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Even Steinbeck Might Have Trouble Writing About Cannery Row Today

February 18, 1990|PHYLLIS J. HANNIVER | Hanniver is a free-lance writer living in Seaside, Calif. and

MONTEREY, Calif. — Cannery Row today bears little resemblance to the romantically funky waterfront described by John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel. What was once a stretch of "sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whorehouses . . . laboratories and flophouses" is now wall-to-wall gift shops and seafood restaurants, all swarming with tourists.

Over the years, Cannery Row has been burned down, torn down, rebuilt and restructured. But the latest version of the two-mile stretch still makes a worthwhile walking tour, where one can discover a few remaining vestiges of Steinbeck's era.

Even the area's grandest new attraction, the hugely popular Monterey Bay Aquarium, is built around an historic remnant. At the south end of Cannery Row, it's a good place to start the tour.

Located on the site of Knut Hovden's cannery, the design of the aquarium is faithful to the old building's original appearance. Inside, besides first-rate marine exhibits, refurbished cannery cookers and boilers are on display--huge brick monsters that once steamed and roared. Outside, two tall Hovden cannery smokestacks remain.

Also outdoors, a stroll down to the end of Hovden Way, on the north side of the aquarium, provides a superb view of the backside of one of the original wood-and-corrugated-iron canneries, a crumbling, ghostly reminder of days gone by.

At 880 Cannery Row, a few hundred feet down the street from the aquarium, is the building which, from 1930 to 1948, housed the Pacific Biological Laboratories.

It was there that Edward (Doc) Ricketts, a marine biologist, collected sea-life specimens, entertained his lady friends and chatted with "good buddy" John Steinbeck.

Now occupied by a private men's club, public access to the quiet, unmarked building is limited. But it's easy to imagine the classical music floating through the windows on a long-ago dark and starry night.

Across from Doc's, at No. 835, Wing Chong's Market still stands, although in this lifetime it is a souvenir/antique shop. It was once the one-stop shopping center.

In Steinbeck's novel, the proprietor was Lee Chong; in real life the owner was Won Yee. La Ida Cafe is next door. Now a European restaurant, it used to be one of the three bordellos that once served the Cannery Row community.

A detour east on David Avenue to Monterey's Recreational Trail offers visitors a look at three, small, wooden shacks painted green, the last of the still-standing bungalows that cannery workers once called home.

With a little imagination you can still hear the early-morning whistle signaling a catch, the opening of doors, the laughter, the footsteps.

The new outdoor Mural Project north of the aquarium involved 50 artists who painted 50 separate full-color panels. It's a walk through history that begins with prehistoric earth and continues to the end of Monterey's sardine era in the late '40s.

McAbee Beach is wedged between buildings near where the high tide rolls in with gusto.

On the ocean side of the row a bust of Steinbeck faces the busy main drag. In 1953 what was once Ocean View Boulevard was renamed Cannery Row in his honor.

Northward again, the Steinbeck Lobster Grotto on the west side of the street was once part of the Del Mar Canning Co. Visitors pass under the picturesque Monterey Canning Co. bridge, one of only two original remaining walkways across the row.

At one time, the airspace above Cannery Row was lined with overhead passages. They served as connections between the canneries on the ocean side of the street and the warehouses and reduction plants on the east side.

Across the street and up the hill is Oscar Hossenfelder's Edgewater Packing Co. This big, white, wooden building is a delight of steps and landings and circular stairs. Best of all is the 1905 carousel inside.

This building was once a part of the red-brick building next door, originally a fishmeal reduction plant owned by Frank Booth, who built the very first cannery in Monterey.

A stop at 435 Cannery Row is suggested for a reminder of the atmosphere and nostalgia that only crumbling buildings can create. No. 435 is deserted and boarded up, spooky and empty. Rusty, abandoned cannery equipment sits out back, surrounded by weeds.

At the bend in the road stand two quaint-looking green-and-white wooden buildings, one of which is now an antique store. At one time both were part of the old Tevis/Murray Estate, a remarkable turn-of-the-century example of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Detour again--up Drake Avenue to the bend in the Recreational Trail. The railroad tracks are gone, but a train-crossing sign marks the spot where Doc Ricketts was fatally injured when his car collided with the Del Monte Express 40 years ago.

The walking tour picks up again at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, circa 1985. No "Palace Flophouse" is this. Just beyond, however, the Aeneas Sardine Products building is a special treat for amateur historians.

Here is how it all used to look. This sardine factory was built in 1944, and the original overhead walkway still connects the "cannery" on the west side of the street to the "warehouse" on the east side. Now it is home to an antique store.

The northernmost end of the row is mostly parking lots and a chain of empty sites where canneries once stood.

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