A dynamic, healthy city is composed of neighborhoods: this is a time-honored, universal observation, so much so that I believe it is a truism. It follows that municipal leaders should prioritize the protection of neighborhoods, but too many times, far too many times in my opinion, the City of Salem has pitted residents against developmental entities which seek to alter the composition and character of neighboods in overwhelming ways. I’m really worried about a neighborhood located just south of where I live, through which I walk and/or drive pretty much every day, which seems to be facing a development of gargantuan proportions: three multi-storey buildings for shelter and senior housing along with adminstrative and retail facilities, to be built in and on a small area of narrow streets and small houses, the remainder of a storied section of our city. The neighborhood now goes by the name of “Greater Endicott” for the major street that runs through it, but in the past it was: a ship-building district at the head of the South River proximate to Mill Pond, “Roast Meat Hill,” Salem’s first African-American neighborhood, and Little Italy, a tight-knit neighborhood clustered around a community-built church.
A Stereoview of the Boston & Maine Depot, with Mill Pond in back and the Endicott Street neighborhood top right, from the Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, 1870s. Jen Ratliff of the Archives has recently published a post on Salem’s “Little Italy,” which you can find here, along with links to more photos and ephemera.
The development at issue has not been proposed formally to a City board yet, but its developers, two regional non-profits, Lifebridge Northshore and Harborlight Community Partners, have met with city councillors and the neighborhood association. Lifebridge operates a homeless shelter on part of the site on which they want to expand, and Harborlight is a community development nonprofit which has built and redeveloped many affordable housing projects on the North Shore. There is no question that both organizations are engaging in laudable and necessary work, but in this particular case I believe that their missions are in conflict with the viability of an historic Salem neighborhood. Their proposal is to demolish the current Lifebridge Shelter, once the parish hall for St. Mary’s Italian Church, as well as the church itself and adjacent buildings, to build two five-storey buildings along Margin Street, and an additional four-storey building for senior housing behind these two structures, on the existing playground along Pratt Street. Very little parking is specified: 12-15 spaces for three huge buildings, several of which will have considerable visitation and staffing needs. And there’s one odd little detail: because one of the buildings which will be demolished is the Christopher Columbus Society, which features a bar, Lifebridge has proposed relocating said bar in its dry shelter building! I believe that none of the new housing facilities are limited to Salem residents; both Lifebridge and Harborlight operate as regional organizations. As there is a state law mandating the replacement of playground facilities, a new playground will be built along Endicott Street. I have seen a rendering of this proposal, but I don’t really know where it came from or if it is accurate so I’m not going to publish it here: suffice it to say that it’s rather horrifying! The buildings don’t look like anything else in the neighborhood—this could be the beginning of the Hampton Inn-ization of Salem as the project looks like it will mirror the new Hampton Inn across the way (the less stripey part), and I’m no architect or surveyor, but I don’t really see how everything will fit.
As there has been no formal proposal yet, my sources for this proposal are notes from several meetings of the Greater Endicott Neighborhood Association: with the developers and with the two candidates for Mayor in Salem’s recent special election. Sadly, both of these men sound a bit resigned about the development: their answers to the residents’ questions give the impression that resistance is futile! The relationship between Lifebridge and Harborlight and Salem’s municipal government seems very close: both organizations were collaborating “partners” in the creation of the Salem Housing Road Map for FY 2023-2027, and last fall Harborlight hosted a ‘Housing Institute‘ at Old Town Hall for city councillors and staff. Photographs of smiling Salem politicians at Lifebridge and Harborlight fundraisers and legislative breakfasts appear regularly: there doesn’t seem to be the same separation as is the case with private developers, or maybe I’m just being naive about the latter. The proposal is in serious conflict with the zoning for the neighborhood, but there are tools to overide these restrictions in Massachusetts: 40B and 40R statutes, which grant developers free reign if sufficient affordable housing is part of the proposal. Salem has already met (and exceeded) the 40B requirement of 10% affordable housing, but 40R is more of a “carrot” than a stick approach to urban development, aimed at creating “smart growth districts” in proximity to mass transit by “streamlining” the permittal process and incentivizing the host city/town with cash payments. This could happen here, but it would take a majority vote of the City Council. There’s no question that more housing is a drumbeat echoing out from City Hall, but I believe that our councillors care about neighborboods too: I’m not as pessimistic (yet!) as one commentor in the meeting notes who observed that “a group of 100 individuals is being privileged over a neighborhood, and by extension, a city.”
The Harborlight Homes Housing Institute at Old Town Hall, Salem, Sept. 22, 2022.
What came before, and what next? That’s about as much housing policy discussion as I can engage in. It’s more simple for me, really. When I think about this neighborbood faced with this looming development, my mind conjures up one question: hasn’t it suffered enough? Of all Salem’s historic neighborhoods, this one is the least protected and has withstood the most challenges: from economic dislocation in the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Great Salem Fire which singed its borders in the early 20th, to development in the 20th centuries. And now this. People in the nineteenth century were very conscious of its venerability and vulnerability in a way that people in the 21st century are not, because it had already lost so much. Salem’s first two custom houses were located in this neighborhood, the so-called “Port House” and “French House”: the latter survived into the nineteenth century and was verified as Salem’s old house by none other than the Reverend William Bentley, who found “1645” carved into a mantle. In the vicinity of High Street were myriad seventeenth-century houses, including the famous Palmer House drawn by Edwin Whitefield in the 1870s and the Pease and Price Bakery, captured by Frank Cousins in the 1890s. And then of course there is the 1665 Gedney House, certainly not as noted as these structures a century ago but now an illustrative study house owned by Historic New England, which has recently confirmed that it operated as a tavern operated by widow Mary Gedney during the Witch Trials. I think the development of a preservation mentality in Salem in the later nineteenth century was very much focused on this neighborhood, rather than more illustrious ones, because the progressive filling-in of the South River and Mill Pond and the coming of the railroad yards had transformed it into a marginal location over the century: “Knocker’s Hole,” named for the loud knocking of shipwrights’ mallets in the shipyards along the shore, was no more. In an “epitaph” for the recently-demolished Palmer House in the 1880s, a Salem antiquarian noted that the “old homestead” had been named for “the old pioneer ship-builder of Knocker’s Hole, Richard Palmer, who had grants among the first of those who wrought so lustily in the noisy shipyards about Creek Street.”
As the neighborhood became less central, it became more affordable of course, and so a succession of African-Americans who worked in the city’s many service industries took up residence there, from the 1820s into the 1870s: mariners gave way to cooks and hairdressers, chimney sweeps and cartmen. Clarissa Lawrence opened Salem’s first school for African-American children in the neighborhood as early as 1807, and letter settled at 8 High Street, which she passed down to her children. She founded the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, which soon merged with the integrated Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, for which she traveled to the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1839 (on a segregated train) to give her rousing speech about meeting the “monster prejudice everywhere.” In the 1840s, there were seventeen African-American households on High Street, and more on adjoining streets, including that of Mercy Morris, the sister of the pioneering Boston lawyer Robert Morris, on Creek Street. A decade later, the Fletcher family was living on nearby Pratt Street (likely the street to be most impacted negatively by this development), including Francis Fletcher, who advocated for the formation of an African-American Regiment during the opening years of the Civil War in correspondence to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, and then joined the Massachusetts 54th himself.
Clarissa Lawrence’s (of High Street) big speech, and Francis Fletcher of Pratt Street. Pratt Street runs right by the High Street playground, which is a designated site for one of the multi-storey buildings, so everything you see on the left above will be a big building. No more tree-filtered sun for this neighborhood.
Salem’s City Directories reflect a change after the Civil War: not so many of the familar names of African American families in the nighborhood, replaced by a succession of Irish and then Italian names. Between 1880 and the restrictive immigration act of 1824, 4 million Italians came to the US, part of a larger “Great Migration” during which 17 million Italians left their country after unification, most from the still-agriarian South rather than the more urban, and industrializing North. Massachusetts was a major destination, and Salem then offered employment in thriving textile and shoe factories, but all the sources I consulted indicated that Italian-Americans in Salem didn’t break into that more lucrative work in great numbers until World War I and after: there was a lot of ditch-digging for instrastructure projects and employment in various service industries before. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that a community of Italian-Americans in Salem formed around the foundation of a church: St. Mary’s Italian Church, built on Margin Street by this community in the 1920s and the center of this neighborhood until closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003. Stripped and subjected to iconoclastic destruction between intervening periods of Lifebridge ownership thereafter, it’s
almost painful to read about the great reverence that this community held for this Church before, expressed in material ways by everything from an embroidered altar cloth to the tower bell, cast on-site in the Italian tradition. You can see the bell today right next to the Christopher Columbus Society, and I wonder where it will end up if this proposal goes forward.
Salem’s Italian-American Community in the 1920s and the building and embellishment of St. Mary’s Italian Church & the former church today: the Lifebridge/Harborlight plan seems to call for either outright demolition or facadism. One immediate consequence of the foundation of this Italian-American parish/neighborhood was the recognition of Salem’s Italian-Americans as such: before they were Italians, then they were Americans, celebrating July 4th with one of their traditional arts! Postcard of St. Mary’s from the SSU Dionne Collection.
The Great Salem Fire of 1914 was capricious in this area, taking out some streets and leaving (High!) others alone: when you walk around you will see a lot of buildings dating from 1915-1916 as rebuilding and building went together in the neighborhood. More damaging were two major “developments” of the 1930s along its northern boundary: the building of the Salem Post Office on Margin Street and the Holyoke Building resulted in the razing of at least 50 buildings for the Post Office alone. Samuel McIntire’s house on Summer Street was demolished to make way for the Holyoke in 1935, and this decade of depression and rampant destruction was also when venerable Creek Street was eradicated altogether.
X marks the spot of the future Post Office and Holyoke Building, along with curving Creek Street: many of the structures in this photograph would be demolished in the 1930s, including Samuel McIntire’s house on Summer Street (yellow arrow). Another arrow marks St. Mary’s Italian Church, SSU Archives and Special Collections. The Post Office rising, also SSU and charming Creek Street by Frank Cousins, Phillips Library Digital Collections via Digital Commonwealth.
When I look at the aerial photograph above I see the housing density that the leaders of the City of Salem crave now; it was destroyed by those 1930s developments in the name of progress. And while the Lifebridge/Harborlight proposal is driven by a more humane mission, it will inevitably impact the remainder of this still densely-settled and heritage-rich neighborhood in a negative manner just because of its size and scale. And it doesn’t have to be that way: there are other sites in Salem, far more appropriate sites which could accomodate the proposal’s various programming needs much more effectively. The City should work with the developers to find a suitable site rather than to impose this project on a neighborhood which has stood the test of time.
A sunny Memorial Day in the Greater Endicott Street Neighborhood.