Cannery Row in Monterey, California
Though no longer 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.” that John Steinbeck described in the first chapter of his best-selling novel, Cannery Row owes its continuing popularity, and even its name, to Steinbeck’s books.
Ocean View Avenue in Monterey was renamed in honor of Steinbeck’s novel. Cannery Row was followed nine years later with Sweet Thursday which revisited the neighborhood and the characters, based on real people, who lived there.
Steinbeck described them in that same opening paragraph: “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers 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 holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”
While the few “sardine canneries of corrugated iron” that still exist have been converted to support tourism with shops, restaurants, galleries and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and new ones built with enclosed passageways high above the street—originally intended for transporting sardines from the processing plant on the bay side of the street to warehouses on the other but now serving to expand luxury hotels or tourist shopping malls—several buildings that were key locations in Cannery Row exist much as they did in Steinbeck’s day.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row
John Steinbeck’s friend and mentor, Ed Ricketts, was a noted marine biologist who ran Pacific Biological Laboratories at, what is now, 800 Cannery Row from 1928 to 1948. The character Doc, a marine biologist who runs Western Biological Laboratories from a weathered wooden shack, and is the smartest and most admired person in Cannery Row was based on Ricketts. Be sure to enter the narrow alley beside the building where you can view the back deck where Ricketts kept live marine animals in concrete tanks.
Steinbeck renamed another business on Cannery Row to suit his purposes. The Bear Flag Restaurant in Cannery Row was based on an actual business, the Texas themed Lone Star Restaurant, which Steinbeck described as “A decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house where a man can take a glass of beer among friends… a sturdy, virtuous club,”
Located across the street from Ricketts‘ Pacific Biological Laboratories the whorehouse was owned by Dora Flood (actually Flora Woods) a magnanimous madam who refused to serve hard liquor or allow profanity in her establishment. The building was replaced with a concrete warehouse in 1942.
Another bordello described by Steinbeck in Cannery Row, the La Ida Cafe (now Austino’s Patisserie after Kalisa’s La Ida Cafe closed) was where Eddie, serving as part time bartender, would combine left-over drinks together in a jug of “hooch” for “Mack and the boys” back at the Palace Flophouse and Grill.
Three small buildings which were moved to Bruce Aris Way and are now being preserved by the City of Monterey as typical examples of housing for cannery workers were describe by Steinbeck as being behind the Palace Flophouse and Grill. While the majority of Monterey’s commercial fishermen in the 1930’s were Sicilian, there were also Japanese and Spanish immigrants here. Stands in front of two of the shacks provide historical information about these two groups.
A billboard next to the shacks depicts the cast off boiler where two more characters from the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy, lived and argued over curtains for the window-less structure that Steinbeck had wrote was on the “vacant lot.”
The Chinese community had a prominent role in early Monterey and Cannery Row history but few structures remain to document their influence.
The Wing Chong Market, described by Steinbeck as Lee Chong’s Grocery, a “general store” with “clothes, food both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops. You could buy at Lee Chong’s a pair of slippers, a silk kimono, a quarter pint of whiskey and a cigar. You could work out combinations to fit almost any mood.” is the best known survivor.
Not far from the end of Cannery Row, beyond the Monterey Bay Aquarium as you enter Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail the Monterey Boat Works displays a decaying example of one of the few surviving sardine boats, the Anthony Boy. Here too is the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, formerly Hopkins Marine Station on China Point where it moved from Lovers Point.
The Chinese population, which had been fishing for abalone, squid and rockfish from their community on this location since the early 1850’s had grown to 350 or more after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Unusual for California, the community contained nearly equal numbers of men and women but a suspicious fire destroyed buildings and scattered the community.
Once known for the sardine canning industry with its colorful characters, today historic Cannery Row has gone down the same picturesque tourist road as Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey but with a little effort you can find a bit of the character that John Steinbeck found so appealing.