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Dreams of Cannery Row.  After the Sardines, What?

Published on Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dreams of Cannery Row. After the Sardines, What?

John Steinbeck Weighs In on the Row's Future


By David Spradling

 As 1945 began, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was published, and with it, the now-famous imagery that begins his novel:


“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.  Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”


As Cannery Row went to press, things were good in the sardine business.  October of 1944 was the biggest sardine catch in the history of Monterey, the sardine capital of the world—some 70,000 tons delivered to Moss Landing and Monterey processing plants, surpassing the previous all time high catch of November 1941.  

But soon after, as the sardines swam away from Monterey, the sardine fishing and canning industries began to shrink and as years passed, collapsed.  Ocean View Avenue, the street we know as Cannery Row, became a scene of economic decline.  The stink and the grating noises were gone from the Row, but so were the livelihoods of those who had depended on the sardine.  

 A United Press International (UPI) story by Wiley Maloney from March 20, 1957 provides a nostalgic look into the past and hints of a future:


“The sardine has all but disappeared along the Pacific coast and today “Cannery Row” is quietly following the fate of the fish.


The “row” which John Steinbeck made famous no longer imbibes “Old Tennis Shoes” whiskey in flat bottles from Lee Chong’s and then hangs “suspended out of time in a silvery light.”


The spot where the canners once worked day and night to keep up with the tons of silver-sided pilchards is now strangely quiet.  Only five of the once-thriving score or more plants still pack fish.


Gone, like the sour-dough gold miners along the Sacramento, Russian and American rivers, are those who lived, loved and brawled along Cannery Row in the shadow of the corrugated steel sheds, rusting machinery and the bustle of trying to keep up with the harvest from the sea.


Approximately half the row now is held by the Cannery Row Properties Co., which is not in the fish business…There is a speculation that the potentially valuable sea frontage in the resort area may before long see the encroachment of luxury motels.   


 Gone then, indeed, will be the days of the “Palace Flophouse” with its happy-go-lucky residents, Mack, Hazel and Gay.  Gone, too, will be the Sam Malloys who hung lace curtains in their boiler homes and rented sleeping places in rusting steel pipes. Gone, too, is “Doc”, the hero of Cannery Row.  The Pacific Biological Laboratories, owned by the late Ed Ricketts, to whom Steinbeck dedicated his book, has been sold to Harlan Watkins, a school teacher.*  Establishments like Dora’s Bear Flag restaurant have long since faded away.


The company which now holds nearly half of the old row includes as stockholders George Leutzinger, Wesley Dodge, County Supervisor Tom Hudson and Leo Hart of San Francisco—certainly men to turn up their noses at “Old Tennis Shoes.”


‘We’d naturally like to see something nice for Monterey come out of this,’ said Leutzinger, ‘but for the time being we’ve got to live and pay out taxes.  We have no plans of our own for any development.’


The old San Carlos Cannery burned down last Thanksgiving.  Others have been cleared of machinery and leased on short-time for storage.  The Monterey Fish Products Co. has been leased to a rug cleaner.  The Atlantic Coast Fisheries is rented to a manufacturer of back packs for outdoorsmen—a gadget Mack and the boys would never have needed on their famed frog hunt.


The old Denizens, in fact, have disappeared with the sardines.  The Portuguese fisherman, the “Paisanos” of Tortilla Flat, and newcomers no longer awake to dawns made noisy by gulls screaming for sardine leftovers from the canneries.”


As speculation increased over the future development of Cannery Row, Steinbeck was asked by the Monterey Peninsula Herald to share his thoughts on the future of the area he both knew and imagined so well.  Here, from the Herald of March 8, 1957:

 “The purchasers of Cannery Row will be offered more unsolicited advice for its development than they can stand.  I have been asked for advice by the Monterey Peninsula Herald — tower of strength, of civic virtue and probity.  Furthermore, this is no "letter to the editor."  I am being paid.  They are paying me in seaweed, a rare commodity in midtown Manhattan where I am presently fastened.

The coastline from the breakwater to the boat yard—known as Ocean View avenue although you can't see water from any part of—is ethereal real estate, that is, if it were stripped of metallic junk known as progress.  I wish I owned a little of it.

The purchasers are faced with doing something about it, preferably something that will return interest on the investment.  I am not going to advise them in this. They are probably better informed than I am.  In the matter of physical improvement, however, I am a clutter of suggestion and analysis.

 They have four choices:  1. The old–old.  2. The new–old.  3. The pseudo–old.  4. The new.  Let us examine each of these possibilities.  We can throw out the old old old, when the coastline was one continuous shell-heap left by hundreds of years of hungry shellfish-eating Indians.

The first possibility for the purchasers is the re-creation of the old-old.  I remember it well, shacks built of scraps of wood, matting, pieces of tin.  The district known as Chinatown, a street free of sewage disposal and very romantic.  In it the Chinese kept alive the arts of gambling, prostitution and the opium pipe.  I remember the night the whole thing burned to the ground. We felt that a way of life was gone forever.  The purchasers could re-create this pylon of the past with the help of Hollywood scene designers.

Gradually the new-old came into being—a solid bank of corrugated-iron structures devoted to the canning of the pilchard, which in those days was plentiful and available.  A number of these buildings still stand.  The purchasers might keep them as national monuments.  Their tendency to rust could be halted by spraying them with plastics.  Maintenance of this reminder of our historic past would, however, require that the rocks and beaches be stocked with artificial fish guts and scales.  Reproducing the billions of flies that once added beauty to the scene would be difficult and costly.

But with our strides in chemistry and with wind machines, the older of rotting fish and the indescribable smell of fish meal could be wafted over the town on feast days. Perhaps this era should be kept as a monument to American know-how.  For it was this forward-looking intelligence which killed all the fish, cut all the timber, thereby lowering the rainfall. It is not dead either. The same know-how is lowering the water table with deep wells so that within our lifetime, California will be the desert we can look forward to.

Sooner or later, the purchasers will have to face pseudo–or Santa Barbara–old.  Not very long ago a group of people from the middle-west infiltrated. Their minds were inflamed by moving pictures and they built the passionate illusion of the gracious Spanish days of Monterey.  They imitated the mud houses, architecturally reminiscent of the poorer parts of Spain in the fifteenth century.  But because the original houses were damp, unhealthy and odiferous—and also had a tendency to melt around you during a heavy rain—the "Old Spain" people re-created these structures in concrete and stainless steel.  The descendants of the early settlers are not represented in this group. They moved into more livable houses as soon as they could afford it, leaving their ancient heritage to tourists and the Santa Barbara cult.

The purchasers will have trouble with this embattled junta who will demand that Ocean View avenue be girdled with adobe and imperfectly baked tile.

I am told there is another state of mind seeping over the hill—Pixie People. They will advocate the fairyland architecture of Carmel.

My own suggestion will get me exiled from the Peninsula.  Young and fearless and creative architects are evolving in America. They are in fact some of our very best artists, in addition to knowing the sciences and materials of our period.  I suggest that these creators be allowed to look at the lovely coastline, and to design something new in the world, but something that will add to the exciting beauty rather than cancel it out.  Modern materials do not limit design as mud and tile once did.  Then tourists would not come to see a celebration of a history that never happened, an imitation of limitations, but rather a speculation on the future.  We never had a Notre Dame or a Chartres.  But who knows what future beauty we may create? The foundation is there; sea rocks and beach, deep blue water, and on some days the magic hills of Santa Cruz.  It would be interesting to see what could be added to this background.

I don't think any such thing will be done, but so far dreams are not illegal—or are they?”


Various plans for development of the Row continued for years, along with numerous and acrimonious battles over those plans.  Ownership changed hands, Monterey City leaders and their views of appropriate development changed.  The California Coastal Commission came into power in the 1970’s and added both protection for the coast and complexity for development.  

 A 1972 story by Randy Leblanc of UPI addresses a proposed development of the time and additional thoughts from Steinbeck:

 “The late John Steinbeck might have suspected it would happen.  The Cannery Row he made famous around the world is on its way into oblivion…San Francisco hotelman Ben Swig, who owns more than half of the Row’s property, is planning a commercial development which will include hotels, restaurants, a high-rise tourist center and a discotheque, within the next few years.


Swig is opposed by some of the current residents of Cannery Row who say the development will destroy the timeless charm that distinguished it for more than 50 years…  Recently, a group of 15 persons formed the friends to save John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  Their objective was to delay construction of a new split-level restaurant until the 11 year old master plan could be reconsidered and updated.  They lost.


One of the last times he visited the Row he commented with only a trace of bitterness, ‘the country I know is gone and it isn’t coming back.  That’s no cry of pain.  Tom Wolfe was right.  You can’t go home again’”


One can only wonder whether John Steinbeck, were he able today to amble down the Row one more time, would be amused or horrified.  


by David Spradling


Note:  The Pacific Biological Lab club members sold the Lab to the City of Monterey in 1990s with the agreement that remaining club members could use the Lab and the City would preserve and maintain Ricketts’ Pacific Lab.


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