and they are not going to vote against something that is against their interest," he says matter-of-factly.

In his own way, Sam is doing as much to popularize and promote center city as the corporations that put up the high-rises and the businessmen who open the new stores. He's content to do what he does best, communicate his enthusiasm and energy for an area that to many residents--both old and new--is still a rough-hewn urban frontier.

"In walking around and nosing around," Sam says, "a person picks up a lot of interesting things."

Did you know that Enrico Caruso performed in San Diego and autographed the wall in his dressing room, and that his signature is still there, sealed in plastic?

Do you know the location of the sign downtown that advertises "Complete 35-Cent Meals"? Well, if you don't, just see the man known as Downtown Sam.

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