Old Town

Tourist attraction or tourist trap?

The first time I went to Old Town I was very disappointed. I ended up walking around on a very hot day thinking to myself, this is a very large retail strip mall filled with gift shops disguised as a historical site. I ended up leaving feeling let down and thinking it was nothing more than a tourist trap. It stayed in my mind for weeks afterward. They pour millions of dollars into advertising and marketing this place every year. Why? What was the fascination? So, I decided to return and find out the answer to that question.

It was a summer afternoon in San Diego, the dry air was warm but not stifling, and a cool breeze was keeping it quite pleasant. Driving north on Interstate 5, past the San Diego International Airport, a plane flew right over my classic red convertible so close that it’s shadow covered my entire car and I could see the wings reflected on the hood. It felt like a close call, but I knew better. Planes fly what seems dangerously close over I-5 all the time to land at the airport. I’ve met pilots and they’ve confirmed that it’s a hard airport to fly into. It’s commonplace now for residents, but long before that airport existed there was a small settlement of people building what would become America’s Finest City. They tilled the earth, built homes to live in, raised families and started businesses. It all began in what is now Old Town. The sign entering the area says it is the ‘Birthplace of California’.

I found a parking place fairly easily as it was not a weekend day and it was late in the summer. Most of the tourists have gone home now; back to school and work and back to their lives, but here I was, ready to explore California’s birthplace. I didn’t know what that meant or where to begin.

I walked past shop after shop, filled with ‘treasures’, most with a latin american flavor. There’s Mexican glass, colored dinnerware and pottery, cookbooks, religious artifacts, colorful clothes and so much more. The shops were very vivid and delightful to look through but that wasn’t what I had in mind. I was looking for history and that window into the past. The true story of California’s birthplace had to be here somewhere. I left the shops behind and headed to the center of Old Town. On the far side of the large open plaza in the center of the Old Town State Park was the Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center. I spoke to the docent behind the counter about what to see and do and she kindly suggested that I take the free tour of the park. Luckily for me, it was going to start in about ten minutes. As I waited, a group of people started gathering on the planked front porch of this old building, waiting to be told all the history and interesting facts about the area.

We were greeted by our guide, Becky, who was dressed in mid-1800’s attire (as was the docent that helped me earlier) and headed off to learn the history of Old Town. Becky was funny, informative and kind. I found her delightful. She told us that most of the people who settled here came down from the Presidio, an area just up the hill from Old Town. In the Presidio, long before Old Town was populated, Franciscan Friars had built a mission and the first European settlement on the West Coast around 1770. Fifty years later, in the early 1820’s, things really started happening in Old Town. Spanish soldiers came down from the presidio and began building adobe structures. Two of the original structures were homes that are still there to see. La Casa de Estudillo and La Casa de Machado y Stewart. Both are excellent examples of life in another time. The Estudillo home is a glimpse into the life of a wealthy family. Built from sun-baked adobe bricks on large river cobble foundations, this home has three to five foot thick walls. It has fifteen rooms, including five bedrooms, a study, dining room, living room, a large inner courtyard, and even a chapel. This chapel later became the only place to worship for the entire community until another chapel was built.

The Estudillo hacienda is a grand home of wealth and opulence for the time, very unlike the other home that’s original to this area. La Casa de Machado y Stewart is a modest family home. They were the workers in this area. Living in one large living room and one bedroom. All of the family members slept in one room and most of the time the young boys had to sleep outside. Fortunately, San Diego has great year round weather. Interestingly, this house was lived in until the 1960’s.

Adobe structures like these are intriguing. There are no fireplaces or stoves inside the home, always outside. Also there was no porch on the front, only verandas on the back near the garden plot and outside oven. One could enjoy the shade on the veranda, after picking fresh vegetables, while watching the evening dinner cook in the oven.

Another original building is the Commercial Restaurant. This is a good example of what it was like to dine out in Old Town. It doesn’t look anything like restaurants of today which line every street, blaring loud music, with televisions showing every sports game from around the world and everyone that comes in is treated the same. No, not at the Commercial Restaurant. Here people were seated and served according to their social class. Even the food choices were limited by class and rank in life. Quite a departure to today’s restaurants. For the tour through this old restaurant, it has been set up to show how each class section would look and what would be served. It’s quite illuminating.

In 1848 the gold rush happened and changes happened fast in San Diego. There was an influx of people wanting to cash in and get wealthy overnight and the influences in Old Town changed with it. A good example is the Courthouse, it was the first fired brick building in town. Although the one in the park is not the original, it was interesting nonetheless. The park has painstakingly tried to build all the replicas to as close to original as possible to give visitors a real glimpse into the past. Shortly after the fired bricks came wooden structures. San Diego was rather barren and without many trees so pre-fabricated kits had to be ordered from the east coast and shipped around the tip of South America to be assembled here. Once these started to arrive, people started to see new and improved innovations in housing. Many things we take for granted, homes, churches, food and much more. Even how buildings were constructed and the progression of fabrication and design. Some of which we still use today. First came a front porch with planked wooden floors, then two stories and even decorative details, oh boy. By this time, they were beginning to resemble the homes we live in today.

 After my tour, I stopped in one of the shops, got myself a sarsaparilla and walked around the square trying to imagine the events, festivals and meetings held here. People worked the land here, built businesses, fell in love and died here. The sarsaparilla was cold, caramelly and refreshing. I asked myself if a girl in the 1800’s would have come in here to buy one of these drinks for herself on a hot August day. I don’t know, perhaps one of the Estudillo daughters did. I imagined for a moment I was one of them, but then I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window, with my plastic ‘crocs’, shorts and tank top. I couldn’t really stretch my imagination that far as I really have no concept of what these people went through to build a life for themselves here. Money makes everything easier and that hasn’t changed through time. The poor or middle class, how did they survive? I can barely make it through a hot afternoon without the fan going. Not to mention no refrigerator. Forget it.

The tour showed me the shadows of a people and lives that came before me. It was interesting and absolutely invaluable to seeing Old Town. Allows you to walk through the time machine door and see another way of life.

I left the State Park and wandered into the surrounding business area, filled with restaurants and gift shops. I decided to head up the street to see the Whaley House. My guide told me it’s quite beautiful and worth seeing. She was right. I’m sure everyone has heard by now that it is supposedly the most haunted building in San Diego. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I was secretly hoping there might be ‘something’ in there to change my mind. I bought my ticket and told the lovely women behind the counter that I was writing an article on Old Town. She was thrilled and told me to ask for “Pat”. Pat was a plump woman, mostly due to her bustled costume. Her fair hair was in a bun and with no makeup, she looked quite matronly to me. Obviously accustomed to the costume she was wearing, she carried herself as if she were from an earlier time. She is the docent in the Whaley House and a fantastic one at that. She was very kind, knowledgeable and truly enjoyed what she was doing. When asked if she’s experienced or seen anything in the house, Pat replied, “Oh yes, many times, I’ve even had one pass through me.” Well, after learning information from Pat and finishing the entire self guided tour I felt a little cheated. I hadn’t felt any ‘presence’ at all. I did however get to see that gorgeous old home and, being a movie and live theater lover, was pleased to learn that the Whaley House is the site of the first commercial theatre in San Diego. It operated only for a short time, but I was sure the people loved it.

Up the road from the Whaley House, past numerous Mexican restaurants, I went to the old cemetery. All the white crosses looked lonely. The grounds were unattended and unkept. Many of the graves were unmarked. Time has taken it toll here. Several of the graves were children, victims of the times in which they lived. Young souls, taken too young and most probably too horribly.

As I left, I knew I had enjoyed my window into the past much more this time around. I had changed my opinion of Old Town. No longer did I feel it was nothing but a tourist trap and a waste of time: a mediocre restaurant row with a souvenir shop on every corner. I came to realize that it’s a painstakingly restored glimpse into the people who sacrificed everything to come to the West Coast and begin again. They strived to carve a new and hopefully wonderful life for themselves. People in general are always looking for new ways to improve their lives, create wealth and security for their family. These people were no different and Old Town as it stands today allows you to see the fruits of their labor.

Most of the restaurants in Old Town today have mexican food or some variation and all of them are good. You can’t really go wrong. And if your going to Old town, you have to try the mexican food. I can’t imagine having anything else. So, after your tour, stop and have a margarita (or two), enjoy the food, the atmosphere and sit back relishing in how easy your life is compared to the people who forged this land before us. Enjoy drinks, great food and a day in this truly surprising place. With all the shops you might say it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but for me, it was a wonderful afternoon of history, and I will visit again soon.

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