Revisiting Cannery Row

I first visited Cannery Row when I was about fourteen years old. It was my first trip to California, and I was captivated by the smell of the Pacific Ocean, the consistent low drone of the foghorns, and the sea otters squirming playfully in the kelp. I remember being struck by the corrugated metal composition of the Cannery Row buildings, and the industrial-maritime feel of the neighborhood. That particular family vacation, more than any other, took on a mythic quality for me, and I remember vowing to myself that I’d return to Monterey, CA again and again as an adult.

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I didn’t return to Monterey again and again; in fact, I think I only made the trip once between 1984 and last month. I have spent a good deal of time in other parts of Northern California, however, and the allure of the redwood and cypress-lined central Pacific coastline has recently enticed me to live in Monterey’s quirky northern neighbor city, Santa Cruz.

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I drove down to Cannery Row last week to see how the current reality of the place would live up to my decades-old memory of it. As is often the case when I’m revisiting a location that swims in a sea of nostalgia, I spent as much time unraveling the place from its complicated cerebral context as I did actually experiencing it in the present moment.  Both of these are interesting processes.

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Cannery Row wasn’t always called Cannery Row; in 1958, it was officially christened with the name of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel. Before it took that name, it was known as Ocean View Avenue, and before the avenue existed, the spot was known as China Point. It was settled by Chinese families in the 1850’s who crossed the Pacific in “junks” to establish a fishing industry in Monterey Bay’s cold, nutrient-rich water. The canneries themselves didn’t get started until after the turn of the century, with the first one opening on nearby Fisherman’s Wharf in 1902 and then another on Ocean View Avenue in 1908. By 1918, there were seven canneries on Ocean View Avenue, thanks to the increased demand for canned food brought about by WWI.

In 1928, the fishing industry was revolutionized by the regular use of “purse-seiners,” boats that dragged nets a quarter-mile long and two hundred feet deep. Purse-seiners trawled the bay at night, when the movement of the enormous schools of sardines made their locations obvious by causing the surface of the water to shine. These harvesting machines hauled in fifty to one hundred tons of fish every night during the season. The boats came back to shore in the morning, and whistles would call factory workers in to cut, dry, and pack the fish as well as to solder, label, and box the cans. In addition to creating numerous jobs, this process created Cannery Row’s characteristic fishy odor, one which locals called “the smell of prosperity.”

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As seems to happen in nearly every place and time in our world, folks got greedy, and they began to harvest sardines not just to be eaten as whole fish but also to be made into fish meal and fertilizer. Production exceeded 600 million sardines per year from 1930 until the mid to late 1940’s when the industry collapsed from a combination of excessive overfishing and a change in water conditions.

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Cannery Row was essentially a ghost town until the late 1950’s, when local entrepreneurs started to consider its other possibilities. In 1968, Cannery Row officially became a tourist attraction complete with restaurants and shops, and, in 1984, the opening of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium at the site of the former Pacific Biological Laboratories helped to skyrocket the district’s popularity.

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I believe that 1984 was the year of our family trip to Monterey, so my parents – always ahead of the curve when it comes to travel – must have known that something big was getting off the ground. On the other hand, last week I felt like I was way behind the travel curve. Whatever new and cutting edge feel Cannery Row may have had in the 1980’s is long gone now. For the most part, the stores are the same ones you’d see at any other big tourist site – candy shops, ice cream parlors, and tchotchke pavilions peddling stuffed sea lions.

The only feature that distinguished these souvenir shops from any others in the world was the overwhelming preponderance of pirate-themed items. The streets were so clean you could eat off of them, and there were way too many slick chain stores for my liking. Needless to say, there wasn’t a soul in sight who looked like he or she had ever been on a fishing boat, much less worked in the industry. It’s impossible to know which has changed more since 1984 – me or the tourist attraction. I suspect both have transformed enough that we’re not really a good match anymore.

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Regardless of my initial disappointment, I found a lot of cool little nooks and crannies in Cannery Row, wedged between the sterile modern attractions. Where the older buildings have been left in their original state, the interplay of metal and cement is fun to examine. There are remnants of old murals as well as colorful and creative new ones. The ocean still makes an expansive and atmospheric backdrop, and the conversion of the old railroad tracks to a bike and pedestrian trail has enabled a lot of people to recreate in the heart of this formerly industrial district.

I’ll go back to Monterey a little sooner this next time – but probably not to Cannery Row. Monterey has blossomed into a fascinating historic-yet-modern coastal city; I think the exploration of it lies in its other neighborhoods now.

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