Something fishy on Cannery Row History: Tourist-filled waterfront mall on Monterey Bay bears little resemblance to the gritty, grimy wharf immortalized in Steinbeck's Depression-era novel.

Sun Journal

August 15, 1998|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MONTEREY, Calif. -- When John Steinbeck looked out across the Monterey Bay waterfront six decades ago, this is what his poet-eye saw:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

That vision, which provided the opening lines for the novel he named after that bustling street of sardine canneries, flophouses, Chinese grocers, prostitutes and Depression-era down-and-outs, was of a place and a time in America long, long past.

Gazing out across the same scene today, one sees a reflection of a very different land, where the poetry is harder to hear.

Cannery Row in 1998 no longer stinks. The grating noise of the machinery that canned the sardines into near extinction has been replaced by the chatter of tourists wandering around shops that proffer freshly made chocolate, kites, Christmas decorations, palm readings, tours of a wax museum and jewelry from a place called "Steinbeck Lady." In one railroad-car-narrow store, you can buy a Spice Girls T-shirt, and across the aisle is a basket of tiny containers of bath oil. Packed in little fishing nets, the oils are called "The Grapes of Bath."

The quality of light has somehow escaped commercialization, but the nostalgia is exceedingly difficult to detect. The Cannery Row Steinbeck saw as a "dream" has become a mall.

Only six of the 18 warehouse buildings remain, and they are largely home to restaurants and stores. Three one-room shacks that were the simple abode of cannery workers still stand, but are difficult to find. Near the site where the whorehouse stood, there is now a souvenir shop called Mackerel Jack's. The wooden building at 800 Cannery Row that housed the laboratory that -- along with Doc, who ran the place -- formed the novel's catalytic core is unmarked save the address. Most of those who meander past take no notice.

This summer, two forces have come together to try to save what is left of Cannery Row and to revive interest in one of America's greatest writers and the history of the period he chronicled.

In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit group that works to protect threatened localities and buildings around the country, placed Cannery Row on its annual list of endangered places. Two weeks later, the National Steinbeck Center opened nearby in the author's home town of Salinas. Together, this focused attention on a part of the country that was at the center of critical moments of history during the Depression, including the westerly flight of rural Oklahomans from the desperation of the Dust Bowl to the valley of Steinbeck's Salinas -- the "Okies" who became the characters in the "Grapes of Wrath."

Like those tortured Oklahoma farmers, the characters who populate the narrative of the fictionalized Cannery Row are based largely on real characters, including Ed Ricketts, the University of Chicago graduate who moved to Monterey and opened Pacific Biological Laboratories in the 1920s, the place that became Western Biological Laboratories in the novel.

In the case of Cannery Row, however, Steinbeck's writing resulted in a case of life imitating art. When he came to the wharf that was the sardine "capital" of the world in the 1930s and 1940s, the street he visited was called Ocean Avenue. It was not until 1953, eight years after Steinbeck created a place called Cannery Row, that the city of Monterey changed the name of the street.

The city's decision was a natural consequence of changing times. Over-fishing killed the sardine business and made tourism the best hope for saving the wharf from decay. But now, 40 years after the last canneries closed, the tourism that saved the place threatens to wipe out the last vestiges of the real place that inspired Steinbeck's fiction.

"We are concerned that the actual physical structures that tie the place to the history of Cannery Row are endangered," said Elizabeth Goldstein, western regional director for the National Trust.

She also said that the proliferation of tourist-related businesses that crowd into many of the remaining historic structures raised further concern. "It is a question that often arises, that is the question of authenticity and use. I think visitors are getting more exacting about what they expect from these places, and without [authentic structures] there is nothing there to experience."

The reaction to the National Trust's move among city officials and local businessmen was mixed. The city leaders were miffed over the decision to name the row as an endangered place, partially because they said the move ignored all of the efforts Monterey had made to preserve what was left of the original place.

At the time of the National Trust designation, city manager Fred Meurer said that Monterey had spent tens of millions of dollars to preserve Cannery Row, including $1 million to ensure that a new parking structure had the "look" of an authentic row building.

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