I don’t frequent fast-food restaurants, but for a while, I’d been meaning to check out the new In-n-Out in Seaside after it opened with so much hype. I finally went while I was working on a story about places to eat late at night, expecting it to be empty near midnight. I was surprised to find the place bustling, but quiet, clean and bright. It reminded me of one of the virtues of fast-food chains: They can be among the few safe, well-lit gathering places in neighborhoods where everything closes early.
I was still thinking about that when news came from the Salinas Police Department that the latest in a surge of shootings had been at a McDonald’s in Salinas, located in a busy shopping center with a popular La Princesa Market, across the street from the beautifully remodeled Cesar Chavez Library.
A 16-year-old boy was walking toward the McDonald’s when gunfire rang out, narrowly missing him but hitting the restaurant and two cars waiting in line at the drive-thru. It was 10:09pm on Wednesday, Aug. 10 – a time when families may have still been eating, and kids could’ve been doing homework there.
It’s easy for people who don’t live in the thick of it – and people like me, a white 30-something woman who’s unlikely to be mistaken for a gang member – to ignore the number of shootings in Salinas. Since the Soberanes Fire broke out, six men in Salinas have been murdered.
But for many people who live in East Salinas and never knew those men and have nothing to do with gangs, the rise in violence – a record 39 homicides last year, and 23 this year to date – the violence factors into their lives.
I went to the McDonald’s last week to talk to people about whether that crime, or crime in general, had changed their lives. A forklift driver who works 12-hour days and was on his way home says he doesn’t go out after he gets home at night. Maria Cuellar, a cashier at La Princesa in the afternoon and at El Rey Market in the mornings, normally walks home after her late shift, but says her husband has been driving her home since the shooting.
“I’m ready to go back to normal,” she says in Spanish, “but there are a lot of shootings.”
What if this is the new normal? The Williams Road shopping center isn’t one of those blocks that parents tell their children to avoid – it’s a main drag. Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin says gang members used to hang out in specific locations, but after years of crackdowns, they dispersed.
“Basically, we drove them off the street and drove them to not identify themselves so readily with an abundance of gang attire,” he says. “What you’re starting to see now is a broader dispersion of firearms violence.”
Worst of all, there’s no obvious way to fix this problem, though candidates vying for three City Council seats and the mayor’s seat are likely to claim there are. The Salinas Police Officers Association launched a PAC to influence these races, and they’ve been gearing up. They titled a July 19 press release “Violent Crime Continues to Rise as Mayor & City Council Enjoy Summer Vacation,” as if somehow by returning from summer vacation, city officials would be able to end the violence. (They may be able to come to terms on a contract they’re currently negotiating with the union, however.)
Meanwhile, regular people in Salinas are adapting to the near-constant presence of violence.
Delia Saldivar, a media colleague as station manager for Radio Bilingue, used to walk from her home in North Salinas to her office in Oldtown daily. She also went for long walks on the north end of town.
Then one day about a year ago, a man ordered her to hand over her cell phone.
She did, and she also changed her life. “I was afraid,” Saldivar says, “so I had to stop walking.”
She started driving to work instead, and now walks on a treadmill at the gym.
At the gym, she met another woman who told the same story: She used to go for walks. Now she uses the treadmill.
“It is transforming our daily life,” Saldivar says.
“I love Salinas,” she adds. “It’s quiet.” Then she adds a caveat – “besides the shootings.”