Celebrating the days of ‘Rabbitville’

Posted: July 7th, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Features, Top Story | No Comments

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Downtown’s 150th anniversary gets artists and the public involved

As the story goes, William Heath Davis failed to develop what is now known as Downtown when he had the opportunity. But when Alonzo Horton later sailed into San Diego Bay, stepped foot onto the “New Town” area and decided to develop it himself, the place was crawling with rabbits.

“Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re never going to be able to build a city in Rabbitville,’” said Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association (GQA). “Because that’s all that was here, a few shanties and a ton of rabbits. So historically they call Downtown ‘Rabbitville.’”

At the “Rabbitville Public Art Project” unveiling May 24. (l to r) Matt Forderer with “Willabee”; “Against All Odds, We Thrive!” and artist Sarah Soward; “Diego” and Monty Montgomery; and Erin Liddell, of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. (Courtesy GQA)

Now, 150 years later, the Downtown San Diego Partnership (DSDP) and the GQA are using the anniversary of Horton’s arrival as a way to promote Downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter to locals and visitors; and they launched their first public art project to help that along.

The Rabbitville Public Art Project was unveiled on May 24, with Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Joe Terzi of the San Diego Visitor’s Bureau, Councilmember Chris Ward and others in attendance to commemorate the 150th anniversary. The unveiling took place at the corner of Fifth Avenue and L Street, near the Gaslamp trolley stop and just steps from the Gaslamp Quarter sign.

Joining the distinguished guests that day were six colorful rabbit sculptures and a local artist accompanying each one: “Diego,” with Monty Montgomery; “Nelly Ghiradelli” with Lee Sie; Sarah Soward, “Honoring the Disdained ,” with Tasha Hobbs; “Ordinate,” with Rebecca Nuvoletta; and Matt Forderer with “Willabee.”

Planning for this unveiling was a year in the making. Public art is in many large U.S. cities; Seattle has pigs, San Francisco has hearts, and Chicago has cows. So first the DSDP and GQA contacted the creators of “Cows on Parade,” a public art project in Chicago that has also been installed in Australia.

They came up with the concept of the three-foot fiberglass rabbit to be used as a blank canvas for potential artists and planned for 15 of them, one to represent each decade of the anniversary.

Then an artist prospectus was sent out, explaining that this was to debut Downtown’s public art program, that it would celebrate Horton’s arrival, and requesting interested artists to participate.

The prospectus included a template of the rabbit and asked artists to provide feedback on how they would design the rabbit, what medium would be used, and asked them to explain how the design would represent the 150th anniversary theme.

Ironically, they received 150 completed prospectuses in return.

Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, speaks at the unveiling of “Rabbitville Public Arts Project May 24. (Courtesy GQA)

“We got a lot of incredible submissions,” said Erin Liddell, the GQA’s marketing and communications manager. “A lot of them were extremely detailed and exciting. What was neat is that [we sought help from] Jessica Amaya from Sparks Gallery — they specialize in local artists — she pulled in and asked a lot of their featured artists to participate and several were chosen.”

The GQA put together a public art subcommittee — which included staff members of the GQA and the Downtown Partnership, as well as Amaya and historian Marsha Sewell — and took on the painstaking but highly enjoyable process of reviewing the 150 submissions and tailoring them down to 15.

The first five artists chosen — Montgomery, Soward, Hobbs, Nuvoletta and Forderer — got to see their visions come to life.

A sixth artist, Sie, a photographer, was one of the first artists to have a sponsor. Ghiradelli Chocolatier, with a retail store and restaurant on Fifth Avenue, saw Sie’s prospectus, which included photos of the Gaslamp store and more of the Ghiradelli location in San Francisco, and chose him to create “Nelly Ghiradelli.”

Another early sponsor was Councilmember Ward’s office. The plan is to get all the rabbits sponsored, with some of the proceeds going to the Gaslamp’s new LED lighting project, which will replace the five-year-old Christmas-style lights that were binding the trees and had to be removed. The new technology will run along the sidewalks between the gaslamps, to keep the streets lit and festive for nighttime visitors.

“So we’re trying to use this project not only to bring awareness to public art and the Gaslamp Quarter, but also to raise money for everyone who comes down to visit and also benefit the community,” Trimble said.

While all rabbits are open to sponsorships, they will spend the next year traveling throughout Downtown neighborhoods. Once the promotional phase is over, the rabbits will then become permanent property of the sponsor and they can either display the rabbit at their business or a location of their choice.

While each artist submitted a specific idea for a rabbit design, they were chosen based on various criteria — most importantly, their potential. Each sponsor may have their own idea of what the Gaslamp Quarter or Downtown means to them. Based on input, the subcommittee will match potential sponsors with a prospectus submitted by one of the chosen artists and they can work together to come up with their own collaboration.

The San Diego Padres have shown interest in becoming a sponsor, and are also planning to hold a “Gaslamp 150” at Petco Park. The GQA has lots of ideas for such an event, including Alonzo Horton re-enactors and rabbit-matching giveaways, but details for such an event are still pending.

With a very heavy and custom-made steel stand and clear-coat to protect the rabbit’s artistry, the rabbits are designed for public display. Custom Rabbitville Public Art Project plaques have also been designed and created for each sculpture, denoting the name of the rabbit, the artist and the rabbit’s sponsor.

The six sculptures and their stands have made their way to a number of different locations for public viewing purposes and recently spent a period of time in the lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

“They are all becoming these little celebrities,” Liddell said.

Trimble said he is hoping to get a high profile spot for Comic-Con and would like to see them in the Convention Center’s main lobby during the four-day event to get them in front of as many people as possible.

“The selfie opportunities for these rabbits are huge,” he said.

GQA staff are keeping their website updated on a regular basis so that those interested can track the location of the rabbits on any given day.

For more information about the Rabbitville Public Art Project — including the rabbits and the artists involved — and the 150 Celebration and its many events and promotions, visit

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at

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