Thursday, November 24, 2005
The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots and homeless camps of Soledad Street sit right in the heart of Salinas, in the old Chinatown area, just blocks from the Steinbeck Center, the new Maya Cinemas, and Oldtown’s shops and restaurants. But Soledad Street is its own world.
Amid the poverty and squalor is Dorothy’s Place, a soup kitchen run by the Franciscan Workers which serves breakfast and lunch to hundreds of poor and homeless people every day. That good work is not enough, says Robert Smith, who helped start Dorothy’s 23 years ago. “We have to liberate folks,” he says. “I tell everyone that our goal is to go out of business.
“It’s humiliating to stand in a free community food line. We do our best to pretend as if this is a normal restaurant, and just pretend that we’re not a last stop for folks. But still everyone knows that Soledad Street is where the buck stops in Salinas. There are so little resources given to the very marginalized of our community.”
Smith is hopeful that a new, $600,000 federal grant will be the seed that grows economic revitalization on Soledad Street.
“Hopelessness breeds more hopelessness, and if people don’t have the real possibilities of home and work…” Smith’s voice trails. “This grant will unquestionably be a significant step in the right direction, a step into possibilities.”
CSU Monterey Bay got the three-year, $600,000 US Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to revitalize Soledad Street last week. The University’s service learning students have volunteered at Dorothy’s for the last 10 years, ever since the University’s unique service learning program started. Last spring, CSUMB partnered with the Franciscan workers to spearhead a series of planning meetings with Salinas city officials, representatives from the Salinas Buddhist Temple located in the neighborhood, and others. At the meetings, Smith presented his vision for a new Soledad Street, which would include a cultural center, housing, restaurants and other businesses, a senior center and a teen center, a community garden and a courtyard.
There were doubters. But everyone involved knew that it would take money to make the dream a reality.
Enter the HUD grant.
The federal money will be used to facilitate community planning for the redevelopment of the area. This will include the creation of a Downtown Community Board made up of government agencies, business leaders, social service providers and neighbors. Their work will begin with a four-day, “Community Planning Charrette” in which plans will be made and timelines set.
CSUMB will use the grant to set up a community center, which will house a job-training program, and to build a 40,000-square foot garden on city-owned land at the corner of Soledad and Lake streets. Homeless people will also be employed at the community garden.
At the end of the three-year period, University officials will present the bigger redevelopment plan to the Salinas City Council.
“In the community center, we hope to be able to create a scale model,” says Dr. Seth Pollack, the director of CSUMB’s Service Learning Institute. “We’ll be able to build different configurations that would identify the mixed-use possibilities and architectural themes, patterns of housing and density, various multi-use centers and open space. Ultimately we will have a design concept for the whole neighborhood, a master plan we could present to the Salinas City Council for their approval.
“And by that time, the community garden should be a really active, vibrant piece of the community, and we should have generated a lot of training through the job program.”
The first task at hand is to find a space on or near Soledad Street where the University can set up shop, establish the community center and hire a part-time coordinator.
Early next year, Pollack says, business and service-learning students will begin researching each of the three components—the community planning process, the garden and the job training—to determine what has and hasn’t worked in other cities.
“They will be doing market studies for possible products that will be grown in the garden, looking at different models of job training centers and other examples of transitional employment programs.”
Groundbreaking on the community garden will start in the spring, and the planning charrettes will follow.
Doug Iwamoto, a member of the Buddhist Temple, says the aspect of the grant that really interests him is the “charrette,” the planning part. “Because from there,” Iwamoto says, “we can try to set in motion what everybody wants for the area. There’s a wish list of what people want, and then there’s the reality checklist of what everybody can afford.”
Historically, relations have been somewhat tense between the Buddhist Temple and Dorothy’s Place. In 1996, the soup kitchen opened in a building owned by a nonprofit called Wheel of Hope, made up of Franciscan Workers and Buddhist Temple members. The building was never intended to be a permanent home. However, there weren’t any other communities eager to welcome Dorothy’s, and the hundreds of poor and homeless folks they’d be bringing along. And so Dorothy’s Kitchen stayed, and some churchmembers complained.
Ultimately, however, the Temple agreed to continue leasing to the Franciscans, and is now participating in plans for the future.
When asked about his own wish list, Iwamoto says, “I want to see the area change. As a church member, I’m getting tired of the drug dealing, the prostitution, and the blight of the area. What I would like to see is to have a safe area, 24-seven.”
When asked what it will take to make the area safe, Iwamoto replies immediately: “Money. Money and planning.”
CSUMB and the Franciscan Workers are applying for additional grants to ensure both money and planning continue.
“Few things are more exciting than initiating a process that will change lives and will change the neighborhood,” Smith says. “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be great.”
When Smith speaks of the future, his faith sounds strong enough to dispel doubt. “I see, in 10 years, virtually a completed process of redevelopment and renovation. I am convinced that services for the very poor in our community can be integrated in a very positive way, almost in an invisible way in a thriving community. I envision little cottage industries, little businesses—restaurants, grocery stores, shoe stores—little businesses that support a neighborhood. And housing: people need to live here. People need to have a sense of place.”