First off, it is Salem Common, not Salem Commons; the Common is not a suburban tract housing development. Those who refer to it as “Commons” are either not from Salem, or from New England (where commons are common), or are peddling something, such as the owners of the sausage stands and fried dough trucks who are allowed to set up residence on the Common during October. I love commons (I’m using the plural here) and I think Salem has one of the prettiest in New England–but not in October.
Salem Common this October, and the same corner in an 1870s photograph by Salem photographers Peabody & Tilton (New York Public Library) and a turn-of-the-century postcard.
One of my favorite views of the Common is not a photograph, but a painting: George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which shows the local militia drilling on the green with townspeople looking on: a window into the civic life of the new republic. The Common has never been a pristine park but rather the center of varied activities: baseball, weddings, festivals, field days, concerts, ice-skating. A succession of playgrounds have been located on the Common, and now there’s a particularly nice one on the southeastern corner. I think that most of the activities in the Common’s history, however, have benefited the public rather than private individuals. It is a common, after all.
George Ropes, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), Peabody Essex Museum; baseball on the Common in 1910, and the same perspective this past week.
I’ve seen other vehicles besides food trucks drive and park on the Common at this time of year, as if it were a parking lot. The sense of enclosed, protected, tranquil space in the midst of the city has been challenged for some time now, and not only in October, by the deteriorating condition of the circa 1850 cast iron fence. The city is restoring the fence, in phases, but it’s an expensive undertaking. The Washington Arch is looking a little worse for wear too: I’d like to think that the revenues from the food trucks are going towards these repairs in particular, and into a fund for the general maintenance of the Common in general.
Late nineteenth-century stereoviews show the Common with a more spare and formal look, no doubt, in part to the presence of Elm trees, always so striking in images from the past. Below are three images by the prolific Salem photographers Frank Cousins and G.K. Proctor (I’ve got an interesting post about the latter coming in the next few weeks) and an anonymous contemporary colleague. The north side of the Common remains the most serene today; I imagine that this last photograph is also the last of our Fall color with this enormous storm bearing down on us.
Salem Common stereoviews by Frank Cousins, GK Proctor, and an anonymous photographer, New York Public Library Dennis Collection.