Lite Nights, Big City
It's 9:30pm and the sidewalks are rolled up. Will Steinbeck salvage Salinas nightlife?
Thursday, May 14, 1998
It is 9:30 on a Saturday night and downtown Salinas is quiet--so quiet that even a mediocre quarterback could lob a long pass down Main Street without hitting a single car. Or a single person. Downtown''s only espresso house is dark and locked. A few dinner restaurants are serving coffee to their last customers. But around the corner on West Gabilan Street, a migrating mariachi band makes its way into Cap''s Saloon. There, in an ambience of ''60s-era wood paneling and leatherette booths, a small low-key group of regulars shoot pool and sing along with the band. The drink selection is --alas--scanty. A friendly waitress explains that the bartender is out of creme de menthe. And Kahlua. And milk.
If you''ve ever spent an evening in Salinas, then you know it isn''t LA. Or San Francisco. Or even Monterey. Isolated from the Peninsula, steeped in sleepy farmtown tradition and plagued by images of crime--real and exaggerated--Salinas has for years been the Rodney Dangerfield of county nightlife. Despite the fact that it is both the county''s largest city and its government center, despite the fact that Salinas has the county''s only acoustically sound performing arts center, despite the fact the it is home to John Steinbeck, the area''s only Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author and the county''s only literary festival, this city''s nightlife has primarily been something even locals joke about. "This is about it," says 35-year-old Richard Best, as he settles into a card game at the CherryBean coffeehouse shortly after 7pm on a recent Saturday night.
But there are signs that at least a few big city lights are about to snap on in this 124-year-old valley town. The biggest tourist attraction built in years, the $10.3 million, 37,000-square-foot National Steinbeck Center, is set to open on June 27 on the 100 block of Main Street. Bids are out on a city-owned lot slated for the first downtown hotel in years. And best of all--for locals--has been the arrival of several uptown eateries. By all outward appearances, Salinas is clearly on the verge of a change that could transform life after dark.
Salinas, says Roger Powers, a Salinas Realtor and former president of the National Steinbeck Center board, "has always been the business-banking-government-commerce-cosmopolitan center of the Monterey Bay area. It''s just starting to look like what it is."
What Salinas has never been is a night-time hot spot. Native son John Steinbeck, in East of Eden, described turn-of-the-century social life in the Salinas Valley in terms of "altar guild and bean suppers at the Episcopal Church."
"Social life, whether it was the crowning of a May queen, the eulogy to a dead president, or an all-night dance" all took place at the schoolhouse. Even the brothels--housed on the other side of the tracks in Chinatown--"were quiet, orderly and circumspect."
"The greatest nightlife Salinas ever had was when Chinatown was cooking in the 1880s," says local historian Sandy Lydon, who himself grew up in Hollister, another local farm town. "All the action was drugs, gambling and prostitution. Most of the Chinese men were single and needed something to do at night." Lydon himself recalls a slower-paced Salinas back in the ''50s when young people hung out in drive-ins or "drove down Main Street and went to Mel''s drive-in."
"It''s always been the case that there hasn''t been too much to occupy kids," observes Todd Williams, a third generation Salinas resident and manager of the CherryBean. "There''s never been a roller rink or an arcade."
After an experimental stint with late nights and some live music, Williams says the CherryBean decided to pull back from adding its own contribution to night life in the downtown. The live music wasn''t drawing crowds, and staying open ''til 11 seemed to increase the crowd of teens and twentysomethings hanging outside, not the number of paying customers inside.
"You have to think of Salinas as the hub of the produce industry," explains Williams. "A lot of people work in produce, and they have to be up with the chickens. If I go out to dinner at Spado''s or Gino''s, what happens if I''m there at 8 o''clock, their crowd has already come through. People go home, and then they''ll be in bed by 9 or 10."
"People in Salinas do work early because of the produce industry," says Sarah Sutton-Deakon, who has co-owned the Penny Farthing, a British-style pub on Oldtown''s East San Luis Street for 14 years.
"It''s very true. By 10 o''clock, Salinas is dead," says Lucy Pisarro, owner of Chapala''s, a popular Mexican restaurant on Salinas Street. "I have tried everything to keep this place open ''til 12 o''clock. If I knew what to do, I would do it."
Bob Farahmand, the owner of the ever-popular Windfall restaurant on Main Street in Oldtown, agrees that those who do dine out in Salinas dine early--mostly between 6:30 and 7:30pm. Lunches are big business, particularly during the height of the growing season when the ag industry is hopping. But Farahmand also remembers when there were a smattering of clubs in Oldtown, including the Paragon, a nightclub he himself owned half a dozen years ago.
Farahmand offers a couple of theories about the demise of local nightlife. He believes the malls that cropped up on North Main and siphoned business away from retail merchants have also had some effect on downtown nightlife--an opinion shared by some other long-timers.
"When I was growing up, downtown was a thriving retail hub," says Jim Gattis, a local businessman and member of the National Steinbeck Center Foundation Board. "As you know, beginning in the ''50s through the ''60s and ''70s, a lot of that retail activity moved out of the center, and that left a void in the downtown." (Ironically, a new TGI Fridays at Harden Ranch -one of the newest malls built on the fringes of town, is itself slow on a Saturday night in May.)
Farahmand also says the adoption of healthier lifestyles combined with less tolerance for drinking and driving may also have cut down on bar business--a theory espoused by others in the food and beverage industry.
But Farahmand also brings up another point that has haunted the city''s nightlife--a belief on the part of potential patrons that crime, violence and sleaze are all part of the picture of Salinas after dark. Farahmand says he''s specifically been concerned about what he believes has been aggressive panhandling in the downtown area--a concern echoed by other downtown business owners.
"When we opened our doors...one of the biggest problems we had was aggressive panhandling," says Tony DiGirolamo, one of the co-owners of the Salinas Valley Fish House, a new addition to the downtown that has been packing in a mostly local crowd since August of 1997. "We had a couple come through the door and start hitting people up for money. One of them was even smoking at the time."
A strict new city ordinance went into effect last month that makes aggressive solicitation a misdemeanor, punishable by arrest. The ordinance expressly bans panhandling after dark and, despite opposition from the local American Civil Liberties Union, Farahmand says things have "definitely improved 100 percent" since its inception.
"Most of the people who are trying to get a hand-out are low-key about it," says Lieutenant Robin Stuart, of the Salinas police. "But there is a small group that can be extremely intimidating."
Panhandling is only one of Salinas'' image problems. Terrified by images of gang violence splayed across the evening news, plenty of Peninsulans--and even a few Salinasites--have come to regard the entire city of Salinas as something akin to an armed camp.
"We have had ticket holders who say ''I don''t want to go to Sherwood Hall. I don''t want to get shot,''" says Susan Koza, a spokeswoman for the Monterey County Symphony, which plays one out of each three-concert series--and its annual benefit pops cabaret--in Salinas'' acoustically superior Sherwood Hall.
"I don''t find Salinas to be a dangerous town, and I''m always surprised by people who seem to think that," says Harvey Landa, executive director of Western Stage, a renowned local troupe that has just celebrated 25 years in Salinas. "Everything is relative. You have a lot of reporting about crime and crime statistics and people begin to think that''s what life is like here."
The truth about violent crime in Salinas is that it tends to be gang-related, says Stuart. "Far too much of the violence is gang-related--gang members on gang members. Your typical tourist would not stand in danger of being a victim any more than in any city across America."
Stuart, a longtime Salinas resident, says he thinks the bigger threat to the city''s nightlife is competition; competition from places like Carmel and Monterey that have a built-in supply of tourists flocking to restaurants, theaters and clubs. For years, Salinas has had little to tempt the hoards of tourists who come to the Peninsula to take in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 17 Mile Drive, Cannery Row and Ocean Avenue. That''s about to change with the June 27 opening of the National Steinbeck Center, a highly interactive, multi-sensory museum designed to house Steinbeck''s works, entertain his fans, and round up needed tourists and bring ''em to Salinas. (See sidebar, previous page.)
According to Amanda Holder, director of marketing and communications for the Center, preliminary studies indicate that the Center could bring in about 250,000 tourists to Salinas. Most of those probably won''t spend the night in town, but if 10 percent of them do, Salinas Redevelopment Director Larry Bussard says he''d be "delighted."
Bussard is currently in the process of courting hoteliers interested in developing an acre and a half site the Salinas Redevelopment Agency owns on the 100 block of Main Street, kitty-corner to the Steinbeck Center. There, on the site of the old Cominos Hotel, Bussard hopes to have built a 100- room hotel--one that would accommodate Steinbeck Center visitors, other tourists shut out by the Peninsula''s high-priced rooms and 80 percent occupancy rate, plus business travelers to Salinas who have heretofore been without a major hotel.
"We can accommodate an applicant with permits issued in six months--at the worst," says Bussard. What would a hotel do for Salinas'' nightlife? Plenty, if Bussard has his way. "We''re talking in terms of 300 square-feet of meeting rooms, a 70-80 seat restaurant" plus "a quality full-service restaurant" and more than likely, "a bar or club."
The new Steinbeck Center will itself be the site of some night life, although its main emphasis will of course be daytime exhibits. As Holder explains it, the center hopes to be a place where locals can come to hear occasional speakers, a place where Steinbeck readers might come to gather for an evening reading group. "We want to be this cultural hub,"'' she says, "and I think we really will."
But beyond the occasional cultural activity, the center will also offer Salinas space--a large, vibrant, attractive space fully rentable for a party of up to 500-600 strolling revelers or 300-400 seated ones, much the same way the Monterey Bay Aquarium is available to private and corporate organizations looking for a venue for after-hours activities. According to Holder, approximately 30 evening events have already been booked in the center, weeks before the center is complete.
As Bussard explains it, the third prong of a revitalized downtown is a 290-seat theater that the ARIEL Theatrical group will build on the city-owned lot across the street from the hotel site. The children''s theater group, which has been operating at a variety of venues for 13 years, got a $1-a-year lease, plus $100,000 in city redevelopment grants. The idea, says Gail Higginbotham, ARIEL artistic director, is to have ARIEL provide 32 weeks of family-oriented theater, leaving the remainder of the weeks open to other cultural groups in search of a downtown venue. "We think the three go together--the theater, the National Steinbeck Center and the hotel," says Bussard.
Noelle Kanell, spokeswoman for the San Jose Downtown Association, says that kind of multi-pronged approach to planning and development is what helped transform San Jose from a sleazy backwater in the ''70s to the capital of the Silicon Valley, complete with a Fairmont Hotel, a performing arts center, sports center, repertory theater, brew pubs, clubs, restaurants and a handful of intriguing museums. "There''s a good mix of people," says Kanell. "The night life draws the younger people, the arts are significant here, and that draws the older people."
While the construction projects and empty lots on the 100 block of Main Street are the current headline-grabbers in Salinas, some nightlife already exists--and some folks know where to find it.
Western Stage sells about 2,500 season tickets a year, says Landa--a little more than 2 percent of the city''s population. "That''s not a bad percentage to draw," adds Landa. "If you were in San Francisco, with a potential audience of 4 million, and you could draw 2 percent to theater you would feel pretty good." The Monterey County Symphony, when it performs, regularly sells out the 933 seats on the orchestra level of Sherwood Hall. Several hundred concert-goers also show up to hear classical music offered by the Salinas Concert Association, the city''s only subscription concert series. On a smaller scale, Pisarro says she''s trying to offer live music to patrons a couple nights a week, while down on Main Street, Carla Benejam has introduced Wednesday cabaret evenings, consisting of poetry readings, jazz, pop and Middle Eastern drumming to a growing group of regulars. And diners--tired of making the drive to the Peninsula to eat--are coming to Salinas'' newest eateries in droves.
"I was the first one to come over here about three years ago," says John Spadaro, who opened Spado''s on Alisal Street in downtown Salinas after years of Peninsula restaurateuring. "A lot of people told me I was crazy...it''s a different market, but it''s a good market. There''s more of a local base here, and very little local support over there."
Locals are also the patrons supporting Salinas'' Latin clubs. La Movida, a 300-capacity dance club on West Market offers a variety of music, including cumbia and banda on Friday and Saturday nights and Latina impersonators on Sunday nights. The club has been owned for 11 years by Hector Villalobos, who also owns Radio TIGRE in Salinas. And, although the club''s name has changed several times in recent years, it''s remained a Latino club--for good reason, says Villalobos. "Salinas is a quiet town, a community town. It''s an ''after nine o''clock peace-and-quiet town.'' We''re the exception and the customer we address is the Hispanic who is in town."
On East Lake Street, Mina Fernandez''s Club Metropolis plays host to a younger Latino crowd Thursday through Sunday nights with live music and a large dance floor. Meanwhile, on the other side of Market Street, Marion''s continues to pack in a crowd of up to 250 men and women of all ages--mostly fieldworkers, who pay a cover, toss back a few drinks and enjoy an evening out --as they have at Marion''s for 30 years. Marion, who is in his 70s, still sits at the bar and keeps an eye on things. He remembers when there were a total of five bars on one street alone. "They all went out of business in the ''60s," he sighs. As for the Steinbeck Center, Marion is dubious that the city''s plans for Main Street will have much effect on bars like his. Bussard is more optimistic. "Will Salinas ever be a rockin'' place like Cannery Row or Alvarado Street? " asks Bussard. "No. But I think there is clearly an emerging market niche and people are seeing it."
Back at Cap''s, the waitress returns with drinks--water-tumbler-sized glasses of amaretto, available at a discount price. The bar, she explains, is about to close for renovations. The Steinbeck Center is opening and Cap''s wants to be ready.