It’s Still Spaghetti Hill, But the Place Has Changed Meditations on an Old Monterey Neighborhood

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By Joe Livernois

We recently attended a housewarming for our newest neighbor. It was a casual thing, barbecue in the back yard, a potluck, wine in plastic cups.

First impression: they will be an agreeable addition to the neighborhood. A restored VW Beetle is his pride and joy. She’s a retired schoolteacher. They’re from somewhere else.

We were all from somewhere else.

In the thirty months since we’ve moved to the Old Town neighborhood of Monterey, I can’t help but notice that so many of us seem to be from somewhere else. Generally, we fall into two categories:

  • Military or international students renting a backyard apartment for two years while they pursue graduate degrees from the Defense Language Institute or Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
  • Retired people, or those in the process of retiring, from somewhere else.

We personally fall into the second category. We’ve been around the block, so to speak, and we landed in Monterey because we hope to live out our days here. We aren’t going anywhere, at least not until our kids trick us into a nice room at the assisted-living facility down the road. Which could be sooner than later.        

The roughly 20-square-block area of Old Town is also known variously as Spaghetti Hill, Garlic Hill, or The Presidents. The culinary references are homage to the prevalence of Italian-Americans that once populated the homes here; on Sundays, I’m told, the entire neighborhood smelled of frying garlic. The Presidents is in consideration of the number of streets named for dead American leaders (Jefferson, Van Buren, Franklin, Roosevelt).

We moved to the neighborhood after 35 years in rural Prunedale. The move to a city represented a surrender to simplicity. We no longer need to drive for half an hour to buy a jug of milk, to see the ocean. We no longer tend an acre of oak forest.

It’s not like we were strangers to the Monterey Peninsula, though. We worked on and off on the Peninsula for decades, played on the Peninsula, had babies born on the Peninsula.

There was a time in Monterey, when I first started working at the Monterey Herald more than three decades ago, that newcomers like me were made to feel that we couldn’t possibly know anything about anything in Monterey unless we were born and raised on Spaghetti Hill.

At the time, the Herald operated at the foot of Spaghetti Hill, at Pacific and Jefferson. The center of town. Every journalist I worked with at the time was aged and rickety with Monterey experience. They had all interviewed Steinbeck at one time or another, they all had drunken-Ricketts stories up their sleeves.

Now that I’m back in the neighborhood, living a couple of blocks up the hill from that old Herald building, the place seems to have changed rather dramatically. The old Herald site is now an administrative building for Middlebury. And the Italian families? If they’re around, they pretty much keep to themselves.

The core of the neighborhood — the people living in the countless apartment buildings, the refurbished Victorians, the century-old Spanish stuccos or the marvelous American Arts & Crafts — are pretty much from somewhere else.

The apartments and spare rooms are taken up by Middlebury students or hospitality industry employees. Their neighborhood presence lends the neighborhood a welcome international flair. Many languages are spoken here. A disciple cheerfully smokes pot as he walks by our house every weekday morning. The woman down the block sells tamales from her front yard on Sundays. Middlebury tends to attract lots of young men and women from East Asia. But the bigger homes are occupied by an older demographic, older people who can manage big mortgages.

They’re from the Bay Area, mostly, with a scattering of Central Valley refugees and a smattering of late-in-life professionals who have transferred to Monterey to end their careers. Old Monterey is in the throes of senescence, in the sense that a new wave of older people is staking a claim here. The continuing demand for cool old homes in the heart of Monterey drives up the price of those houses.

What that means is that a lot of the homes that were once boisterous with young families and children are now mostly quiet. The bedrooms are now spare. Or they’ve been converted into a “home office.” Or they’re being rented to a MIIS student from abroad.

Whenever we hear the sound of children at play, it usually means that grandchildren are visiting someone in the neighborhood. Grandkids from somewhere else.

It would be unfair to say that Monterey has gentrified, a more technical and precise word that refers to the process of upper middle-class folks who move into decaying neighborhoods, driving up home prices and forcing out poor people. But the new demographic in Monterey is definitely having an impact on the neighborhoods. The elementary school in the neighborhood closed some years ago, but it reopened last year as a middle-school charter, and its students bike or commute in from elsewhere.

The newcomers can’t be blamed for coming here, of course. Like me, they are in love with Monterey, with the neighborhood. Many of them had been Frequent Visitors to Monterey over the years — some had even honeymooned here — and they dreamed of making it their home someday.

Scattered about Old Monterey are upper middle-aged Silicon Valley employees who still work in the South Bay. Some are telecommuters; others are weekend commuters who rent studios during the workweek. Others are retirees who escaped the suburbs in favor of Monterey, where the median value of a home is still relatively low, at least compared to the San Francisco region.

Much of the invasion from the South Bay Region can be attributed to housing costs. As outrageous as those costs might seem in Monterey, it’s even worse in the Bay Area. Zillow currently lists the median value of Monterey homes at $747,400, compared to $1.06 million in Santa Clara County and $1.2 million in San Francisco.

Except in its historical context, the Spaghetti Hill thing doesn’t really work in the neighborhood anymore. It’s different now. But the neighborhood has settled in with its differences.

Letter — George Kohn: More Mystique From Spaghetti Hill

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.