September 21, 2007

The Successful Canning of the Invincible City

John Steinbeck is the reason most people have heard of Cannery Row, and Doc Rickett's ramshackle marine biology lab still stands there.

Some years ago the focus of the neighborhood was on fish restaurants and curio shops and dives left over from a previous generation's use of the space as the center of a thriving industrial fishing operation, centered on large structures extending out on wharves over the placid tidal waters of the bay on the north side of Cannery Row.

Over time Cannery Row had industriously used up all the nearby marine fishery, and eventually the previous purposes of the buildings there were abandoned to the next generation's uses.

The newer generation put up some newer buildings, but often enough just moved into something that was already standing there and made it over for its own reason. Before, the building might have been knee-deep in fish guts, and later the repository of insistent t-shirts and coffee mugs, but it wasn't replaced, just repurposed. The new uses for the place moved in to the neighborhood and took over what was there for the most part.

Now, though, with the coming of unending oodles of money poured into the Monterey Bay Aquarium by the generous whim of the Packard Family, the previous buildings themselves are being replaced to serve a newly conceived use for Cannery Row.

This is a sizable new mixed-use project literally spanning Cannery Row. It will house hundreds and hundreds of people when it's done, if the housing market doesn't totally implode in the meantime and drag its construction to a halt.

In recent years there's been so much money in home construction that the impulse to replace abandoned commercial buildings downtown with newly constructed blocks of mixed-use buildings has affected medium-sized cities all over the country. Downtown Tacoma has its own sizable inbuilding project in about the same stage of completion as this Cannery Row project.

When they grow up, people like living in humane urban environments, right there next to where all the real money is with all the civic conveniences right at hand. Often enough they're crowded out by all the other money-making uses an urban neighborhood can be put to, but still, people do like to live in the middle of a nice city, something that was never really arguable, but remained ignored for half a century all over America for the much better money to be had in building suburbs.

The life of a city is subject to its own tides, as examined by Carmilo Vergara at the Invincible Cities website, using photographs chronicling the fortunes of various building sites in Richmond, California, Camden, New Jersey, and New York (specifically Harlem), New York.

Cannery Row didn't languish derelict for a generation as some sites recorded in Invincible Cities have done, urban sites where human intervention seems for now to have exhausted itself among the abandoned detritus of previous use.

Instead, in time Cannery Row hit the jackpot when chosen as the site where the particulars of the shockingly generous bequest of the Packards were to be realized: the construction and maintenance of a magnificent sprawling aquarium dedicated to the deep, set at the end of Cannery Row over the waters of Monterey Bay.

Ed Ricketts was the acknowledged model for Doc in Steinbeck's famous novel. He operated Pacific Biological Laboratories at 800 Cannery Row from 1928 to 1948.

By sufferance of the enormous project next door the building at 800 Cannery Row where Ricketts did his marine biology still exists. Ricketts was a fellow using the rude tools available to marine biology in his time, with the same sort of affable impulses toward the sea as pronounced in its currently corporatized expression down at the end of the street in the enormous Monterey Bay Aquarium, where biological specimens of the deep are no longer simply held in jars or pails or cages or rows of tanks as in Rickett's time, but are now at the Aquarium made viewable to the public alive in spectacularly large tubs of replicated ocean placed all over the extensive wings of the place.

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