To Cannery Row

To Cannery Row

There is only so much of any city I can take before it comes time to get out, and get some context. True, a lot of people call the urban environment home. For a time, I did too. However, one of the great human ironies is our want for the other side of the fence. Urbanites run to the countryside to take in the vineyards and hillsides and terrior. Country folk marvel at the oddities of the city life, the cost of a coffee, the window shopping. Suburbanites are caught in the middle, lost among the Stonehenge of ranches and split-levels, looking north to the city and south to the country. In San Francisco, locals flock to Napa, or southward to the rugged coastlines, to Monterey and onward still to Big Sur. Monterey is just far enough afield of San Fran–2 hours or 120 miles depending on your measure–that you can take in a fair amount of the region, and see a bit more of Cali than the oddities and predilections of the City by the Bay.

Garlic Fries

Getting to Monterey requires a brief sprint down through Garlic Country, of which Gilroy is the capital. Most of the nation’s garlic comes from this corner of fertile California, just south of Silicon Valley. Not even the most powerful air filter will keep the bouquet of that favorite foodie flower from your nose. Garlic fries, a regional staple, bring together the great snack food of America with the regional favorite. Garlic fries proper will include a healthy dusting of flat-leaf parsley. This is one San Fran to Monterey predilection I could not pass up. As a courtesy, you ought to share some with your friends, especially if they are driving you on a two hour jaunt to Monterey.

I may have neglected to do so, causing for a few subtle offerings of Mentos and Altoids in my general direction.

Monterey, of course, is also a city by a bay, a very large bay that used to be full of sardines. Changing sea currents obliterated the sardine industry there by 1940. John Steinbeck wrote an homage to the gritty fishmonger’s life in his Cannery Row novella. Of Cannery Row, he said:

“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 inhabitant 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.”–John Steinbeck, Cannery Row.

2011-08-20 Monterey County 102 Monterey, Cannery Row

Cannery Row nowadays is embalmed, the old grit made glossy, the stone pavers a bit too clean, the air crisp. The whore houses, those Maison Derrieres, are now B&B’s. The old canneries are monuments, with their old owners names repainted on the clapboards.

Steinbeck didn’t have much love for his homeland, often critical of the region. The creative lot never do settle for provincialism. Small towns, with their clannish and gossipy citizens, chase out those sons and daughters, those oddballs that try to make something new. I always find it an bit cannibalistic when a small town shuns a freethinker, then tries to cash in when the weird boy made good. In my corner of the map, you see those towns…Salem, Indiana preserved the birthplace of Lincoln’s aide and former Secretary of State John Hay (though Hay never returned there, preferring the Society folks in and around Lafayette Park and the White House). Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, his Springfield, Illinois manse, and his Kentucky birthplace are memorialized even though he too never looked back. Same for Hannibal, Missouri (Twain) or Gary, Indiana (Michael Jackson). Mother irony had the last laugh on the native Steinbeck too, as a Monterey museum in his honor smacks of revision and hagiography; the wax figures of the man kept as a roadside oddity.

DSC26366, Cannery Row, Monterey, California, USA

Do the locals know they lost the character of the place? Does anyone morn the loss the old Cannery Row? The preservation of the look, the ruins of the industry, allow for local color to remain in the background of a revived destination, its survival based on the sole source of tourism. Some say this resurrection of the waterfront saved Old Monterey from becoming a sterile, glass waterfront of condos, the bay closed off from public viewing. Cannery Row as a concept, as a destination, thrives with its new symbiont dwelling inside the old host. Sardines out, Sales in.

Cannery Row could not survive as a singular draw to the region. Not even the modest legion of Steinbeck fans, who perhaps first read The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, or Travels with Charley in high school could not support the local economy, especially in pricey California.  Monterey Bay is an Avalon, raining, if ever, in the morning; 65 degrees year ’round and sunny. Pebble Beach Golf Course is over the hill, and Carmel By the Sea provides the yuppies their share of boutiques. Seafood is fresh and plentiful. Cannery Row then survives on the back of other regional tourism, unlike other small towns who have tried to build an attraction around a famous son, like Buffalo Bill’s Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, or the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana.

Sea lion yoga, among the redder ones anyway.... IMG_0047_2

Despite this assessment, it is hard not to like Monterey Bay, the vistas azure, the hills rolling into the sea. I have yet to meet a Californian from this part of the country in a bad mood, and how could you carry on when a breezy, sunny day awaits you. Coastal life is right in town, the sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals basking on the break walls and the leviathan grey whales making their sojourn through the off-shore sanctuary. My focus and joy in this Disneyfied re-creation was learning about, and eating some of, the marine life of the region.

Attack of the Jellyfish

The Monterey Aquarium is worth the trek around the Bay. Ocean lovers should know that this aquarium is among the very best in the nation, with enormous tanks that give the impression of standing before, and under, an endless sea. Indoor and outdoor exhibits help visitors to better understand the region’s diverse ecology. In addition, the Aquarium puts out a dining guide, Seafood Watch, for which marine life to indulge, which are over-fished, and which are full of mercury. Taking my little guide, I met up with my travel companions at the Fish Hopper, perhaps the only restaurant on the Cannery Row strip that was not a chain (Bubba Gump) or a chain in disguise (the Chart House). (There is alas, another location in Hawaii) Every last seafood house, regardless of how large or small, proudly supports the neighboring aquarium’s recommended eating list.



Marching up the gangway of the kitschy foyer, I announce “I’ve been waiting all day for this!”

“Except for that garlic fries binge.” reminded my driving co-worker.


“I thought you were vegetarian?”

I wasn’t going to allow that interrogation to stand.

“Sort of, my wife is okay with my seafood eating.”

“How’s that work?”

“Dunno. Perhaps it is because they had a fair fight, and lived in the wild rather than in a feed lot.”

There sat before me in the menu the Dungeness Crab, market rate. And, the crab made the Seafood Watch list of being a “best choice.” Being more of an East Coast pescatarian at the time, I never really had a chance for fresh caught Dungeness as I did Maryland Blue Crab. There is of course, no comparison–Maryland Blue Crabs are runts compared to the armored tank Dungeness. Those spikes along the legs make for a meal that fights back. As the plate arrived, the setting sun over the Monterey Bay, igniting the harbor below, all cantankerous thoughts about the mummification of the old Row faded away. I imagine for Steinbeck, he’d be okay with this transfiguration. After all, he called cosmopolitan New York City, not provincial orange groves, his home. Aside from his countenance modeled in wax for the tourist crowd, the nearby National Steinbeck Center provides those devotees a more sophisticated shrine. Perhaps the new Cannery Row may have suited him well.

Steinbeck Wax Photo credit: jimg944 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Cannery Row Today Photo credit: Allie_Caulfield / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Old Cannery Row

Garlic Fries Photo credit: youngrocky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Aquarium Photo credit: Schill / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fish Hopper Photo credit: davidandbevtravel / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Sea Lions Photo credit: wbaiv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)








Voice of the Past: Enoch Powell on Overstaying Your (Political) Welcome



Politicians often overstay their welcome. Presidents are lucky in that the 22nd amendment cuts short a political life before abject failure, allowing each of them to become elder statesmen. But even that defense rarely protects them in the waning year of their presidencies–as most presidents are found to be odious after eight years of them. Clinton and Bush were loathed immediately after their presidencies, and I suspect Obama will be as well. All are rehabilitated to fondness in later years–so long as they accept their exile from the ballot.

This past week, a milestone in American political history happened. For those wonks and talking heads that follow such a thing, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor–the usual heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, lost his seat in a primary election. Eric Cantor didn’t have the luxury of a term limit to inflict the abortive blow. Instead, he had to experience what the British arch-conservative Enoch Powell observed:

“All political lives end in failure.”

Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, exuded the sort of privileged arrogance that some American politicians display. Truly, many of them can get away with this sort of bravado for a bit, but showing too much of your hand–your contempt for the electorate–will end you. Powell gave a fiery speech against immigration in Britain, a speech that went down in their history as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and left such a bad taste upon the stiff upper lips in Britain that he lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet–dashing any hope to lead the UK someday. Despite the fact that many agreed with his sentiments, he rode out his time as a meaningless backbencher.

His quote–his epitaph really–came from a book he wrote about another politico, the 19th century Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain. The quote in full tells more of the story:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”–Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151.

Note to politicians–best to leave the game on your terms, rather than overstay your welcome.




Forgotten Detroit?

Day in The D - Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk - Detroit, MI

Say “Detroit” to someone outside of the Motor City, and they will take it as a euphemism for the failure of the old American economy. At its zenith, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America, home of the great automotive juggernaut that made Henry Ford a household name. The long decay of manufacturing, beginning in the 1970’s, exacerbated by rising oil costs, the ascendency of foreign autos, the passage of the job-killing NAFTA legislation of the 1990’s and the economic crisis of the 2000’s have had particular impact on Detroit. This decay has been well documented, especially by the bloggers at “Forgotten Detroit,” and it isn’t hard to see it at street level.

The 1987 action film “Robocop” chose for its backdrop a decrepit, future Detroit, one where crime lords and drugs brought the city to crippling blight. Law enforcement became a sort of warfare. No child of the 1980’s thought that this movie would have been prophetic.  In the film, big business relied upon the absolute blight and crime to drive down property to a point that the city could be leveled and gentrified into a new “Delta City.” Life it seems, imitates art as this has in fact happened in a way, as the downtown, surrounding the central Campus Martius park, is almost exclusively owned by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans. His private police–Rock Securities–monitor the downtown, working with police to keep the core of the city functional amidst the nearby chaos of Livernois Ave–the most dangerous street in America, where a citizen has a one-in-seven chance of being victim to a crime.

My last stay in Detroit was in the Renaissance Center–or RenCenter–, a relic of the 1980’s concept of insular, contained worlds, separated from the beating heart of the downtown. I stayed far above street level in the hemisphere’s tallest hotel–the Marriott Renaissance housed in the RenCenter. Looking down the 60 stories below me, I felt as disconnected as one could be from Detroit, and for many a business traveler, this is exactly the distance they’d want to keep if they believe the poor press the city gets. However, where the national story has been about the decay of Detroit, there are green shoots to be found. To find them, I’d have to abandon the glass towers of “Delta City.”

Renaissance Center (GM)


Those green shoots are the in the perseverance of Detroiters to see their city back from the ash. Celebrity sons like Kid Rock, the recent mayor Dave Bing and Dan Gilbert have focused their energy on bringing this city back from the edge. Detroit’s cultural institutions still radiate. The Detroit Institute of Art still sports a Rodin “Thinker” on the main steps. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra still has a national broadcast hosted by the legendary Dick Cavett and under the baton of the Midwestern Maestro Leonard Slatkin (a former conductor in St. Louis, prof at Indiana, and globetrotting conductor). And Wayne State University still attracts 28,000 students to call Detroit their home away from home.

Mariner's Church (Detroit, Michigan)

However, piqued by the catalogue of rotting buildings in “Forgotten Detroit,” I was more curious about those landmarks that are thriving and surviving the neglect. Of particular poignancy is the Mariner’s Church near the Tunnel to Canada. The little parish  is dwarfed by the nearby GM Headquarters, and barely noticeable by car. Built in 1849, the old chapel served as a spiritual safe harbor for those weary travelers on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Each sailing season, the church offers blessing for sailors heading out on the Inland Seas. And in times of shipwreck, the chapel has served as a memorial place. After the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a freak storm on Lake Superior in 1975, the chapel famously rang its bell 29 times, one for each crewman lost at sea. The event was immortalized by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in his “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” To this day, the chapel holds a memorial for the Edmund Fitzgerald, and all of those lost at sea, annually.

Walking onward from the Mariner’s Chapel toward the downtown, I see that I am not alone on the sidewalks. What was once the domain of multi-lane throughways has been turned back over to pedestrians. The Motor City surrendered much of its downtown greenspace to transportation hubs in the 20th century, as the automobile supplanted any need to ever walk in downtown Detroit. However, as cities are rediscovering the value of foot traffic along its main streets as the key to economic revitalization, the old roundabouts and traffic lanes are being leveled in favor of pedestrian zones. In 2004, the city re-established its town square–the Campus Martius. This downtown park was restored to its place as the milestone for the city–all of those roads named for their mileage, such as “8 Mile,” take their origin from the Campus Martius. In winter, the ice rink welcomes downtown workers, and in summer time, an urban beach. The farmers’ market was restored after an 9o-year hiatus.

Culturally, Detroit has the feel of any other Midwestern metropolis, the remnants of immigrant waves from eastern Europe still flourish, as local deli’s still serve Reubens and Pastrami on Jewish Rye. Meanwhile, new transplants, such as the Clevelander Michael Simon’s Roast offer up high-end foodie experiences. In short, whether high-end bone marrow shooters and duck confit, or mounds of deli-style charcuterie by the pound, Detroit is a carnivore’s town. While new restaurants blossom around the Campus Martius, some of the long-established diners and greasy spoons are slightly farther afield. Those institutions have survived in neighborhoods that have turned over to blight, vandalism, crime and ruin. Places like Hygrade Deli are worth the urban safari, but probably not on foot. Yet these anchors on street corners may attract a new generation back into Detroit, especially those yearning for the authentic.

When it comes to the authentic, Detroit is so maligned that credit is stolen for the good things about the city, such as its rightful claim as the inventor and the promoter of the “Coney” hot dog. My first reaction was the same as others–that certainly the “Coney Dog” is a New York creation; its namesake the Island with the amusement park. Rather, the Coney’s roots, like that of Cincinnati Chili, are eastern European. The Coney chili, bearing some resemblance in texture to the meaty sauce from Cincinnati, was developed in the Detroit region by Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Like Philadelphia’s rival cheesesteak shops, Detroiters will debate endlessly over who makes the better Coney–The American Coney Dog or the Lafayette.

Detroit's Famous Coney Island Restaurants - Detroit, USA

Coney favorites and internal rivalry aside, Detroit still has fight. Native son Joe Lewis would be proud of the stamina and the relentlessness of his hometown. Locals are proud of Detroit, warts and all. As the cliche goes, sometimes you do have to hit rock bottom. Detroit, and perhaps Buffalo, are the last of the rust belt cities (the others being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Toledo) to emerge from a long industrial winter. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have achieved balance with a smaller population and diversified economy. On the ground, there is evidence that the winter in Detroit may be turning, and a rightly sized Detroit is emerging to join her post-industrial Rust Belt neighbors in a Midwestern Renaissance.

Holiday D Light-Detroit, MI

Detroit Fist or “Monument to Joe Lewis”–Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

GM Renaissance Center: Photo credit: paul bica / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Nothing Stops Detroit: Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Campus Martius Aerial: Photo credit: Joyce Pedersen (addict2pics) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Camus Martius Beach:

American or Lafayette: Photo credit: Urban Adventures / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mariner’s Church Photo credit: cseeman / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Robocop: Orion Pictures. 1987.