Love that song, although I never realized its lyrics were so risque (“horizontally speaking”)! The title is how I feel living in Salem most of the time now, especially bewildered. I don’t understand why our local government is trying to impose out-of-scale and ugly buildings on this beautiful city, relentlessly. I don’t understand why the city’s roads and sidewalks are maintained so poorly. I don’t understand anything about our tourism industry: its management, messaging and particularly the economic impact it has on our city, which seems shrouded in mystery. I don’t understand why everything in this city is named “witch” when the victims of 1692 were not witches. I don’t understand why two tattoo shops are located right next to each other on Essex Street and two pirate “museums” are located right across from each other on Derby Street. I could go on and on and on. I came here for the architecture decades ago, and I’m really out of it when it comes to all the rest: the bones, the black, the business of selling all things spooky. I’m so alienated that I have become increasingly detached from Salem, to the extent that my husband and I and the cats are moving up to Maine for the month of October. I’m not going for good, however (at least not yet) and I also have an academic-esque interest in figuring out what’s going on: unlike me, it’s clear that many, many people love to come to Salem in the fall and increasingly throughout the year. What are they looking for? Last week was interesting because I took a deep dive into social media to answer that question, intentionally and non-intentionally! The non-intentional dive when I posted a picture of the back of my house on a really nice facebook group called Our Old House. It was a beautful day, and we painted the back of the house this summer so it was looking good! I’ve been following this group for a while because the people on it are so appreciative and lovely: everyone loves their own old house and everyone else’s old houses! No facebook rudeness at all. You can learn a lot too: people share their restoration experiences and knowledge. Our house is such a mish-mash in back that I thought everyone would enjoy seeing the different additions: and they certainly did! Nearly 7000 likes and comments, with a serious thread of people expressing their praise of both my house and Salem: I love Salem, You’re so lucky to live in Salem, We go to Salem every Halloween, I really want to go to Salem (it was funny to read these comments as I was literally packing my bags for our departure next week).
How and when my Salem house was built.
So that was interesting, and even more informative was my dive into one of the many Salem tourist groups on facebook: I picked Things to do in Salem, but there are many others. A couple of weeks ago, USA Today named the Salem Witch Museum the second biggest tourist trap in the world, and I was interested in reading some reactions to that. I found a solid defense of this attraction, based mostly on nostalgia: apparently its interpretation and presentation is so dated that it has become “historical” itself. There’s this relatively new defense of Salem attractions, that they are not and should not be Disney-esque, which is offered up with complete unawareness that it was the Salem Witch Museum that started us down that path. Most people also seemed to believe that the Salem Witch “Museum” presented a straightforward and accurate account of the Trials in a historical and global context and did not want to hear otherwise. I disagree, but this was no place to have a discussion: there is no place in Salem to have such a discussion. The type of information that people are seeking in these groups is perhaps 90% non-historical: how to get to Salem, how long to stay here, where to park, where to eat, the best attractions for kids, all about Hocus Pocus, and whether or not certain attractions are “worth it”? When “history” is referenced, I’m not sure what the meaning is, actually—just a kind of general historical environment or atmosphere? Other forums may yield different results, but I don’t discern a great deal of historical curiosity, and even less interest in architecture (though just like my fellow old house owners, everyone is very excited and enthusiastic). So it seems like the biggest thing I don’t get about Salem is the attraction! Ah well, to each his own, best to retreat to Maine and my academic pursuits. I did take a nice long walk around Salem last weekend so I’ll leave you with some pictures (and annotations) of not-quite calm before the storm. There’s quite a bit of ironwork below as that was my orginal pursuit, but it kind of got crowded out.
First up in my neighborhood, I wanted to showcase these two houses whose owners have invested in a lot of work! Kudos to them! Both are on Chestnut. As you can see, the first house has a way to go, but its very impressive entrance was just re-attached. It’s such a great house, with an amazing garden. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived briefly in the blue house. A rare Salem front garden on Essex—and this house has been thoroughly renovated as well. Besides the Witch House and the House of the Seven Gables, the only historic house that Salem tourists seem interested in these days is the Ropes House, because it was featured in Hocus Pocus of course. The Ropes Garden is consequently very crowded in the fall, but I caught it during a relatively calm time: more ropes in the Ropes Garden than ever before. This gate on Federal Court started off my iron hunt–I’m obsessed with it.
Downtown is quite a vibrant shopping scene with more than occasional bones and bats, and porta-potties, of course. There are some very well curated shops amidst the general kitsch, particularly Diehl Marcus & Co. (great ironwork and a Bulfinch building to boot) and Emporium 32 (in the old Custom House) on Central Street, and I’m so impressed that the owner of the new Silly Bunny and enduring Wicked Good Books (on different blocks of Essex Street) has declined to carry Bill O’ Reilly’s Killing Witches that I’m going to go in and buy a big bundle of books before I leave for Maine. The Peabody Essex Museum has opened a pop-up shop called the Bat Box to highlight its current bats exhibition: it’s a cute shop featuring the works of some local makers, but (once again) I don’t understand the attraction of coasters featuring a famous murder any more than I do witch souvenirs in the location of a series of famous judicial murders of accused witches.
Ghosts might trump witches this year eveywhere but Salem, of course. The ironwork at the Peabody Essex’s Gardner-Pingree House (which is never open) is simply astounding! A very busy Common, as the annual Food Truck Festival was underway, but once you get into the realm of Salem Maritime along Derby Street, not so busy. I still haven’t been in the Derby House even though it has been open this summer. The last photo just above is to remind me that I want to plant that particular variety of clematis next year!
I finished up my walk on Charter Street, where the Witch Trial Memorial and Burying Ground is located. As soon as I entered the latter, I was confronted by these strange mannequins, propped up right against the Cemetery’s gate and stones! So Salem: the juxtaposition of the sacred and the tacky, remembrance and exploitation, enduring and ephemeral.