Joe Mathews: A short drive reveals California’s growing divide

Visitors watch the waves break last December in Pacific Grove, at one end of Highway 68, which ends in Salinas and shows the growing inequality in California.
Visitors watch the waves break last December in Pacific Grove, at one end of Highway 68, which ends in Salinas and shows the growing inequality in California. Monterey Herald

Highway 68 is a short road, just 24 miles from the coastal cities of Pacific Grove and Monterey to Salinas. In today’s California, the path of inequality is rarely very long.

Californians often talk about the inequality between our regions – north and south, coast and inland. But the greatest inequality in our state lies within our regions, not between them.

Just cross the bridge from San Francisco to Richmond. Or take the bus from Sherman Oaks to the northeast San Fernando Valley. The canyons between such places are as dramatic as our landscapes – and define us as a state. The fact that local inequality is greater than statewide inequality is especially troubling because California is among the most unequal states in America.

The factors behind this growing inequality – immigration, technology, education, migration – are all part of the Highway 68 story. The divide that it spans – between the wealth of the Monterey Bay peninsula and the poverty of Salinas, the Monterey County seat – is as much about mindset as economics. To make the 45-minute drive is to “cross the Lettuce Curtain,” a nod to Salinas’ most famous agricultural product.

I started my own journey at Highway 68’s beginning at Asilomar State Beach. The road took me first through prosperous Pacific Grove (low unemployment, little poverty, a median house price north of $700,000) and past the gate to 17-Mile Drive, which takes you to world-renowned resorts.

I continued south, where the highway forms the western boundary of the city of Monterey (also with low unemployment and high incomes). Then I turned northeast, as the road joined with Highway 1 for two miles, before splitting again near Seaside, not far from where Tesla Motors plans a new sales center.

On this stretch of highway, I passed through hills and developments such as Pasadera, with a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Approaching Salinas, I encountered unincorporated communities developed in recent decades, with names such as San Benancio and Corral de Tierra. Many residents are professionals who work in Salinas but don’t live there. The migration to these developments has been so strong that The Salinas Californian’s features section is called “Off 68.”

Three miles before Salinas, the landscape opened up, with the hills falling away to reveal the Salinas Valley and its fields. It was like descending into a different world.

Salinas, population 155,000, has many strengths, but it’s a poor place. The people of Salinas are younger, more foreign-born and less educated than the rest of the state. The city has great potential – young people are precious assets in our aging state – but its youth violence and child poverty are among the highest in the state.

In Salinas, some express resentment toward those on the other end of Highway 68. Why don’t Monterey environmentalists fight as hard against pesticides in Salinas as they do against coastal development? Others complain that Monterey, a magnet for jobs, relegates Salinas to serving as a place for those who can’t afford to live near their work on the peninsula.

On my own drive, I followed the highway through downtown Salinas to its end at U.S. 101. There, I faced a choice: Go south toward small communities even poorer than Salinas, or head north, across another divide, and arrive an hour later in the Bay Area, the richest mega-city in the richest country on earth.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square. This column is part of Salinas: California’s Richest Poor City, a special project with the California Wellness Foundation.