Once heralded by John Steinbeck, the Chinatown in Salinas, Calif., has seen better days. Only a handful of historic buildings remain in the neighborhood, founded in 1893.
“It’s like the Tenderloin area of Salinas,” says Wellington Lee, who grew up in the city’s Chinatown, once home to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants. Many of the neighborhood’s buildings were demolished in the 1950s, victims of urban renewal projects, and empty lots still dot the area today. “There are only about four or five buildings [left], and some are closed up because they need a retrofit. It’s small now. When I was a little kid it was bustling; it was thriving.
One of the last historic buildings in Chinatown, the 1940s Old Republic Café, has been stabilized thanks to a $250,000 grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lee, chair of the Asian Cultural Experience (ACE), says: “The building is quite intact. It’s still in good shape, but it still needs renovations so it can be opened as the Salinas Valley Cultural Center and Museum.” The project is a clear statement to the ethnic community that the community wants to honor and celebrate the significance of the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Latinos in developing the economic agricultural vibrancy of the Valley.
The Republic Cafe opens out to Soledad Street, once a bustling main thoroughfare, but now a one-way street barely frequented by autos or pedestrians. From the back of the building, the cafe opens out to a small alley. The cafe was one of the last active businesses in the Chinatown area prior to its closing in 1988. The Republic Cafe still contains much of its historic fabric and has gone through an extensive enviromental remediation that included a new roof
The site has been dedicated to housing the Salinas Valley Cultural Center and Historic Museum. The plan is to refurbish the space to its original state while providing flexibility to accommodate community gatherings and celebrations. Much of the physical infrastructure of the interior remains intact from its period of significance.