Cashing in on Steinbeck
Thursday, June 25, 1998
The cards have been dealt and the money is on the table. The city of Salinas now must wait to see whether celebrating John Steinbeck as a native son is enough to win the pot of tourist dollars that the National Steinbeck Center hopes to rake in.
This is no penny-ante game--nothing but stern-faced high rollers at this table, baby. The city and its redevelopment agency have placed $3.5 million of taxpayer money on the table (of the $10.3 million it cost to build), so we''re all heavily invested in this bet.
If Joe Salinas wants to see what his money bought, he''s gotta pony up the seven bucks admission price, just like the Bay Area golfers or out-of-state literature lovers this place is designed to lure into Steinbeck''s fabled land of Nod.
Squid thinks a free community preview would have been a nice gesture to the poor townsfolk, the very people Steinbeck chronicled on his way to literary greatness, particularly since the city put up a third of the money. Even the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984 with a day of free admission for locals.
City leaders may well be worried that the Steinbeck Center--despite its promise--will turn out to be a multi-million dollar flop. But that anxiety shouldn''t let us lose sight of whose wallets we''re targeting with this venture.
That said, I also have to give the finished product an enthusiastic tentacles-up, based on my visit during the free (yes, free) media preview this week. It''s a touching, comprehensive and insightful tribute to a local boy who became one of our country''s best writers.
The History of Literature
Speaking of Steinbeck, the recent flap over whether Monterey has gone far enough in preserving historic buildings on Cannery Row has gotten me thinking: Would anyone really care if Steinbeck hadn''t found beauty in the ugliness that was mid-century Cannery Row?
Whether a building is "historic" or just old is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. We tear down old buildings to build new ones all the time, especially aging warehouses and other industrial structures like many of the ones that make up Cannery Row.
But Steinbeck''s namesake book instilled Cannery Row with a magical quality and Monterey realized long before Salinas did that there''s a way to make a buck off the Steinbeck aura--just as Jimmy Buffett''s "Margaritaville" brought millions to Key West. Many of the buildings John wrote about may be gone, but the sense of place is immortal.