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One Perfect Day in San Luis Obispo

Impact Travel: I recently visited the quaint downtown of San Luis Obispo, which is one of California’s oldest communities. I was happily surprised to spot many delights. Bubble Gum Alley might have been an exception. Yech, as far as I’m concerned, but visitors seem to draw towards this kitchy alley or down a ways to the Madonna Inn.

The Art Walk

But fortunately for me, I stumbled upon the downtown San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. Inside, I found an exhibit featuring local artist, Daniel Dove. An associate professor in the Art Department at Cal Poly, he depicts futuristic paintings that defy categorization:

SLO then has an art walk with all sorts of interesting sculptures. You can pick up a brochure at the Museum of Art.

  • Outside the museum, you’ll find Fish Life that displays the threatened steelhead trout and the three-spined stickleback created by Jim Jacobsen.
  • Also by Jacobsen is the Chumash Pictographs that admires the first inhabitants of SLO, the Chumash.
  • A creek meanders toward the Mission where you’ll find Yach Ka or the Fish/Steelhead fountain, again dedicated to the Chumash.
  • In the opposite direction, still by the creek, the Web of Life by Mary Jane Duvall Joust (2000) displays egrets, ducks, rabbits, raccoon, possum, salamander, bats and frogs all merging into a sphere symbolizing the continuity of the flowing of the creek and the wildlife it sustains.
  • Then there’s Garnet by Kate Britton, Bee Bee Works His Magic by Carol Paulsen and Stephen Plowman and several more:

Behind the mission is another interesting gem: one of the few remaining Carnegie Libraries. The building served as the local library for 55 years. Built in 1905, it was one of over 1,681 libraries given by Andrew Carnegie to American towns in the early 1900s.

Parking Lot Archeology

Inside a parking lot, believe it or not, you can find the Palm Street Archeology Exhibit.

Realizing that this ground had a Spanish adobe and a Chinese-American trash pit underneath, the city went ahead and built this parking structure, but constructed it over “capped” sites. This allowed for future excavation. In 1997, the city hired archeologists who dug up all sorts of ancient artifacts.

Evidence of the Chumash diet was abundant at this Palm Street excavation site, which produced archeological features known as “middens”. Middens are refuse piles where the remains of meals and other activities were disposed. The midden here contained abalone, clam, and mussel shells in great abundance, as well as many other shellfish. Mortars and pestles were also discovered at the site representing Chumash acorn and seed processing. Other finds of Chumash origin were Olivella shell beads, which represented the Chumash economic system based upon strings of bead money used for trading between interior and neighboring groups.

Abandoned Chinatown

The Chinese-American community was most prevalent between the period between 1870 and 1920 before most of it was leveled in the 1950s to make way for the public parking lot.

With the 1848 discovery of gold in California and the Taiping Rebellion in China between 1850 and 1864, Chinese immigrants began to arrive in California, including to SLO. The city recognized the area on Palm Street between Chorro and Morro streets as “Chinatown” on city maps as early as 1870. The block was one of Caifornia’s most developed Chinese American communities, consisting of an unpaved road, a plank board sidewalk and many wooden structures, including stores, restaurants, boarding houses, gambling establishments, and opium parlors.

Ethnic tensions mounted with the recession of 1873 as the Chinese were blamed for high unemployment among Caucasians. The result was the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. SLO county voters supported these restrictions and in 1879, just five voters in the entire county were opposed to laws banning Chinese immigration. In keeping with prevailing attitudes, the SLO also passed several laws discriminating against its Chinese community, including an 1879 law that sought to remove all Chinese laundries from Higuera Street.

Fortunately, one of the principal buildings in Chinatown survived–the historic Ah Louis house. Ah Louis was one of SLO’s first Chinese immigrants whose house on the corner of Palm and Chorro streets served not only as a family home and store, but also as offices for his contracting and banking businesses. Ah Louis owned over 200 acres of farmland that produced food for SLO as well as for shipment to San Francisco. Today the site is a State Historical Landmark.

There’s also a mosaic tile mural called Love and Double Joy that commemorates Chinese pioneers. The mural evokes images of Chinese-American history in SLO county, including the Ah Louis store, the thousands of laborers who built railroads connecting SLO with San Francisco and Los Angeles, a boat bringing the Chinese to the new country, the Yin and Yang to symbolize Chinese life forces in harmony with nature, and a powerful dragon to symbolize long life. The Chinese characters of “Love” and “Double Joy” linked by a dragon, symbolize the duality of the immigrants’ experience: their love for the land of their birth and joy for their hopes in a new land. (The mural was designed and built by Peter Ladochy in 1997.)

The First Jamba Juice

And finally, Jamba Juice opened its first shop right in SLO. A placard along the side memorializes it’s 20th anniversary on April 19, 2010 by co-founder Linda Ozawa Olds and her husband Jeff.

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