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It's Been a Bumper Crop of Bad News for Salinas

Anxiety stalks Steinbeck country as residents cope with tainted spinach, pricey housing and an exodus of jobs.

October 12, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS, Calif. — Bad news can blanket this agricultural city like the fog wafting in off the coast.

Two years ago, Salinas was so broke it nearly had to shut its libraries for good.

Last month came the spinach scare, paralyzing farmers and pickers, packers and shippers as news spread of three E. coli deaths and nearly 200 reported illnesses in 26 states.

In between, companies decided to uproot from the Salinas Valley, taking 2,000 jobs with them.

On top of all that, Salinas took first place on an unenviable national list as the least affordable place of its size, with the greatest gap between what residents make and what they need to buy a home.

"We're used to crises here," Mayor Anna Caballero said. "You get accustomed to these situations popping up every couple of years."

There's some good news too, Caballero pointed out.

Several local employers have added jobs. Plans are afoot for a long-stalled hotel project downtown. And, most important, the Food and Drug Administration lifted the ban on nearly all spinach grown in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

Even so, anxiety lingers. Last week, FBI agents swarmed through two packinghouses to see whether mandated safety procedures had been followed. For nearly a month, investigators have tramped through fields, sampling soil, water and manure to find the source of contamination in spinach distributed by Natural Selection Foods, a grower based in San Juan Bautista, 20 miles north.

This week, the city's angst level jumped again when a local grower voluntarily recalled 8,200 cartons of lettuce that may have been irrigated with contaminated water.

In the tiny town of Chualar just south of Salinas, Pedro Martinez, the manager of a neighborhood grocery, bluntly expressed local fears.

"If this spreads to other crops, it's over," said Martinez as a truck laden with red peppers idled outside. "We're toast."

The largest city in Monterey County, Salinas is a commercial hub for the entire valley and makes its living off agriculture. If the valley's reputation is tarnished, some residents fear more hard times for the city.

"We've worked hard in the last couple of years to pick ourselves up as a community," said City Councilwoman Maria Giuriato, who is running for mayor. "To now be hit by the impact of E. coli -- well, it's a huge concern."

Civic leaders are calling for an immediate remarketing of the "Salad Bowl of the World."

At a recent news conference, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) wanted to illustrate the safety of spinach by eating a bowlful, but frustrated aides couldn't find any at local stores. Earlier, he had urged constituents to "go Popeye" to support the local economy.

Salinas residents, meanwhile, continue to deal with problems that beset the city long before spinach became a punch line on late-night TV.

Real estate broker Rafael Ramos advertises in Spanish that he can "open the door to your dreams."

But only 3.5% of the city's households can afford the median-priced $610,000 home, according to a survey conducted by Wells Fargo Bank and the National Assn. of Home Builders. That makes Salinas the least affordable city of less than 500,000 in the United States (The least affordable large city is Los Angeles, where just 1.9% of the households can afford to buy.)

Most of the pricey homes are purchased by a shrinking pool of agribusiness managers, corrections officials from nearby prisons and even workers from the Silicon Valley, more than an hour away.

But about 30% of the homes sold by Ramos go to two or even three families cramming in together. "They just can't make it here," said Ramos, a native of Mexico who used to work in the lettuce fields and peddle CDs at flea markets.

With a population of 155,000, Salinas anchors one side of what locals call the "lettuce curtain" -- separating lush, world-class coastal resorts such as Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach from the grittier farm communities inland.

It's also a political divide that, according to some critics, prevents the construction of desperately needed housing.

Tom Carvey, head of a pro-growth group called Common Ground, says Salinas, which is 70% Latino, has been hemmed in by county land-use policies advocated by the wealthier, predominantly white residents of the Monterey peninsula.

"Monterey County politics has been controlled for decades by the people on the peninsula," he said. "Many more people there vote, and many more are registered than in the Salinas Valley, with all its recent immigrants."

On the other side of the debate, Chris Fitz seethes over accusations of elitism, contending that they come from development interests that seek to build homes well out of the reach of most county residents.

"They're playing the race card instead of dealing with the complex issues," said Fitz, head of a group called LandWatch, which forged Latinos into a coalition that demanded as much as 35% of new development be set aside for affordable housing.

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