Friday, June 26, 2009 | Patty Fares knows where the bodies are buried: the world-famous mystery author, the mysterious lady who haunts the Hotel Del Coronado, and the famous mayoral candidate known as Geranium George.
Take a walk through Mt. Hope Cemetery with her and you’ll know too.
Fares is also well acquainted with where San Diego’s brothels used to be, why University Heights isn’t anywhere near a college and how Ocean Beach got such an obvious name.
For nine years, Fares has shared these tidbits and more during weekly Urban Safari walking tours. She takes crowds of locals — and the rare tourist — on journeys through neighborhoods from La Jolla and Mission Beach to Golden Hills and East Village.
In an interview, this San Diegan-via-Peoria talks about the hidden history of a city that sometimes forgets it wasn’t born yesterday.
What do locals fail to realize about San Diego’s past?
They don’t realize how much there is here. Everybody knows about the Gaslamp Quarter and Balboa Park, that we have great beaches. But they don’t realize that our individual neighborhoods are packed with history.
University Heights, for example. A lot of people get it confused with University City (near UCSD). But it’s actually our oldest suburb, going back to the 1880s when our first college was the Normal School and it was located there.
It was eventually moved to the far edge of the city because it outgrew that location. Today, it’s San Diego State University.
You live in Ocean Beach. What’s interesting about its history?
There were these two characters who were the original developers going back to the late 1880s: Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins.
Frank had the money, Billy had the personality.
Billy drew a map of (what is now) Ocean Beach and labeled things like “beach,” “ocean,” and whatever else he had envisioned. Frank looked at the map and said, “ocean beach” and thought that was Billy’s name for the area. That’s supposedly how it got its name.
But their attempt at development didn’t succeed. Frank committed suicide and Billy went on to become San Diego’s youngest mayor (in his late 20s), which he still is. He later moved to LA, got into banking and was arrested for embezzlement.
What signs of the past can we still see today in modern-looking neighborhoods?
I love pointing out some of the horse rings (where riders would hitch their horses) still embedded in the curb. One of those is just about in front of Filippi’s in Little Italy.
These are the kind of things you see when you’re walking, which is why walking is so much better than driving. You just see things.
Is there a neighborhood that you think of as a hidden secret?
South Park. When I first started doing it, I had people question me. They’d wonder if it was the TV show, or they’d say “Don’t you mean North Park? We don’t have a South Park.”
But it really does exist, and now it’s a secret that’s out. If you love old Craftsman homes, it’s a fabulous neighborhood.
I took your walking tour through Mt. Hope Cemetery a while back (and quoted you earlier this year in a story about its graveyard for tombstones). During the tour, you pointed out the grave of local horticulturalist Kate Sessions, whom I gather wasn’t popular with everybody.
My walks end up being like a big jigsaw puzzle of San Diego. A lot of stories start in one neighborhood and continue in another.
Kate Sessions had a nursery in Balboa Park, moved to Mission Hills, then to Pacific Beach, and there she is in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
She was a wonderful person as far as her contribution to the city and the trees. But I talk about her being especially crotchety.
I was at a Pacific Beach Historical Society meeting once, and she came up. An older gentleman raised his hand and said he had worked for Kate Sessions as a young boy. He got fired on his second day of work for breaking pots. He sounded like he was still upset about this, over her being a crotchety old lady. He never got over the fact that Kate Sessions fired him.
You also visit the grave of one Kate Morgan, who died under mysterious circumstances and is said to have haunted the Hotel del Coronado for more than a century.
Every time I go to her grave, there’s something different there, a little angel or coins or flowers. The cemetery people tell me the same thing: these things just appear. I guess somebody is paying tribute to her.
Do you have a favorite personality from San Diego’s history?
I’d have to say George Marston. He literally gave so much to this city. He bought all the land that is Presidio Park, landscaped it, paid for the building of the Serra Museum and gave it all to the city.
Unfortunately, that was 1929. You know what happened that year. The city gave it back to him because they couldn’t afford [the upkeep]. He personally maintained it for at least 10 years until the city could afford it again.
He ran for mayor (in 1917) and, unfortunately in my opinion, lost. Marston was nicknamed “Geranium George” because of his beautification efforts. The other guy won.
What do you think that meant for San Diego?
The smokestacks never happened, but who knows what George Marston might have accomplished. That we’ll never know.
But he didn’t disappear or get bitter like some people would. He continued giving lovingly to his city.