In The Footsteps of Steinbeck- A Stroll Through Cannery Row

Cannery Row is the street parallel to the bustling waterfront of Monterey Bay.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

Thus begins Cannery Row in one of the best opening paragraphs of literature which concisely captures the essence of the novel! Steinbeck immortalizes a bygone area and era of Monterey during the Depression and World War 2 years when sardine canning operation was a thriving industry. Eventually sardines disappeared from the waters due to overfishing and other environmental reasons. Cannery Row preserves that brief moment in time when Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. Imagine my delight then when on a recent trip to CA, I had the opportunity to visit Cannery Row and retrace the steps of the author and the real people who willed the fictitious personages into existence. The book captured the people and the pulse of the place in that momentous time in history so well that even the street name in Monterey was changed from Ocean View to Cannery Row to honor its creator.

I read Cannery Row more than two decades ago. The novel has a simple plot. Mack and his ruffian friends decide to throw a party for Doc which unfortunately goes out of control. They end up ruining his lab and leaving his home in shambles. They decide to throw another party to get back in his good graces. Interwoven within the main plot, is a series of vignettes describing the other residents of the row. I have forgotten a lot of the plot details but what has stayed with me is the rich and teeming  portrait of a town featuring a panoply of characters from every walk of life. They are simple people living ordinary lives who accept the cards life has dealt them. These people living on the edge of the Pacific and on the margins of society navigate through the morass of human existence with grace and compassion despite the shortage of money.

Take Lee Chong for instance. He’s a shrewd and manipulative businessman who runs a successful grocery store but he trusts his clients and gives them huge amounts of credit. He never fails to come to the rescue of Mack and the boys who are constantly asking him for favors. Or Dora Flood. She manages The Bear Flag restaurant which is actually a whorehouse. She is in a so called disreputable profession but she takes good care of her employees, contributes generously to charitable organizations and helps families in need during the Depression. Steinbeck makes us examine our own stereotypical notions of morality through the selfless actions of these poor and marginalized characters. As Doc muses:

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”  

The present day Cannery Row only carries vestiges of its past. Many of the old cannery buildings have been refurbished as restaurants, galleries and kitschy souvenir shops. The only things packed as sardines are the tourists who descend in droves during the summer months. Yet remnants of history can be found throughout the city to a discerning eye whether in the form of dilapidated steel sheds, decrepit buildings or elevated walkways which were once used to move canned fish from the processing site to the warehouses near the train tracks.

There is the historic Cannery Row. And then, there is the literary Cannery Row. And the two intersect and there is nostalgia for both. Here are some of the authentic locales and some modern day tributes if you want to walk in the footsteps of the author and the people who inspired the plot:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium-  View From The Bay Side

Hovden Cannnery- The site that attracts the most tourists to Monterey is undoubtedly the world- renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium which not only overlooks the beautiful bay but also seamlessly integrates with the shore. The building originally housed the largest and the last cannery on the row to shut down. When the building was transformed into the aquarium in 1984, it was designed in such a way as to preserve its historical significance. The cookers and boilers were retained inside and some of the original wood and iron corrugated exteriors of the building outside. There are two tall smokestacks  which although sealed, still remain on the roof. Inside the aquarium, near the entrance is a Hovden cannery interpretative exhibit about the sardine industry and a small biological lab formerly owned and operated by Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who inspired the character of ‘ Doc’.

Pacific Biological Laboratories

If you want to see the main lab, you have to walk down the street from the aquarium to 800 Cannery Row where you will find the building that was known as the Pacific Biological Laboratories and called Western Biological in the novel. Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who collected and stored specimens of marine creatures was the model for the character of Doc. Apart from being a scientist and a connoisseur of art and music, Ricketts much like Doc was also a philosopher who made profound observations on life and was much admired by the community. He died in 1948 hit by a train after his car stalled on the tracks. There is a memorial on a recreational trail near the accident site honoring his life and work.

Across the street from the lab is the building that housed Wing Chong market and became Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower grocery of the novel. It has become a souvenir shop now but you can still see the Wing Chong Market sign outside. I almost walked by  without making the connection and I forgot to take a picture when it finally dawned on me that this was the inspiration for Lee Chong’s store. It is sometimes hard to separate Steinbeck’s Cannery Row from the real Cannery Row.

The building next to Wing Chong market was known as Edith’s restaurant which inspired La Ida Café of the novel where Eddie, the bartender poured all the leftover drinks into a jug for Mack and the boys to enjoy at the flophouse. Today there is a bakery on the premises.

Bruce Ariss Mural

Bruce Ariss Mural- Across from Doc’s lab is a mural entitled ‘Across from Doc’s Lab’ which commemorates the characters and setting of Cannery Row.  You can see the train tracks and the train and the discarded boilers that became homes. You can also see Wing Chong’s grocery store and The Lone Star Restaurant that morphed into the Lee Chong store and the Bear Flag restaurant respectively. Bruce Ariss, the original painter was a contemporary of Steinbeck and the mural is a microcosm of the larger world of Cannery Row, a snapshot of what life was like back in its heyday.

Cannery Row Cottages

Cannery Cottages-  Further up the hill are three restored cottages or shacks that once housed workers. They are a reminder of the time when immigrant workers from Mexico, China, Italy, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines worked in the canneries and fisheries.

The Cannery Row Monument in Steinbeck Plaza
The four local entrepreneurs of Monterey!
A section of the monument with a Chinese fisherman and ladies of the night.

Steinback Plaza-

The Cannery Row monument  sculpted by artist Steven Whyte of Carmel and unveiled in 2014 is a tribute to the people, real and fictional who played a pivotal role in Cannery Row’s history. John Steinbeck is on top of the rocky structure and his friend Ed Ricketts is at the base.

The sculpture also pays homage to four entrepreneurs who were instrumental in developing the town. A Chinese fisherman represents the  thriving 19thcentury fishing industry and the two women are Madam Flora Woods of Lone Star Café and one of the girls of her bordello. A whimsical detail is the placing of bronze frogs throughout the monument, a reminder of Mack and the boys who earned money by catching frogs and selling them to the lab.

A bronze bust of John Steinbeck  at Steinbeck Plaza overlooking Monterey Bay!

Steinbeck found poetry in the mundane and the quotidian. In spite of the gritty reality of poverty, his characters demonstrate resilience and an indomitable spirit. Many of the characters and the locales of the novel also found their way into the sequel entitled Sweet Thursday.

With gentrification and a booming tourist economy, Cannery Row is a far cry from its dingy and seedy origins. One wonders if Steinbeck himself would recognize the place. Cannery Row itself has become like one of Doc’s lab specimens on display for the tourists.

Yet, under the veneer of tourism, it is the same tang of salt in the air that tickles your nostrils, the same cry of seagulls that greets you and the same sight of craggy cliffs with otters basking in the sun that meets your sight. You just have to let your imagination fill in the rest. If you close your eyes and ponder for a moment about life in the old fishing village, be it real or fictional, you just might catch a whiff of the fishy stench that once pervaded the air and hear the screeching whistles that once summoned the workers to the canneries.







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