Working on Cannery Row

Sunday, 31 October 2010 12:33 PM Written by 

CANNERY ROW -- Lilly Mae's Cinnamon Rolls

Deborah Hannas of Monterey knows from experience what John Steinbeck was talking about when he said Cannery Row at dawn was magical.

She sees it every morning when she drives down the hill above Cannery Row and opens up her business, Lilly Mae’s Cinnamon Rolls.DSC_0072_copy_copy

It might be misty or sunny, rainy or cloudy. The bay can be rough or calm. Sometimes the fog sits gently on the water, sometimes it flows ashore like thick soft surf. But she agrees with Mr. Steinbeck that it’s always pretty magical.

Hannas is a shop owner now, but she’s been working on Cannery Row since she was 17 – since 1977.

As usual, just before 7 a.m. yesterday, Deborah was prepping her bright and colorful little tourist-catcher for a sunny day.

Business was going to be nothing like the mob scene of mid-summer. Her bright-red double doors were opened wide to an empty sidewalk, but the street itself was busy. Before 9 is the official feeding and primping time for the thriving commerce on Cannery Row. 

I first met Hannas early one morning in March, when I was checking out the magic of Cannery Row as part of a research mission for my "Travels Without Charley" trip.

While I was talking to her in March, her old friend Harry Traylor popped into Lilly Mae’s with his order pad to see if she needed anything. Traylor sold his wholesale drive-in dairy years ago but still supplies fresh milk from Salinas to a few old friends like Hannas.ca_161

Traylor was 85 and had migrated to Monterey from Arkansas in 1957. Cannery Row was a hollowed out wreck then. No longer “The Sardine Capital of the World,” all but one of its 19 sardine canneries had closed.

Harry the Milkman remembered what it was like in 1960: A piano bar and a movie theater by the water. A big fire. “There was lots of arson,” he said.

Deborah has watched Cannery Row’s steady resurrection. She knows some of the history of the former "Sardine Capital of the World." Before it was officially renamed Cannery Row by the city in 1958, it was Ocean View Avenue.

In the 1930s, when Steinbeck was hanging out, each cannery on the street had its own coded whistle that blew at 3 or 4 in the morning to alert its workers that fishing boats were coming in with bellies full of the sardines that thrived by the billions on Monterey Bay’s plankton.DSC_0128_2

The cannery packers – mostly wives of Portuguese and Italian fishermen – would come walking down off the same hill Deborah lives on now to go to work like extras in a scene from one of George Romero’s zombie movies.

“Every morning at 5 a.m. my whistle blows,” said Deborah, who is happy to go home smelling of coffee and cinnamon, not fish guts.

Cannery Row is now a place for families to eat and shop after they go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There's virtually no trace of what made it famous.

A few old wooden storefronts from the 1930s and a remodeled cannery are preserved. 

The holiest remnant is the surf-side lab where marine biologist Ed Ricketts -- Doc in “Cannery Row” – worked and lived. He hosted a combination party house and bohemian intellectual salon for local artists, musicians and writers like Steinbeck.ca_139_2_copy_copy_copy

Ricketts and Steinbeck became great pals. According to Steinbeck scholars like Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State, Ricketts’ holistic and then-innovative ideas about ecology and the interdependence and cooperation of all organisms within a specific habitat were strong influences on Steinbeck’s writing and thinking.

Otherwise, other than some workers' shacks and the black-and-white photos incorporated into dozens of historical markers spotted around the street and its seaside, little else is left of Steinbeck’s real or imaginary Cannery Row.

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck acknowledged the progress that had occurred across the entire Monterey Peninsula in the 20 years he hadn’t been watching it. He was no blind romantic or limousine preservationist. He knew restaurants and antique shops on Cannery Row are a big improvement over smelly sardine canneries and whorehouses.

As Harry the Milkman recalled, in 1960 Cannery Row was a seaside slum, an economic derelict wondering what to remake of itself.

It took a collective of entrepreneurs, developers, enlightened government, Packard Foundation money, armies of tourists – plus the ruthless exploitation of the Steinbeck brand -- to eventually resuscitate it.DSC_0123

Steinbeck saw the Cannery Row theme park in its infancy, knew where it was going, and didn’t like it much. What would he think of its nearly perfected state? Not much, probably.

He didn't particularly like change, but he was smart enough to know he couldn't stop it. As a good amateur ecologist, he’d probably understand that Cannery Row 2010 is the result of an  evolving, natural process of creative destruction brought about by the complex interplay of nature and man.

Without billions of sardines in Monterey Bay to catch, process and sell to the rest of the globe, there would have been no Cannery Row.

Without 20 canneries and decades of overfishing combined with the natural cycles of sardine and plankton populations, there would have been no economic collapse on Cannery Row to allow the tourist industry a chance to take hold 50 years ago.

Steinbeck most likely would not dig Cannery Row 2010’s tourist economy, upscale gentrification or exploitation of his name.DSC_0145

But I bet he’d agree that it  -- like the rest of America he saw in 1960 -- is a lot better, safer, cleaner and more prosperous today.

As Deborah Hannas can tell you, Cannery Row is also a much nicer place to make your living when your whistle blows at dawn.

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