Salinas downtown board announces plans for an Asian-American cultural center on Soledad Street
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Changing Soledad Street’s vacant storefronts and drug corners into an effervescent Salinas neighborhood with lofts alongside homeless services is quite a leap. To help bridge the gap between the neighborhood’s present and future, stakeholders want to preserve Chinatown’s past.
CSUMB students are working with local Chinese, Japanese and Filipino organizations to create a cultural center. Ken Feske, CSUMB’s Chinatown project manager, says film students will produce a virtual museum using stories and photos from Asian-American families that toiled in Salinas Valley fields and owned restaurants and gambling halls in Chinatown. Protecting the isolated neighborhood’s history and architecture has taken on more importance since few preserved Chinatowns remain in California.
“It’s the only Chinatown between San Francisco and L.A.,” Feske says.
The museum will be temporarily housed in the Republic Café, a boarded-up restaurant owned by Wally Ahtye, who grew up on Soledad Street. There is even talk of fixing the café’s rusty, neon Chop Suey sign.
The cultural center is one facet of Chinatown’s planned facelift that the Salinas Downtown Community Board will present to the City Council on Feb. 19. The board wants to move forward with several other initiatives, including improving public safety, reconnecting Chinatown to Oldtown and developing a one-stop social services center. During the study session, board members will request a stronger police presence to push out the drug trade. The board will also ask for better street lighting and video cameras on the derelict strip.
“Right now we need eyes on the street,” says Don Reynolds, project manager for the Salinas Redevelopment Agency, “and we don’t have any businesses there or housing to provide them.”
Addressing Chinatown’s homeless – and public-safety issues was the first step a design team recommended last July. Through a community planning process, the team created a vision to transform Chinatown into a walkable neighborhood with nearly 2,000 homes. Chinatown has a framework for redevelopment, but implementing it will take millions of dollars.
Reynolds says the Redevelopment Agency has applied for a $235,000 grant from the California Department of Transportation that would fund a market and traffic circulation study. The agency has also applied for a $400,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to pay for an environmental analysis of the neighborhood.
“We hope to be able, in a few years, to hand this on a silver platter to the right group of investors to move forward,” Reynolds says.Robert Smith sits in his dank and cluttered office above Dorothy’s Place, Chinatown’s soup kitchen. Classic rock plays on the radio, as the down and out wait downstairs for lunch. Smith says the needs of homeless people must be addressed before Chinatown can be redeveloped.
Smith repeats his mantra: The homeless need jobs and housing.
“There are small businesses that need to be created for people who have marginal capacity for life and work,” Smith says.
The renewal plan recommends a one-stop service center on Bridge Street that would include drug and alcohol recovery programs, mental health intake and job placement services. Although Oldtown proprietors grimace at the prospect of attracting more homeless people to the downtown area, Smith says the success of Oldtown is tied to Chinatown.
A lively downtown requires nearby residents, Smith says. And Chinatown can supply that housing. Smith also envisions a Chinatown art scene. As a step in that direction, Smith says, the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra want to start an artist-in-residence program. The Franciscan Workers’ gallery on Soledad Street will also be part of the First Friday Art Walk on March 7.
The gallery sits next to CSUMB’s community center and across from the university’s garden – the result of a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. CSUMB is in the planning stages of the application process for a second, three-year $600,000 grant, which would be used to implement the Chinatown renewal plan and develop alternative energy projects. Seniors at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo will design a windmill, Feske says. Through a combination of solar and wind projects, Feske hopes to have the CSUMB garden and community center, Dorothy’s Place and the street lights off the grid. The grant, he says, would turn homeless people into a green-collar crew.
CSUMB has already had success preparing garden employees for the workforce. Six workers have transitioned to other jobs and seven still work part time at the garden.
Additionally, the CSUMB grant would help fund the planned cultural center. Supporters say the neighborhood is the ideal location with its nearby Salinas Buddhist Temple, Confucius Church and Filipino Community Center.
Larry Hirahara, co-chair of downtown board and Buddhist Temple member, says the board hopes to archive the stories of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants who came to Salinas to work the fields. “We are trying to preserve and tell that story,” he says.