Salem’s newest public space was recently unveiled, situated in the former gas station/carnival lot at 289 Derby Street along the South River. The reaction has been a bit mixed, I would say. I think some people were expecting more of a green space, but it is not really that kind of park; it’s more of a concrete (plaza? court? square?) built for activity rather than rest and contemplation. Some people are critical of its cost, particularly of the land. It’s also been identified as a homeless magnet, which strikes me as an unjustified criticism as it is a public space after all. I first went down to see it on a bright sunny day and it did seem a bit inhospitable as it is primarily a bright swath of concrete, but I returned at night and found it much more inviting. I’ve decided that I like it: the swings, the topographical “maps”, and particularly the lighting around the perimeter.
As you can see, it’s built for movement (and sound), to be a happening place rather than a tranquil one, so when things start happening we will see how the space works. We have been invited to name the new park but restricted in our choices: South River Park, Charlotte Forten Park, Nathaniel Bowditch Park, 289 Derby, Naumkeag Park. While I’d love to see something in Salem named after Charlotte Forten, the first African-American teacher in the Salem Public Schools and a graduate of Salem State, this is not the place: I can’t see how it has anything to do with her, spatially, thematically, or aesthetically. Same with Bowditch; the other names are bland and generic. Because this is a playful place, I propose moving the dreadful Samantha statue from Town House Square (where she does not belong) to this new park and naming it Bewitched Park. People seems to think that a few days of shooting that show on location here in 1970 somehow saved Salem by enabling it to realize its full potential as Witch City, so naming rights seem in order.
It seems to me that there has always been a correlation between dissatisfaction with the Federal (or central) government, in general or focused on a particular branch, and action, manifested not only by large protest marches with lots of speeches but also by intensifying local engagement and activity: the latter does not loom as large on the radar screen as the former but is just as important, if not more so. It is these smaller, community initiatives that make me feel hopeful just now, although Salem has been a rather engaging and engaged place for as long as I’ve lived here. The city government is progressive and multi-layered, with the usual planning boards supplemented by committees made of citizens striving to make Salem beautiful, “no place for hate”, bicycle-friendly, and greener. There are venerable philanthropic organizations–mostly initiated and administered by women–that are still alive and well today in Salem, more than a century after their inception. Every cultural and/or historic organization has its dedicated band of volunteers. And then there are the newer, very focused initiatives, oriented for the most part on the livability of the city. Even though Salem is a small city, it’s still a city with visible urban problems, including most prominently litter, traffic, and crumbling hardscape. Even though I’d love to see its historic downtown cemeteries roped off altogether, I still applaud the efforts of the newly-formed Friends of Salem’s Historic Downtown Cemeteries , whose mission is to advocate “for the protection and preservation of the Old Burying Point, Howard St and Broad St Cemeteries”. The city of Salem has a Cemetery Commission but it’s not enough; these well-trodden downtown cemeteries need more. Our other public spaces need advocates too, which is why I also applaud the Salem Public Space Project, a “collective effort to engage residents in understanding and reimagining local public spaces”, and the Collins Society, which focuses on highlighting and preserving the work of Philadelphia landscape architect John F. Collins, who took over after urban renewal was abandoned in Salem in the early 1970s. The Society maintains a lovely website with some great images, and seeks to improve and preserve the urban streetscape (including fountains, plazas, planters and cobblestone paths) of downtown Salem, for “landscape architecture…should be preserved with the same dedicated passion as architecture”. Last but certainly not least, I really applaud the daily efforts of FireballsofSalem to cleanse the city of its constant supply of nip bottles and other annoying forms of litter. Valiant, hopeful initiatives all.
The Old Burying Point on Charter Street and and Lafayette Park, a public space that needs some attention and will be getting it in 2017; The plazas and pathways of John F. Collins in central Salem: why are cars parking on those cobblestones on the left which are clearly not parking spaces? Fireballs are the preferred “fleur de Salem” of the Fireballs initiative but I’ve been finding more of these little green Dr. McGillicuddy bottles recently: I think they were specially priced for the holidays.