Town welcomes home a son it loved to hate Memorial: When he was alive, John Steinbeck's hometown hated just about everything about him. But in 1998, 30 years after the writer's death, Salinas, Calif., will open a $9 million center in his honor.

Sun Journal

March 26, 1997|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SALINAS, Calif. -- John Steinbeck knew this scrabbly little hometown of his didn't much like him. Matter of fact, folks here hated him.

Hated his ugly stories. Hated his pitiful characters. He wrote of whores and tramps and drunks, and of those wrung-out crop pickers, those miserable migrants. Honored them, he did. Exalted them. And spat on the growers and shippers who built Salinas into something.

The Salinas elite got back at him for his betrayal. They burned "The Grapes of Wrath" on Main Street.

But that was 58 years ago. Now that same Main Street is preparing to be the host of a $9 million National Steinbeck Center, due to open in the summer of 1998 -- 30 years after his death.

It's controversial. Steinbeck himself probably wouldn't have approved of the idea. "Honors are a curious thing," he once said. "Some of them are meaningless little pieces of nonsense or advertising, and some of them are ostentatious."

But the controversy is not about whether to honor Steinbeck. It's about whether the planned museum does him justice.

With the April 26 groundbreaking ceremony just a few weeks off, Salinas has stumbled into a jealous -- and unexpected -- debate over how best to pay tribute to its most famous native son, the poet of the paisano who won every major award in literature, including Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.

The town that once reviled Steinbeck now argues over what style of architecture would best reflect his values, over how to craft exhibits that will best convey his truths. The letters page of the local newspaper crackles with the controversy. The debate has even drawn in Steinbeck scholars from outside Salinas who have reviewed plans for the museum. All find themselves tussling with the same questions:

Is an imposing modern building the proper forum to honor a man who recoiled from the "yellow smoke of progress," a man who spoke for the poor and dispossessed? Can a museum built around stage sets and film clips adequately convey the crusading fire that burns through Steinbeck's prose? And can this humble town of 110,000, plunked amid horizon-hugging farms, support such a grand and shiny project?

Patricia Leach, the executive director of the National Steinbeck Center, says she welcomes the questions. "Art is controversial," she said. "I think these are healthy issues to explore."

It took a decade for Salinas to work its way up to next month's groundbreaking.

Tourists from around the world have been making pilgrimages here for years, expecting to learn more about the author who taught them about America. All Salinas had to offer was Steinbeck's boyhood home -- gussied up with new furnishings and converted into a restaurant -- and a bleak storefront center featuring a few photos on the wall and several dozen books for sale.

So when city leaders set out to redevelop the sagging downtown in 1987, they decided to include a Steinbeck museum. But year after year, the project stalled. Then, in a bold challenge two years ago, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Harden Foundation offered $1.5 million in grants to turn rhetoric into reality.

The city provided an ample lot at Main Street's dead end. The council added $3.5 million. And board members approved plans for a 37,000-square-foot museum with a barrel roof, a glass atrium and a long windowless exhibit space fronted in brick.

Critics of that modernistic design have come up with creative ways to trash it.

They say it looks like an oil refinery or a factory, or a soulless suburban airport. They complain that the building is too boastful, too strident, that it clashes with the red brick storefronts of the faded downtown.

Then they pull out their trump card: The new museum, they assert, does not look like John Steinbeck.

"It goes very much against what Steinbeck stood for," said David Ligare, an artist who has lived in Salinas for 20 years. "He was a man of huge heart, and he felt so strongly for the downtrodden and the homeless. This [museum] looks like a government building that excludes people."

The building's boosters concede that the new center will not look anything like the migrant shacks Steinbeck wrote about in "The Grapes of Wrath," or the stinking sardine factories he described in "Cannery Row."

But as they point out, Steinbeck wrote not just about Salinas Valley agriculture, but also about marine biology and Russian communism, about Mexican revolutionaries and King Arthur's Camelot. He hobnobbed with presidents, socialites, film stars and poets as well as with dust bowl Okies. Given that enormous range, they say, it would be unfair to design the Steinbeck museum to suit the mood of any one particular book.

Instead, they hope the building will be true to the overall spirit of Steinbeck's work.

"To us, John Steinbeck's work is all about strength of character, something we're trying to embody in the building," explained design architect Kurt Schultz of the Portland, Ore., company Thompson and Vaivoda.

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