A man climbs over a fence bordering the railroad tracks that separate Chinatown from the rest of downtown Salinas. It's a common route for many Chinatown residents since accessible walking routes in and out of the neighborhood are scarce. (Sarah Craig/KQED)
With surprise and intrigue in his voice, local tour guide Wellington Lee describes the murder plot that targeted his grandfather in Salinas' Chinatown in April 1912.
"They shot up the whole place. It ended up where four men were killed and four were arrested and they sent the guilty to San Quentin," he says.
Lee is standing in front of the spot where the failed assassination took place -- his former home. The violence, he says, stemmed from a rivalry between Chinese tongs, a type of association comparable to the Italian Mafia.
Fast forward from the early 1900s to the 1940s and '50s, when Lee grew up in Chinatown. At that point, the tongs were still running the place. They were in charge of the gambling halls and brothels that were the center of adult entertainment for the surrounding soldiers and fieldworkers.
Can Salinas' Chinatown Design Its Way Out of Violence?
"The weekends were jumping,” Lee says as he walks down Soledad Street, the main thoroughfare. "This is where everyone came for all the vices, prostitution, whatever. I was just a kid growing up, smelling all this perfume. And then the music blaring from all the bars. It’s nothing like that anymore."
The Chinatown of today is unrecognizable, compared with the Chinatown that Lee and his grandfather knew. The tongs have been replaced by gangs, and the violence and chaos that comes with them.
All the bars that Lee once frequented to watch TV as a kid have either been torn down or shuttered up. And Lee’s home, where the shootings took place in 1912, was demolished. In its stead is an empty lot, covered in weeds.
"It was part of the urban renewal plan," Lee says. "They asked people to move. We had to have someone tear our home down because we couldn’t keep up with the repairs."
That happened in 1961. In the '70s, Lee saw Chinatown go downhill. That's when the streets around the community were widened to make it faster for cars to get to the highway. And that meant that all the streets going from Chinatown into downtown Salinas -- across the railroad tracks -- were cut off.
Lee thinks the design was planned to keep all the vices contained in the small five-block neighborhood. The result -- whether intentional or not -- isolated the area. And this isolation made the vices of Chinatown worse.
Longtime homeless residents Jimmy Rice and Diana West noticed the change.
"This used to be a really nice place to come,” Rice says. “But all the drugs moved in and the businesses were shut down because of drugs.”
Along with drugs, the area also saw an increase in prostitution. It got so bad that the city changed all the streets to be one way and to point in the same direction. The reasoning was that it would discourage traffic, but Rice and West see it differently.
"All these one-way streets didn't deter nothing,” says Rice.
West agrees. "It didn’t deter nothing. If you were coming in, you knew what you were coming in for -- either for drugs, prostitution or to get high."
But for the first time in over 30 years the homeless couple has lived there, the design of those streets could change. That’s because the city of Salinas is trying to plan its way out of the dilemma.
Pretty much everyone is on board to get rid of the one-way streets, put in a pedestrian railroad crossing and make Chinatown more walkable.
Seth Pollack, a professor of service learning at CSU Monterey Bay, believes in this power of design.
With simple design changes, Pollack says, “You’re going to have energy, you’re going to have people exchanging, you’re going to have new business, you’re going to have people come to Chinatown for something other than prostitution, drugs and alcohol. Wouldn’t it be nice to come to Chinatown for some Chinese food? Or for good food in general? Or to see some art?"
Just as when we cut off air flow or circulation -- whether it’s a part of your body or a city -- decay happens. But Pollack says it’s not just the built environment that will change Chinatown. He sees it as a first step for changing our mental environment and demystifying the "other" -- the "other" being the huge homeless population that currently resides there.
For Jose Arreola, director of the city’s Community Safety Division, it’s less about demystifying the other than it is about moving the other to a different location. Or moving the activities that go on -- mainly using and dealing drugs -- elsewhere.
"Those drugs are gonna get sold, that’s a huge business. The demand for it is not going to go away, so they will get sold someplace else," he says. "What we will get rid of, it looks like, is the concentration of those problems in one area."
Whether this concentration is good or bad depends on who you talk to. And the next step in the planning process is to talk to all of the stakeholders in the area -- homeless organizations, the Asian community, surrounding businesses, etc. This input has already been collected twice before -- in 2007 and 2010 -- during previous Chinatown revitalization plans. But they failed because the funding fell through.
To discourage those who come to Chinatown to deal the daily fix, the city will have to wait over a year for the plan to be completed. Then it is looking at an estimated price tag -- taken from the 2010 plan -- of $30 million to $50 million to implement it. But maybe, this time around, the third plan’s a charm.