Call them a chore, an opportunity or a giant pain in the ballot box. For more than a century, San Diego voters have faced decisions about local initiatives. In recent years, we’ve tackled matters from the major (should we boost taxes to build a new home for the Chargers?) to the mundane (correcting typos in the city charter).
Pretty routine, right? Well, not always. At times, San Diegans have faced quirky dilemmas about topics such as the right to bare all at the beach, the names of a stadium and a street, and even the right to enjoy an adult beverage within city limits.
Here’s a look at the four oddest ballot measures we’ve had to deal with over the past 120 years:
4. Vote Yes to Say No to Nudes
For three years in the mid-1970s, the city allowed nudity on the city-owned portion of Black’s Beach, which had become world famous for its bodaciously bare bathers. A city sign said it all: “Swimsuits Optional Beyond This Point. San Diego Muni. Code 56.53.”
But by 1977, moralizers went on the march: They decried a “disgraceful carnival” of lewd behavior at Black’s. And they worried about children being exposed to uncovered body parts even though no one was likely to accidentally stumble upon the hard-to-reach beach. (One of the few kids to accidentally be exposed to Black’s was me: I came across a slightly explicit photo of the beach scene in San Diego Magazine as a fourth-grader working on a scrapbook project. It was quite a day at Rosebank Elementary.)
Voters ended up with a confusing choice: Vote yes on Prop. D to say no to nudity at Black’s, or vote no to say yes. By a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, the populace ordered beach-goers to stop dropping trou. But it didn’t work.
Despite the law, lifeguards found better things to do than ticket the bare-naked. (One acknowledged, though, that “for the first week or couple weeks [on the job at Black’s], it’s sort of like your head is on a swivel”). Illegal-but-ignored nudity has been the status quo at the beach for more than 40 years, and hundreds of visitors head there every nice summer day to work on eliminating their tan lines.
3. Hit the Road, Jack (Murphy)!
Stadiums often have horrible names, especially now that any company with money to spend can buy naming rights. Cases in point: Guaranteed Rate Field. PSINet Stadium. O.co Coliseum. O.my gawd, no.
By modern standards, “San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium” was a clunky mouthful but not actively ridiculous. Still, in 1984, the easily annoyed were annoyed, easily. Locals “tend to swallow the ‘San Diego’’ and call it simply ‘Jack Murphy Stadium,’ a practice that has left a bad taste in the mouth of some San Diego residents,” the New York Times reported. One critic declared unpersuasively that the name of Murphy, a non-famous person, made San Diego ”the laughingstock of the nation.”
So it came to pass that just months after the Padres made it to the World Series for the first time, voters had to decide whether to give “Jack Murphy” the heave-ho. Thankfully, they declined to de-Murphy the stadium and voted to kept the name by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. It took a big chunk of change from Qualcomm to get the city to finally change the stadium’s name and kick Murphy to the curb in 1997. (It’s now SDCCCU Stadium. Catchy!)
2. Hit the Road, Martin Luther King Jr.!
In the 1980s, the nation began to honor Martin Luther King Jr. His birthday became a national holiday, and cities named streets after him. In 1986, San Diego changed the name of Market Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. “Good!,” wrote a minister in a letter to the editor, proclaiming that the name “will bring redemptive honor and respect to the street, the businesses, the residents, our city and our nation.”
Not so fast. Merchants complained about the cost of changing stationary and defended the supposed historical value of the name Market Street. A petition drive forced a change-the-name measure onto the ballot, which voters passed by a whopping margin of 60 percent-40 percent. Black leaders were outraged, and they tried – and failed – to get the new convention center named after King. Later, the state Legislature named part of nearby Highway 94 after King, and the city renamed a one-block street in southeastern San Diego in his honor.
1. How Dry We Almost Were
Around 1900, downtown’s Stingaree neighborhood – today’s Gaslamp Quarter – boasted dozens of saloons, “bawdy houses” (think ladies of the evening), opium dens and other places of naughtiness. “The term “Stingaree” originated it is said because people who visited the neighborhood got stung (like a sting from a stingray) by the many vices in the district,” according to the San Diego History Center.
Teetotalers tried to get a handle on all the boozing. In 1905, a few thousand voters voted 55 percent to 45 percent to shut bars on Sundays. The anti-alcohol forces tried again in 1909, and this time they dreamed big. Real big. They asked San Diegans to ban selling, distributing or even giving away “spirituous, vinous, malt or any alcoholic or intoxicating liquor.” (Vinous refers to wine.)
Voters responded with a vigorous “hell no” and refused to ban booze by an 63 percent to 37 percent margin.
Three years later, in 1912, the city tried to clean up the Stingaree before visitors flocked to town for the exposition that gave us Balboa Park. A newspaper headline about a crackdown on prostitution read: “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.”
One prostitute declared: “I would like to be good again, but the world won’t let me. It must keep me as I am.” Sounds like she could have used a (still-legal) drink.