Trapped in Paradise...
In search of the Great Depression
Great Depression... the sequel? You would not know that there was anything wrong with the economy at all here in beautiful Monterey Bay, California where I am fortunate to live now—at least not on the
surface. While much of the nation shivered in the grip of an icy cold snap, with temperatures well below zero in some areas, California was basking in a stretch of gloriously warm and balmy weather in January. For
the last ten days the skies have been clear with temperatures between 68 and 74—brisk winter weather, eh? And in this little slice of paradise, people were out in droves enjoying walks along the well
maintained coastal recreation trail here, a meandering path that wanders beneath cypress groves along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
The trail was busy today, with bike riders, carriage riders, joggers, and hikers soaking up the clean air and sunshine. An aspiring artist was quietly applying oil to
canvas from one little coastal outcropping. People sat on the viewpoint benches scattered at intervals along the trail, deep in conversation or just in silent contemplation. The aquamarine blue of the bay sent
gentle swells of surf to break on the amazing granite rock formations along the coast, and people found their way down to little sandy inlets to commune with seagulls, terns, pelicans, sea lions, and seals basking
on the rocks. Sailboats plied the tranquil waters of the bay, with kayakers, surfers, and undersea divers closer in to the shore. Overhead, one of the world’s last three remaining zeppelins (not
“blimps”) was gliding through the clear blue skies on a sightseeing tour that cost many hundreds of dollars. Fresh air is free, but the tours seemed to be doing a brisk business, by air and sea.
Excursion boats also leave the harbor every few hours to take people out onto the bay.
Monterey itself, and neighboring Pacific Grove, are small towns that date back to the earliest days of California.
Monterey was the original state capitol, and has beauty, history, and a quaint charm that has made it a big tourist Mecca for decades. Steinbeck made the place a hang-out for artists and writers, and it seems there
is an art gallery every few blocks in the business district, particularly down on “Cannery Row” where the old fish cannery has now become a tourist haven. The peninsula is also home to Carmel, a small
wealthy community with some of the most beautiful white sand beaches I have ever seen. And thirty minutes further south lies Point Lobos and Big Sur, places long known as the greatest meeting of sea, sky, and earth
in all the world.
I went out with my camera this weekend to check in on the Great Depression, thinking that the hard economic times would thin tourist traffic out in the shopping districts, but found
hundreds of people enjoying a similar day on the town. Time out doors is a tonic for the heart, mind, and soul in a place like this. And with the fabulous weather, it seemed the entire population of some 35,000
people on the peninsula were out and about this weekend, many of them thronging amid the boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and gift shops of the famous “Cannery Row.” The Monterey Aquarium seemed to be
well attended on Saturday, and people were walking along the promenade beneath the quaint flyover walkways above the streets, snapping pictures of everything along the way, as I was. The heavy pedestrian traffic
slowed vehicles to a crawl, and I watched what seemed like an endless procession of Toyotas, Hondas, and yes, even American made SUVs still at large, but looking like elephantine monsters amid the sleek lines of
late model Civics and the ubiquitous Toyota Prius Hybrid that everyone loves to drive out here.
So where was this Great Depression? In cities like Cleveland and Detroit, foreclosures and evictions have
gutted whole neighborhoods. Squatters have invaded vacant property and banks hire security guards to patrol more valuable homes in foreclosure . Unemployment has topped 9.3%, and the suffering is everywhere
apparent, but not here. Where was all the bad news I’ve been reading and writing about for months on end? California is supposed to be in the throes of a major budget crisis. The state is so strapped for cash
that it is freezing new hires, laying off scores of workers, delaying state tax refunds, and issuing IOUs instead of cashable checks to vendors and suppliers in many service areas. Arnold Schwarzenegger, aka
“The Governator” as locals call him, has been stomping about the state with his thick German drawl and bemoaning the $46 billion shortfall in the budget. The 8th largest economy on earth, all by itself,
California has been one of the hardest hit states in the nation during this severe economic downturn. Unemployment is officially at 8.3% here, and unofficially much higher.
Real estate, ballooned up with wild speculation during the housing boom, has come plummeting down with a vengeance. Monterey County leads the state with a whopping 65%
decline in housing values in most communities… except snooty Carmel, where the wealthy elite seem to have made some agreement that their homes will simply not depreciate during this housing crisis. With a median home value of $1,600,000 in 2007, take a look at what’s for sale in the city today. The 56 homes for sale in Carmel-by-the-sea this month have an average price of $2,001,241. The average home is 1,810 square feet, has 2.6 bedrooms, and 2.5 bathrooms, and it was built in 1971! It’s a steep price of entry that has made the place a haven for the wealthy and the privileged. Nobody gets in to see the Wizard in this little town, unless they have a pair of real golden slippers. No Great Depression here, I thought. I would have to look elsewhere.
And elsewhere on the peninsula, homes have indeed lost much of their value. In Monterey, for example, there were twice as many homes foreclosed as there were sales last year. That’s a pretty dire statistic. Neighboring Pacific Grove there were about 40 foreclosures currently pending as of this writing. Plummeting housing prices have ended real estate careers here, and also constricted the tax base these small communities rely on. Paradise must have its price, but most homes here are vintage craftsman style or old Victorians built between 1900 and 1930. Like all property in California, they were terribly overpriced, and have much farther to fall before an “average” person could ever afford to buy here.
As I wandered about after the Christmas holiday, I decided to look for other signs of the Great Depression. Sitting for a burger at the 17th Street Grill, I suddenly noticed that the entire Pacific Grove Business center was now empty across the street. A realtor, copy/print service and boutique that had been there just weeks earlier, were now gone. Hummm… Venturing into Monterey’s Cannery Row I decided to chat with local merchants and artists. I was not surprised to learn that, in spite of the obvious thronging crowds, business was suffering badly. “We didn’t even have a Christmas this year,” one merchant told me. “I ask other store owners on the malls and they are frightened to death. They don’t even want to talk about it.” He was selling an array of novelty and gag items, little ornamental things that nobody really needs—crystals, postcards, brick-a-brack, nick-nacks, paddywacks, and overpriced antiques. “Do you have a plan B?” I asked, but I was greeted with a blank stare.
And that is a good example of the place we find ourselves now as the economic contraction continues to worsen. The existing arrangements of the main street economy are feeling the pain, but the store owners have such a vested interest in their current business model that they have no “Plan B,” no conception of how to evolve and cope with the rapidly changing realities of the sagging retail sector, and no way to secure financing even if they did have an idea. This is where we stand now as a nation, badly in need of a new direction. Our Plan B, if we formulate one, cannot be a return to the old model of easy consumer credit and constant growth. It must start internalizing notions of sustainability, conservation, making do with less, and realizing that things are not as bleak as the bad news would have us believe. If we don’t evolve as a nation, we will go the way of the trinket stores on Cannery Row.
What will become of all these quaint little shops, I wonder? No one needs a sea shell ornament lamp, or a ship in a bottle, or a sign carved with some witticism or
another. I went into five or six stores, and each had the same mix of t-shirts, monogrammed fleece, novelty and gift items on a nautical theme. In just the same way, we don’t need Dodge Ram trucks, Hummers and
other energy guzzling bad habits. And people have started to realize this and vote with their dollars. Just ask the US auto industry.
Here in sunny Monterey, on a smaller scale, people were still browsing, but proprietors sat in silence behind their equally silent cash registers. Browsers were not
necessarily buyers, I realized. The crowds on the Row were a deceptive outward sign that all was well, but in reality, people were no longer buying the nonsense novelties that made up much of the inventory in these
places. I didn’t see a single sale being registered until I got to the candy store to indulge myself in one of my secret pleasures—milk chocolate fudge. There were two other customers at the fudge
counter, and my eager purchase prompted both lookie-loos to also buy. Hallelulia! I struck my blow against the rising tides of deflationary misery, and got a chocolate fix in the bargain!
Well, if people
weren’t buying things here in tourist heaven, then what were they doing? I took a long walk up the coastal trail to find out. They were strolling, and talking on their cell phones, and playing by the sea. Mothers held hands with toddlers as they challenged the surf, with wild giggles when the waves chased them up the strand. Couples sat in the warm sun, happily coupled. A lone guitarist serenaded a seagull. Two elderly partners sat at a picnic table with home made sandwiches, and a curious seagull in eager attendance at their table. The more athletic types jogged or bicycled down the trail. In short, people were just enjoying the day, idling away the time, without any need to spend money and “consume” anything more than the pristine moment was offering them. I looked, and looked, and looked, but I could see no Great Depression anywhere around me, and no bad news.
After airing out my soul, and shooting about 200 photos on this glorious day, I wandered back along the rec trail from the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf pier to Cannery Row. Time to check out the restaurants, I thought, thinking that the Great Depression in my stomach needed filling after this long three hour hike.
I had discovered a wonderful little Mexican restaurant in the Steinbeck Plaza called “Mariachis,” so I stopped for a late lunch/early dinner. It was there
that my quiet suspicions about the sagging economy became more apparent. Amazingly, I was the only soul in the dining room! It was only 4pm, and I was at least a hour ahead of the typical start for the dinner
rush, but with at least a thousand people within view on Cannery Row at that moment, one would think a few diners would have wandered in.
Then I remembered... In Pacific Grove, my favorite Pizza joint was closed for the entire month of January, typically the hardest month for restaurants, or so I am told. Well…Great Depression II or not, I had some wonderful Chile Verde with a cheese stuffed relleno on the side, and the traditional refried beans and rice. But I could not help but be suspicious about that empty dining room. Needless to say, I got excellent service from the waitress, and she got a very generous tip, considering the modest tab.
On another restaurant outing in December, I was seated next to a woman who turned out to be a newly elected city councilwomen in town, so I chatted with her in an unplanned, and very informal, dinner engagement. A third patron joined in the conversation, (the only other person there), along with the restaurant proprietor. So we discussed the economy, the city’s dwindling revenue base, the stores closing on the main business district, and the general malaise that a severe downturn spells for a place like this, largely dependent on people having lots of discretionary dollars to spend for tourism. The restaurants were starting to feel the crunch, as I could clearly see in my recent outings. But on other days, when I pass the restaurants in town, I find them still full of happy diners. The evidence is inconclusive, I must admit, and I cannot confidently assert the Depression has arrived just because I was the only one sopping up refried beans at Mariachis on a Saturday afternoon.
Thus far, the outward signs still seem healthy and vibrant, but there is clearly “trouble in Paradise,” just beneath the surface. People were soaking up the free sunshine and fresh air, but not plunking down their cash in the stores and restaurants. I wonder how many of the brick-a brack gift stores will survive the year ahead, and how tight the restaurant margins will become. As for the eleven stately Bed and Breakfast Inns in the area, my guess is that they will weather the storm, albeit with much higher vacancy rates. After all—Paradise is Paradise, and I feel fortunate to be able to live here in a place so beautiful that I forget all the torment of my own troubled soul when I go down to the sea.
In December, we actually had inclement weather here, if you can believe that, so I was housebound and down with a nasty bout of the flu on top of it all. Here I was,
trapped in Paradise, and bemoaning my fate just as Israel decided to start lobbing 500 pound bombs into Gaza City. News hound that I am, I busied myself by reporting extensively on the latest round of violence, day by day, until I just became disgusted with the whole thing. Thank god my body can still fight off the bugs, and my health returned as the weather brightened to the wonderful two week stretch of balmy temperatures I’ve been writing about here. And so, in an effort to heal both body and soul, and perhaps to slay a few dragons that I tend to absorb from all the news I read, I ventured out to look for the Great Depression, realizing that if I found it anywhere in a place like this, it was probably because I brought it there myself.
You can live life in one of two ways, I’ve discovered in my sessions by the sea. You can either bemoan the fact that your story didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, dwelling in the past as if each memory was a puzzle piece that would work into the image of your every desire if only you could make them fit. Or you can realize that the present situation of your life is complete, just the way it is, and needs nothing added, or changed, to be perfect and wholly fulfilling. That’s so much easier to do in a place like this. I would imagine it might be a whole lot more difficult in a place like Detroit--or worse, like Gaza City.
So, with a sigh of resignation, I abandoned all my false notions that the world would ever be the place I had hoped it could be… that Israel and Palestine would
ever make amends… that banks would ever lower interest rates from 30% to 10%, or loan me money for a new car...
The things we hope for, and reach for, are seldom realized, I knew. For as soon as we have one thing, we immediately start imagining another. There were so many places
where the pain and suffering of life were so raw, that I had no reason, here in paradise, to ever complain about my situation, or the things I thought were now missing from my life that I had hoped to hold close. I
realized I just had to look at the way the world actually was, at the things that were present to me now in this moment. If I could not embrace these things, then what good was any wish or hope I could ever imagine again? And who could give me anything more than this?
Life was getting on with its business all around me, and whether or not that was happening in the limited reality of retail stores and restaurants could not define the enormity of this constant activity and change that was everywhere apparent. See what an hour on a bench by the sea will do for you! The swells of the sea and the breaking of waves in endless variability have a way of instilling thoughts like these. Was I a lost soul, forlorn, trapped in Paradise and waiting for the next Great Depression? Not in any way. You can’t watch the gulls convening on the rocks with the sea lions, without a seeming care in the world, and still hold to fast to your own inner demons.
No, this place is a balm for the soul. So instead of thinking about the war in Gaza, or the sagging economy, or the people and places I left behind me
to come here, I watched two lovebirds pirouette about one another near the edge of the waves and realized that love is everywhere around me, if only I take the time to look. Even the rocks by the sea embraced
one another in a sweet kiss. Something tells me that Great Depression or no Great Depression, I will be happy here in Paradise. I realize this place is a far cry from the misery of Detroit…but I don’t
live in Detroit. If I did, however, and I really thought about it, I’d be willing to bet I could find love in Motown as well. You just have to look.