The history of Salinas’ Chinatown neighborhood is incredibly rich, and these words do not claim to tell the full story. Instead, this is a quick historical summary with key events provided for context.
Starting in the late 19th Century, Salinas Chinatown was home to a flourishing community of Chinese agricultural workers and immigrants with many Chinese families living on Soledad Street. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, they were not allowed to own property and faced restrictions about where they could live, so the neighborhood remained their home for decades. After the act was repealed in 1943, many took advantage of the opportunity to move elsewhere, but the area remained under Chinese cultural influence.
During Chinatown’s heyday, mixed-use structures featuring residential over retail were common and the Confucius Church was built, which still serves the Chinese community throughout the Salinas Valley. According to residents from the time, it was a thriving community up through the mid-1950s.
Japanese immigrants also called the neighborhood home, arriving shortly after the Chinese, and living primarily around Lake Street. The Salinas Buddhist Temple, established in 1924, was a centerpiece of the Japanese Community and remains very active today. Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese faced considerable discrimination, especially during World War II when all Japanese were detained in internment camps. After their release, discrimination continued and they were unable to find property in other parts of Salinas, so they continued to make the most of Chinatown. The neighborhood featured restaurants, barber shops, a tofu shop and more. As a second generation grew up, opportunities to move increased and many left. Elders remember the area as vibrant through the 1970s.
Filipino immigrants also located in the area after the Japanese and the diverse cultural influence continued, but by the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood had become well known for its bars, bordellos and gambling houses, which drew many of the 40,000 soldiers at nearby Fort Ord until it closed in the early 1990s.
By the 1980s (and especially after highway and railroad infrastructure projects created physical barriers that isolated the neighborhood from downtown Salinas), Chinatown had become a magnet for drug dealing and prostitution. The gambling houses, restaurants and bordellos are now gone, replaced by vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and boarded up windows. Where many families once worked and thrived, now drug trafficking, illegal dumping, and the homeless filled the void – all within plain view of people driving by on East Market Street. During the last two years, there have been positive changes in Chinatown. But we need the support of all our partners and the City of Salinas in this endeavor. Revitalization of Salinas Chinatown is a key aspect of this project. Infrastructure improvements are needed the will help turn the neighborhood into a safe and thriving environment for everyone.
“Chinatown has unmatched potential for attracting new and desired investment due to its centralized location within the City and its adjacency to Downtown and the Intermodal Transportation Center. To capitalize on Chinatown’s strategic location, major infrastructure improvements must occur . . . The Plan recognizes historic Soledad Street as the center of Chinatown and includes goals and policies to reinforce the existing mixed-use zoning and preservation and reuse of some of the most important historic structures. It is recommended that the mixed-use zoning is coupled with an Arts Overlay District to facilitate diverse uses.” — Salinas Chinatown Revitalization Plan 2019. salinas_chinatown_plan_public_comment_draft.pdf (cityofsalinas.org)