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«Salinas is a city with a storied past, a complex present, and a spirited determination to overcome intractable problems and the negative stereotypes ...»

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Salinas is a city with a storied past, a complex present, and a spirited determination to

overcome intractable problems and the negative stereotypes they have engendered. In a

community where almost one-third of the population is under 18, the future is very much up

for grabs.

Few places better

exemplify the adage that

geography is destiny.

Salinas, the Salad Bowl of

the World, anchors a valley

that produces most of the lettuce eaten in this country, along with dozens of other vegetables and fruits. The fertile land with its idyllic Mediterranean For more information, see Zocalo Public Square series, clime has influenced the “Salinas: California’s Richest Poor City.” economic, political, and social landscape of the valley for generations, enriching some and impoverishing others. The proximity to Silicon Valley, just an hour north, has become a two-edged sword, drawing residents to Salinas but also exacerbating an already-high cost of living. Last but not least, Salinas lies a scant 10 miles |1 “East of Eden,” as native son John Steinbeck described the coastal playground of the Monterey peninsula. This trifecta of geographic forces has shaped Salinas’s destiny in ways that transcend the economy, affecting demographics, culture, civic life, housing, and even philanthropy.

Salinas is separated from the Monterey peninsula by the Santa Lucia Mountains, but it is the metaphysical divide known as the “lettuce curtain” that forms a far more formidable barrier between the two worlds. It’s a social and cultural division; for some farmworker families, who never see the ocean, even a literal barrier. Conversely, there is little that draws the people and money on the other side over to Salinas; cornerstone institutions in Monterey have traditionally been reluctant to bridge the divide. The perception in Salinas is that the wealth and philanthropy of Monterey are more likely to be spent in far-off places than in nearby Salinas.

There is no shortage of needs closer to home. Like many agricultural regions, Salinas was a laboratory in income inequality long before the phrase became commonplace. The agricultural economy has depended on successive waves of immigrant farmworkers, in recent decades largely Mexican, and largely undocumented. That has fueled the transformation of Salinas from a predominantly white city that once boasted the highest per capita wealth in the country to an overwhelmingly Latino city with high poverty rates.

In recent years, Salinas has made national headlines for all the wrong reasons: Record-high homicide rates, low educational achievement, food contamination scares. Statistics support the bad press, but statistics tell only a fraction of the story. The reality is far more nuanced, and residents grow weary of defendingtheir city against oversimplified portrayals of a gang-infested agricultural wasteland. Gang-related crime and shootings are real, significant problems; but the relationship between the police department and residents, after years-long efforts to build coalitions, is far better than in many comparable cities. Educational levels lag far behind state norms; but there are innovative educational programs and first-rate students.

Poverty is endemic, but immigrant families are fiercely committed to education as a path to greater opportunity, and the number of first generation college students from Salinas continues to grow.

In many ways, Salinas is a mirror of California’s challenges — riven by income inequality, troubled by lack of economic opportunity and low levels of civic participation, hamstrung by the problems of any small city subject to state mandates but with limited authority to govern.

Salinas offers a laboratory for change, and many in the city are eager to seize that opportunity, though they often struggle to find the path. Salinas has a strong tradition of civic activism and organizing in the face of adversity — and a corps of committed residents who could live elsewhere yet choose to stay and help their city move forward.


Salinas was incorporated in 1874, soon after the Southern Pacific arrived, and became the Monterey County seat. By the end of the century, Claude Spreckels had built the country’s largest sugar mill, created what would become the model of a plantation town, and imported hundreds of Japanese workers to cultivate sugar beets. By 1920, lettuce had superseded beets

–  –  –

In 1963, the city annexed the Alisal, a large community on the east side of Salinas that had been home to Okies during the Dust Bowl and successive generations of struggling migrants. The annexation doubled the city’s size and ushered in decades of growth. By 1970, Salinas was a city of 59,000, occupying 23 square miles at the northern end of the 90-mile long Salinas Valley. The city grew more than 30 percent in population each decade through the end of the century. New upscale subdivisions to the north/northeast increased scarce housing stock and drew commuters from San Jose, where housing prices were already soaring. Revisiting his hometown in the 1960s, Steinbeck wrote: “I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk.” Growth since 2000 has slowed to low single digits. Today, about 156,000 people live in Salinas, making it the state’s 34th largest city. Throughout this century, the age distribution has remained relatively constant, and very young: A median age of less than 29, with almost one-third of the population under 18.

The city has been majority Hispanic for at least 25 years. The shift came officially in the 1990 census, when Hispanics topped 50 percent and whites were 38 percent, an exact transposition of the ratio from a decade earlier. The most recent surveys indicate more than three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic. The remainder of the city is primarily non-Hispanic white (15 percent), with 6 percent Asian and 2 percent black.

Thirty-seven percent of Salinas residents are foreign born (10 points higher than the state average), and almost 70 percent speak a language other than English at home (for the great majority, that language is Spanish). The percentage of foreign-born has been consistent since 2000, though the share speaking Spanish at home has increased. The overwhelming majority are Mexican nationals. Many recent immigrants in the Salinas Valley are indigenous, from southern Mexican states, creating additional linguistic challenges because they speak Mixtec, Triqui, and other indigenous languages, not Spanish.

By any measure, residents are struggling financially. Median household income is about 80 percent of the state average and declined slightly between 2010 and 2013. The average household is larger than the state norm, driving per capita income down even further. More than a fifth of the population lives below the poverty level.

Young people face particular hardship. In the most recent census survey, one out of four families with children under 18 reported falling below the poverty level in the past year. The Public Policy Institute of California estimated that Salinas and its surrounding communities in Monterey and San Benito Counties had the highest child poverty rate in California, more than 32 percent. In the Salinas City Elementary School District, 80 percent qualified for free lunch and one-third reported being homeless (with no permanent home) at some point in the past year.

–  –  –

While income distribution varies widely by neighborhood — with poverty rates as high as 40 percent in parts of East Salinas — statistics on educational attainment are fairly consistent across the city. Almost 40 percent of adults over 25 did not complete high school, twice the statewide average. Only 8.6 percent have bachelor’s degrees, half the statewide average. And only 3.8 percent have graduate degrees, compared to 11.2 percent statewide.

Downtown Salinas still boasts many of the Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings constructed in the 1930s. The city’s Historic Resources Board put out this guide — photos, map and walking tour — to notable buildings.

–  –  –

The Monterey Courthouse, now on the National Historic Register, was begun in 1936.


Salinas is one of several smaller cities in California that stand out for their youthful populations in a rapidly aging state. Perhaps no California city lavishes so much public attention on its own youth. Calls to better serve youth, give youth something to do, and keep youth safe are staples of civic conversation. Local governments churn out reports about youth safety and services.

The impact of all this conversation remains nebulous. Forbes recently offended the town by labeling it the “second least educated” city in the U.S., based on a Wallethub study that factored in educational attainment, doctors per capita, and local institutions. The methodology might be questionable, but the educational statistics are sobering.

–  –  –

The challenge for Salinas schools is to reverse this trend and become forces for upward mobility.

Educational Attainment of People in Salinas, California in 2009–2013 Source: American Community Survey Anecdotally, there are signs of progress, and residents are often most optimistic when discussing their public schools. Many area schools have embraced AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), the largest and most successful preparatory college program in the country. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs also have a strong presence. A new cadre of young teachers and principals, many of them recent college graduates who grew up in Salinas, has returned home and is replacing Baby Boomer generation teachers.

The numbers suggest they have their work cut out for them. In 2013, under the old Academic Performance Index, most Salinas-area schools failed to meet achievement goals, and some saw declines in their numbers. In the first year of testing under the new Common Core math and English standards, only three of the 55 public schools with Salinas mailing addresses met or exceeded the state’s already low averages.

Graduation rates look healthy at the high schools — 92.6 percent at Alvarez, 89.5 percent at North Salinas, 92.3 percent at Alisal, 81.4 percent at Salinas High School — and the dropout rate is low at 7.4 percent. But those numbers may be deceptively high because dropout risks are transferred to a remediation school, which has a graduation rate of 64 percent. And Salinas high schools need to produce far more graduates who are ready for college. In the most recent |6 statistics, only 31.5 percent of graduates met requirements for UC or CSU (the state average is 41.9 percent).

Higher education institutions in and around Salinas are making innovative efforts to improve outcomes. Hartnell College in Salinas is the top community college in the state at transferring underrepresented minority students to the University of California, according to the UC’s own numbers, released this spring. Hartnell has won national honors, most recently from the White House for several programs deemed “Bright Spots in Hispanic Education.” Hartnell runs a NASA-funded Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy — the only one in California — that offers afterschool and summer workshops for K–12 students, to inspire more minorities to enter STEM fields.

California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), on the Fort Ord property less than a 10-minute drive from Salinas, has been encouraging more children in Salinas to prepare and apply for college. The university helped organize a Bright Futures initiative, which includes local education, social service, business and philanthropic groups, to focus on improvements in elementary school and even in early childhood. A “University Promise” program brings local sixth graders to campus to meet students and staff; the university promises to save a spot for students and to arrange financial aid when they reach college age, and the students promise to complete high school and meet other requirements.

The university, which is completing a deal to acquire the National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas, intends to make that a facility for degree completion programs.


In a recent commentary, Katharine Ball, an editor at the Salinas Californian (which just cut back to printing the paper three days a week), compared the region’s economy to an open-faced triple-layer sandwich: A very thin layer of extreme wealth on top, another thin layer of fragile middle class under that, all balanced on a thick third layer of working poor who support the region’s twin economic pillars, agriculture and tourism.

Agriculture, historically an economic, political, and philanthropic engine for the region, remains the largest sector of the economy, employing one-fifth of the approximately 62,700 Salinas adults who reported working in the most recent census surveys. The percentage working in agriculture has increased in the last decade, and even that number is probably artificially low;

the number of farmworkers is almost impossible to assess accurately because of undocumented status, language barriers, seasonal work patterns, immigration, and the difficulty of surveying workers.

The value of crops grown in Monterey County reached a record $4.5 billion in 2014, a

6.5 percent increase over the record-breaking numbers of the prior year. Lettuce and strawberries regularly vie for the most-valuable crop; last year lettuce came in first at $775 million, passing strawberries at $710 million. Lemons, cabbage, kale and parsley were among the 26 other crops that exceeded $10 million in value.

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