A visit to Salinas California

November 30, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Salinas California lies in the middle of broad valley. This valley is roughly five miles across and runs for at least 60 miles from southeast to northwest. It consists almost entirely of farm fields and is bounded on both sides by mountain ranges. It is bisected along its length by the Salinas River that empties into the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles further downstream. The farms along the valley floor produce year-round and provide the entire nation with many of the berry fruits and green vegetables we’ve now come to expect to be freshly available year-round such as raspberries, strawberries, broccoli, lettuce and avocado. The large fields, most 80 acres or larger are each individually flat as the surface of a calm lake. This perfect flatness is not natural. The top soil was scraped off, the fields were then machine graded into their table-top-like perfection and then the topsoil was replaced. The soil looks incredibly rich, dark and fertile; there is not a rock or stone to be seen. As you leave the valley floor and begin the gradual ascent into the bordering mountains, vegetable farms give way to vineyards and wineries. Go up higher still and cattle graze the steeper hill sides under expansive California oak trees.

I spent five days here on the last week of November 2012, in a little cottage surrounded by the fertile fields, about 6 miles southwest of Salinas and just at the foot of the southwestern mountain range, the Santa Lucia’s. Surrounding the cottage were acres of freshly turned dark brown earth ready for planting, adjacent to acres of bright green broccoli and red strawberries in the process of being harvested. I’m sure there were lots of other things as well but these two I distinctly recognized. The harvesting was done by combination of humans and machines. There were dozens of individuals moving in a cluster through the rows of plants, picking and pulling, and taking what they picked and pulled and laying it on conveyor belts of an accompanying processing vehicle which swallowed up what was offered and performed further processing and packaging. I imagine this is generally how it was done at least since the great depression, when John Steinbeck wrote about the people who lived in and passed through this region. What is probably different today is that the workers appeared to all arrive in their individual private vehicles that were then parked in a long row along the field, much as one would see cars parked along any country road where some festival was taking place.

Salinas itself is a rather typical middle sized American city with a population of slightly more than 150,000. The main industries are, as you might suppose, related to farming. They include packaging, processing and shipping of the land’s bounty, equipment sales and repair, and so forth. The historic downtown shopping area, quaintly called “Old Town”, along Main Street, is clearly struggling for economic survival and relevance. Two majestic old theaters, with their lovely art-deco architecture are closed or repurposed. One serves part time as a Spanish language church. The large Greyhound Bus terminal, just off Main Street is closed. All this said, it should be noted that there are many very nice shops along the street that are still open and functioning as well. Very prominent at the north end of Main Street is the “National Steinbeck Center”. It is housed in a large, sleek, brick, aluminum and glass  building and is clearly an attempt by the city to capitalize on its most well known resident, a resident who was not much loved or respected by the city during his lifetime.

One very visible aspect of Salinas is the strong Hispanic influence. The Hispanic culture is pervasive throughout the city, beginning with the people one encounters. In the 2000 census, 64% of the Salinas population was listed as Hispanic. That percentage has certainly not declined in the intervening 12 years. In any case, the people – of all backgrounds – that I passed on the sidewalks were generally friendly and not shy about making eye contact and smiling. I did not feel at all uncomfortable or unwelcome. I had a pleasant experience in the town of Chualar, a small town 8 miles southeast of Salinas, along highway 101. I came across a 1959 Chevrolet Impala parked in front of a row of brightly colored, but faded by time, stores, not all of which were still in business. It was the sort of scene I lust after in my photography. I parked, got out my gear, and set up my camera on the tripod. As I did this, the car owner who was the shopkeeper of one of the stores came out to investigate what I was doing. I therefore asked if it was OK for me to photograph the car in its surroundings. He was happy with my intentions and pleased that I found the scene so appealing. In further conversation I learned his name was Oskar and I got his email address so I could send him a file of the photograph. In his store, he made and sold a deep fried pork that he let me sample. I bought some to take back to the cottage to eat later.

One concern that very quickly confronts a visitor to the Salinas Old Town, and that is prevalent in most other inner city areas across the nation, is homelessness and the constant requests for money, often with an accompanying story such as the need for bus fare to return home, the need to make an important phone call, to purchase a meal, what have you. One will not walk very far along Main Street before receiving such requests. They are almost always made politely and a rejection of the request is met with an attitude of quiet acceptance and expectation. But if one appreciates the writings of Steinbeck, one knows that these panhandlers were the sorts of characters that made his stories what they were. I would expect that John himself would not be too upset or bothered by these folks hanging around outside his “national center” and confronting those who come seeking to gain entry.  No doubt he’d still find some good stories in the mix of humanity along those streets.

In East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote “Sometimes, but not often, a rain comes to the Salinas Valley in November”.  On two of the five days of my visit in November 2012, I witnessed rather heavy rain, and it came with high winds. The rich soil of the farm fields, at least the portion along roadsides, became slippery as ice and clung to shoes like metal filings to a magnet. The rain is a nuisance, yes, especially for me in my short visit and my goal of finding things in the area to photograph, but the rain brings life. I can imagine that next week, when the sun returns again, the hillsides, which in this late autumn period were rather brown and drab, will already begin to look considerably greener. I wonder about the homeless people I saw in downtown Salinas, where do they go, how do they keep their possessions, in particular sleeping bags and blankets dry?


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