The history of Salinas’ Chinatown neighborhood is incredibly rich and this does not aim to tell the full story. Instead, a quick historical summary and key events relevant to the Project are provided for context.
Starting in the late 19th Century, the neighborhood was home to a flourishing community of Chinese agricultural workers and immigrants with many Chinese families living on Soledad Street. The Chinese were not allowed to own property and faced restrictions about where they could live due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, 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 After the act was repealed in 1943, many took advantage of the opportunity to move elsewhere, but the area remained under Chinese cultural influence.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 up to the present…), 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 have filled the void – all within plain view of people driving by on East Market Street.