«Salinas is a city with a storied past, a complex present, and a spirited determination to overcome intractable problems and the negative stereotypes ...»
|7 For farmworkers, the equation is a little different. The median income for Salinas residents working in agriculture in 2013 was $16,577. There have been indications recently that a tighter border and an improving economy both here and in Mexico are creating labor shortages in the fields, which may push wages higher. Even then, the seasonal nature of farm work (and a system that relies on labor contractors who function as middle-men) helps explain why incomes remain so low. In the most recent data, fewer than half of employed Salinas residents reported working year-round. Almost a quarter said they worked fewer than 40 weeks a year.
The tourism industry on the peninsula, which also relies on workers from Salinas, was a $2.3 billion annual business in 2013 that employed 22,000 people full-time. But much of the work is part-time, seasonal, and outside Salinas. Of Monterey County’s 252 lodging properties, 210 are outside Salinas and more than 9,500 of the 12,000 hotel rooms are on the peninsula.
Three other major sectors of the economy are education/health care jobs (18 percent of the work force), government (15 percent), and retail (11 percent). Public administration jobs and health care, a growing sector, pay some of the highest median wages. Incomes remain relatively low, however, because many in the professional class who work in Salinas choose to live outside the city. Single-family home communities, hidden from the road and sometimes behind walls, have grown so fast along California Highway 68, the road to Monterey, that the Californian publishes a features section called “Off 68.”
Commuting to work poses challenges for the working poor, too. Farmworkers rely on “raiteros,” their own long-standing form of Uber. Fewer than 1 percent of workers in Salinas commute by public transit (compared to 5.2 percent statewide), reflecting a system that offers largely inefficient options. To reach the hospital from East Salinas requires two transfers and takes so long that people walk the two miles; mothers pushing strollers along the uphill street that leads to the hospital are a common sight. To travel from downtown Salinas to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, less than 20 miles, takes an hour and 15 minutes. Connections to the Bay Area are also limited; Caltrain, the Bay Area commuter line, has so far refused to extend lines further south than Gilroy, 27 miles north of Salinas.
Extending the rail line has been one of the keystones of the city’s economic development plan, which also calls for a Steinbeck Innovation Cluster that would help the city leverage its dominance in agriculture to become a leader in “Ag Tech.” The program envisions partnerships between entrepreneurial training and existing tech programs for youth, producing start-ups that would apply cutting-edge technology in the fields and factories.
Some area employers voice frustration at the difficulty in filling more skilled jobs with local workers. There are small-scale efforts to correct the historic mismatch between employer needs and education/training of the work force, and to groom candidates for higher-paying jobs in technology. One of the most innovative projects is a recent collaboration between Hartnell College and CSUMB. The colleges’ joint venture, called CSIT-in-3, enrolled its first class two years ago in an intensive program through which Hartnell students can earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science in three years. Of the 94 students currently in the program, more than 40 percent are women, more than 80 percent are Latino, and 80 percent are first generation college students.
|9 The pilot program illustrates another cornerstone of Salinas: Major philanthropic efforts have generally been funded by growers. In this case, the Matsui Foundation, which had provided $500 million in scholarships for farmworkers’ children since 2004, chose to fund the more targeted, long-term effort embodied in CSIT-in-3. The foundation, established by Matsui Nurseries, one of the largest orchid growers in the country, provides scholarships of up to $30,000 to each student in CSIT-in-3. (You can read more about CSIT in the sidebar, “Out of the Fields, Into Academia” later in this report).
QUALITY OF LIFE, HOUSINGSalinas offers tranquil landscapes and some of the state’s most beautiful weather, but finding places to enjoy the outdoors often requires leaving the city. Surrounded by majestic public spaces, Salinas has one of the lowest ratios of parkland per resident in California — less than 3 acres per 1,000 residents, compared to more than 16 acres per 1,000 in nearby San Jose. A years-long effort to turn the drained lakebed known as Carr Lake into a signature, 500-acre park has widespread popular and government support (in part because it also would collect storm water, recharge groundwater, and improve water quality in Monterey Bay). But Salinas has been unable to acquire the land from the families who farm it.
Other ambitious efforts to increase civic arts and recreational opportunities have similarly faltered financially, a combination of management failures and lack of public support. The city built a swimming pool complex — but ended up turning it over to a private club. A public golf course was transferred to a nonprofit. A performing arts center is now occupied by a charter school. In the most high profile saga, the National Steinbeck Center has been at the center of a long-running civic drama, fighting to stay open. Established initially, and supported throughout the years, with grants from the agricultural community, the center was never able to become financially solvent or repay a redevelopment loan. It failed to meet unrealistic projections for attendance, fell into debt and foreclosure, and is now being taken over by California State University Monterey Bay.
The premium on land, which makes parks and recreation difficult, has even more dire consequences for housing.
Its geography renders Salinas one of the most difficult places to find an affordable place to live, and the situation has been worsening in and around the city. The percentage of homes in Monterey County that are affordable, relative to residents’ median household income, declined from nearly 50 percent in 2011 to 27 percent at the end of last year. Salinas has seen the sharpest increases in housing prices in the county — even as incomes remained stagnant.
The majority of people in Salinas rent (57 percent), and they face an even worse situation:
Various indexes place Salinas among the least affordable cities in the United States. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Salinas last year was more than in the cities of Seattle or Miami, and the average renter in Salinas would need to work nearly two full-time jobs to afford the average rent. The result: It is routine in Salinas to see multiple families | 10 sharing apartments or homes. More than 10 percent of the population lives in homes with seven or more people.
This squeeze is most evident in East Salinas, which has more than 11,000 residents per square mile; Salinas as a whole has a population density of a little under 7,000 per square mile, the same as the city of Los Angeles. Conditions of rental housing are often poor. Farmworker housing is particularly scarce, and conditions in labor camps across the Salinas Valley are reminiscent of Steinbeck’s vivid descriptions.
Lately, developers and others have tried to carve out spaces to make Salinas living a little more pleasant. One of the best-covered stories in town has been a year-long bid to create a small park with a basketball court in Acosta Plaza, a 305-condominium development. Constructed in the 1970s, Acosta Plaza has become rental apartments for low-wage workers and developed a reputation as one of the toughest neighborhoods in Salinas.
Young people from inside and outside the neighborhood organized a group called Youth for Change, interviewed residents about their needs, and then organized around creating the community space. They also helped clean up Acosta Plaza, did pre-construction work for the new park, and raised nearly $100,000. More than a year after their efforts launched, the project has won approvals, but hasn’t been built. Youth for Change plans to push for a larger community center as its next project. (You can see Rocio Martinez, one of the high school students in Youth for Change, discuss this organizing work in this video.) | 11 CRIME Despite years of efforts — everything from granny brigades to military intervention — high crime rates continue to pose a problem for Salinas, both in reality, and in perception.
Here again geography plays a key role. Salinas is a crossroads where north meets south — for Californians and especially for gang members. Northern gangs, in particular Nuestra Familia, which has been headquartered there, have battled over Salinas with Southern California gangs, chiefly the Mexican Mafia.
There are perhaps 3,000 gang members in the city of 156,000 — in part because of the high number of disconnected youth. In East Salinas, many young people are left alone while parents work in the fields for long hours or work multiple jobs to meet the high cost of living. Too few students qualify for college financial aid, and many see a future with few options other than service work, the fields, or gangs.
Salinas has tried almost everything — task forces, special units, gang summits, cease-fires, pray-ins, even military veterans using counter-insurgency theories. The city was the first in California to develop and refine a violence prevention plan and has built a coalition among more than 60 local institutions — from government agencies to neighborhood associations — to collaborate on reducing violence. Violent crime and many youth violence statistics have declined in the past few years, yet homicide remains high.
Almost all the homicide victims are Latinos, most quite young; sometimes children are killed in crossfire or from stray bullets. The youth homicide rate per 100,000 residents has been the highest among California cities for three of the last four years. The shooting death of a high school football star in early September was the 22nd homicide in 2015, putting the city on pace to break its record number of 29 in 2009. Such figures give the city a homicide rate more than twice that of Los Angeles. Small neighboring cities in the Salinas Valley, like King City and Greenfield, are even more violent on a per capita basis.
Salinas’ police department is badly understaffed, and consistently reports officer-per-resident ratios well below national averages. Police Chief Kelly McMillin recently disbanded special units, including those devoted to gangs, because the department did not have enough officers to patrol and conduct investigations. McMillin told the Washington Post last year that, on average, 11 cops patrolled the city during day shifts and total staff dipped to 130 sworn officers.
Simply finding police officers has been a challenge, in part because of the high cost of housing and more attractive jobs in nearby departments. “The pool of qualified police applicants out there is utterly dismal. We’re struggling to find good cops of any race,” McMillin said last year.
“We’ve lost 25 percent of our sworn staff since the recession, in a department that was desperately understaffed at our highest, facing a community plagued by violence.” The city has had to suspend promising programs not for lack of funds, but lack of officers.
A successful grant-funded collaboration in the Hebbron Heights section of East Salinas between two Salinas police officers, community leaders, school counselors, the families of young gang | 12 members, and professionals with the safety alliance CASP was shut down because of a lack of police manpower.
Coverage of crime in the local media exacerbates perception problems. A recent study of TV news in Salinas, which has two network-affiliated stations, found that more than 46 percent of news stories were crime-related, with gang violence featured daily. Latinos were overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims, and TV news often asked the audience to take an active role in “catching criminals,” with segments like “Manhunt Mondays,” according to the study by American University professor Carolyn Brown, a documentary filmmaker.
Almost everyone is touched by the problem, in some ways more by the perception than the reality. Though the vast majority of young people are not involved in gangs, the reputation of Salinas youth as “gangsters” has repercussions even for the most successful. Arismel Tena, a Salinas High graduate now attending UC Berkeley, wrote recently that she often saw classmates who got in trouble written off. “The ‘gangster’ label carries a stigma, and, as a kid in Salinas, you can see and feel that judgment as a rationale for not investing in you.”
HEALTHIn some ways, health is a bright spot in Salinas. The last major assessment of community health, released by Monterey County in 2013, found some good news: decreased smoking rates, big declines in deaths from stroke and heart disease, and decreased overall mortality rates from diabetes. But the assessment also found large health disparities between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites in cancer screening, teen pregnancy rates, diabetes mortality and obesity.
Childhood obesity, a focus of national attention, is particularly acute in Salinas, an irony in a region that produces such an abundance of healthy vegetables and fruits. Salinas had a 47 percent childhood obesity rate in a study of fifth, seventh, and ninth graders — almost three times the rate in a recent study that estimated 16 percent of California adolescents were obese.
The highest-profile health issue in Salinas recently involves the potential impact of pesticides on schoolchildren. A state report released in 2014 showed that Monterey County had the highest percentage of schools in the state within a quarter mile of places where pesticides are used in high concentrations — 137 schools in the county, many in Salinas.
Parents and teachers have organized protests (sometimes wearing gas masks), demanding the release and collection of more data on the problem. The controversy has prompted action to establish stronger buffer zones around schools where pesticides could not be used.