The Murals of Downtown Salinas Horses, Bulls, Turtles, Bears and Steinbeck

“Rosie the Riveter” Mural | Photo by Larry Parsons


Story and photos by Larry Parsons

It’s your lucky day. Grab your shoes and tag along, as I ramble through the heart of Salinas and show you the city’s downtown murals. If not famous, these works enjoy the lofty status of being some of my favorite landmarks that haven’t been obliterated by uncaring louts.

We’ll see the four best ones first. They were painted by Salinas teenagers between 2000 and 2003 in a program to give young people summer jobs painting murals. I often walk by them and wonder how the artists are doing. They must be in their mid-30s. I hope all have gone on to leave bigger, more beautiful marks on their lives.

  1. On the side of a union hall on Monterey Street is a mural titled “Rosie the Riveter” with images of women doing hard, necessary work — from suffragettes and steel workers to campesinas and scientists. It’s in good shape and looks as if the paint is periodically refreshed.
  1. The most bizarre is on East Alisal Street on the parking-lot side of the Salinas Chamber of Commerce building. A bear and bull on a frozen lake are surrounded by a chilly array of symbols of commerce — an ATM, check, abacus, scale, credit card and produce trucks — amid spirals of flying nickels and dollar bills. To the left is a ghostly outline of John Steinbeck with a stack of books beside his desk. I often bemoan the absence of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin in the odd tableau.
  1. On a Salinas Street liquor store, there’s a mural inspired by a Steinbeck tale about King Arthur and his knights. For years the store was run by a friendly guy named Dick who I think drove a classic Mustang. I’d see him almost daily on runs for smokes, sodas or, when I was feeling frisky and temporarily rich on newspaper pay, a good bottle of champagne. He loved to talk, the human habit most like fine wine to reporters.
  1. My favorite jobs-program mural is on a Lincoln Street building between the city’s main library and recreation center. The mural depicts the “Turtle Creation” evolution myth of North American indigenous people. There are dinosaurs, a winged woman, a giant turtle and the forest primeval. A couple patches are peeling. The building held a bustling print shop for years. Now it’s one of those mailbox stores.
  1. Another mural nearly runs the length of a West Alisal Street building that held the long-silent printing press of Salinas’ Californian newspaper. The mural, which depicts images from the life and works of Steinbeck, was commissioned by the newspaper publisher during a civic-boosting burst about 20 years ago. The colors are faded, the building vacant. The scroll at the bottom says: “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and has not changed except to become more needed.”
  1. More scenes of Steinbeck and his literature are found on a mural along a walkway off Main Street between the National Steinbeck Center and a longtime restaurant building that now houses a taproom. The walkway leads to the Monterey Street Garage, one of Salinas’ two parking garages and the tallest of the two, at three stories.
  1. The newest and most colorful mural is in a walkway off Main Street between the Taylor Farms Building and a corner bar and grill. The op-art rendering of five running horses is dated 2018. It’s nice, but why horses and why here are questions I cannot answer. Sorry.
  1. The long side of a building in a walkway between Main Street and Salinas Street features a ribbon-like mural of a stylized Sonoran desert landscape. Nothing resembling this landscape exists within hundreds of miles of Salinas. The building for more than 30 years was home to a now-closed Mexican restaurant, which could explain the motif. I prefer to see the sun as rising, not setting.

(We have to leave downtown to see the next two murals, which I found on errands on the south side of town. They’re next to each other on two buildings on San Joaquin Street just east of Main.)

  1. This idealized farm scene is on a building that, appropriately, is home to a produce company. Forty years ago, the building was new and held the Salinas Athletic Club, which bustled with people in ’80s workout gear. A few produce brokers and I played handball there. Handball is a grueling, primitive game. When you’re getting into handball shape, your hands are swollen and covered with orange and purple bruises. They resemble peaches, like idealized fruit grown on a cheery farm.
  1. A mural of one of Monterey County’s most famous scenes — a Highway 1 bridge spanning a Big Sur canyon – is incongruously displayed on the exterior of a small furniture store warehouse. Close inspection is possible only by walking up the private driveway. It reveals the mural is painted from a photo of runners on the bridge during a Big Sur Marathon. The nearest runner stares directly at the viewer, which is a little unsettling. I prefer staring at murals that don’t stare back.

OK, tour’s over. Thanks for the company.

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Larry Parsons

About Larry Parsons

Larry Parsons recently retired after decades of service as a community journalist in Monterey County.