Having provided a treatise on what exactly is a neighborhood, and then having provided a compendium of all Salem neighborhoods and districts, the time has now come to justify the list provided of Salem neighborhoods, following the rationales previously elaborated.
Why Neighborhood Designations Matter
Even to a small city like Salem proper neighborhood designations matter, actually especially to an uber-historic city like Salem. Neighborhoods tie a city together, providing cohesiveness to otherwise befuddling daily life. When neighborhoods are all too often shredded by electoral gerrymandering more than just political unity is lost – a sense of togetherness is gone.
Among other uses of neighborhood designations mentioned in previous posts, they are used to logically place civic facilities like firehouses, police stations, public schools and more. An exception is postal code boundaries, which follow neighborhood designations more by happenstance than intention*.
That said, let’s cut to Salem neighborhoods and districts, starting with the most equivocal designation.
The Mill Hill district downtown
Mill Hill was the designation given to the former “Little Italy” district, fronting at Riley Plaza and proceeding west all the way to the Jackson St. axis. Two problematic aspects: the name and the boundaries.
In historical accounts of Salem the Mill Hill designation seems to apply not only up the hill going up Gedney St, but equally to the other side, the eastern side, of the former Mill Cove. There were many reasons to question that designation:
- The eastern side of the former Mill Cove is more a riverine slope, not a hill with a crest; the western side is an actual hill rising along Gedney St with a crest roughly at the Broad St Cemetery.
- The colonial era mill from which the area gets its designation sat on the center of an earthen span across Mill Cove, so neither on one side or the other, but the street leading to the mill, Mill Street, was on the western side (see 1820 map). Mill Street, by the way, no longer exists, having been supplanted by Margin St.
- The eastern side belongs to The Point in official records (see 2018 map). The Point is a rare neighborhood in Salem with an official designation.
- Geographic landmarks mark off neighborhood boundaries. Mill Cove, then the railroad yards once the cove was filled in in the mid-19th century, then the parking lots of Riley Plaza that replaced the railroad yards in the mid-20th century, form a daunting border between the two areas.
If there remains disapproval of the Mill Hill designation, the fallback designation is the Greater Endicott district. But Mill Hill is so evocative, instantly giving a flavor of the area (there is a hill, and there was once a mill by that hill), while Greater Endicott reveals nothing.
Setting the eastern boundary of Mill Hill at Riley Plaza, then where falls the western boundary? Some sources cut off the district at the crest of the hill along Summer St, or if being generous on the far downslope at Winthrop St, but perusal of early 20th century Salem directories finds a surfeit of Italian surnames as far west as Hathorne and Phelps Streets, and even unto Jackson Street, so that’s where the boundary gets drawn. The other two compass points are more easily settled, the southern boundary set by the former Mill Pond now the MBTA railroad tracks; the northern boundary of Broad St marking off the aristocratic McIntire District unto which no Italian immigrant would have been allowed to venture.
Nearly wiped out in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, the Italian district was rapidly rebuilt. Fortunately the First Period 1665 Gedney House was saved, barely, from the conflagration, as was the intimidating gothic train station, though not the railroad yards behind the station.
View from Mill Hill looking across railroad yards towards The Point
Though losses were severe, Mill Hill came out of the fire better than the abutting The Point French neighborhood, which was annihilated in the fire.
Now let’s circle through the other downtown districts. First up is another former ethnic area, the Waterfront or Derby St District. This was from the end of the 19th through the mid 20th century a thriving Polish District, complete with Polish eateries, Polish bakeries, Polish barbers, Polish markets, Polish school, several Polish community centers,
Former Polish American Community Center
Polish churches (St. John the Baptist and for non-Catholics St. Nicholas Orthodox), even for a while a Polish library. The draw for Polish immigrants was work in Salem’s bustling factories, principally the Pequot Mills textile factory around the corner of the harbor in The Point, but also several leather factories that dotted the district. Strictly speaking, there were included Ukrainians and Slovaks and other Slavic ethnicities, but given the vagaries of Poland’s boundaries around the turn of the 20th century, it suffices to consider them all Polish.
At its height the area would have been categorized as a neighborhood, given the wide diversity of activities (industrial and commercial and institutional and homes and apartments and retail), but in the second half of the 20th century what happens to immigrant communities happened to the Waterfront District – descendents of the immigrants gradually moved away. With them gone, the community centers, the shops, the factories and all went away, even the Polish East Branch library, and the neighborhood categorization went away accordingly. Lured by breathtaking water views on every street, residences and former stores are getting converted into upscale condos. Today it’s hard to consider that the Waterfront
Neighborhood District was ever a downscale immigrant neighborhood.
The elegant Common and McIntire Districts, on the eastern and western edges of Downtown, respectively, will be considered together. Both are upscale residential districts established in the late 18th century, dense with grand estate homes in the Federal style popularized by celebrated Salem architect Samuel McIntire. Hence the designation as the, d’oh, McIntire District, and for purists the McIntire Historic District. Development continued through the Victorian era, with early Victorian Second Empire and Italianate homes commonplace in the McIntire District and late Victorian Queen Anne homes commonplace in the Common District, before reaching a stasis in the early 20th century that continues today. For my money, the collection of Queen Anne homes off Washington Square is the grandest set of such homes this side of the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.
Neither district ever sustained the diversity of functions necessary for categorization as a neighborhood, though both districts were once sprinkled with commercial shops (John Chandler Grocery Store at 107 Federal St; Stephen Fogg Store at 25 Flint St at the foot of Chestnut St; Hailey Drug Store on Washington Square). In the mid-20th century exclusionary zoning gradually choked all the shops out, removing a convenience for residents now forced to shop at remote stores. Both districts, aside from tourist attractions, are resolutely residential today.
The “Neck” Neighborhoods
There is no question that Salem’s two northeasterly peninsulas both represent long-established neighborhoods, not districts, as both are diverse as to activities and building types. Bridge Street Neck may be said to be Salem’s “oldest” neighborhood, as it was the landing site for the initial settlement expedition of 1626. It’s also a rarity in that an official map of neighborhood boundaries can be had.
A rare find – an official map of a Salem Neighborhood, the Bridge St Neighborhood. Current Salem Beverly Bridge at top. Bridge St traverses the neighborhood.
The Salem Neck Neighborhood is denser than other Salem neighborhoods with industrial activities, what with the Footprint Power Plant and South Essex Sewerage plant in its boundaries, and is denser as well in recreational / entertainment activities, what with both Winter Island and The Willows within its confines.
The “Compass Point” Neighborhoods
South Salem and North Salem in a tie for most lifeless neighborhood name. Twins in other ways as well. Both contain established commercial and retail districts, along North St for North Salem and along Lafayette St and Canal St for South Salem. Both contain long-term industrial districts, along the North River for North Salem and along Canal St for South Salem. Both contain celebrated green spaces, Mack Park and Greenlawn Cemetery for North Salem and Forest River Park for South Salem. Neither, despite long-standing existence, ever had an ethnic identity, though there was for a while a tiny Jewish immigrant community of a few dozen families in South Salem, focused on the Temple Shalom at 287 Lafayette St, now the School of Social Work building for Salem State University.
Former Temple Shalom South Salem
Besides the compass point, the biggest difference is that South Salem has Salem State University, with all the accompanying upsides and downsides of having a major university in one’s midst, while North Salem has no such counterpart.
Castle Hill – Salem’s Rockwellian Neighborhood
All of the neighborhoods / districts considered so far, except the central business district downtown, are noticeably short of the amenities – cafes, coffeehouses, pubs, bakeries, corner markets, libraries, tablecloth restaurants, boutiques, more – that make city life, hell life itself, so damn attractive. It’s not that Salem’s neighborhoods never had such things. The ethnic neighborhoods in particular, as well as the compass point neighborhoods, once had many. They vanished little by little in the second half of the 20th century, as central Salem hollowed out to half its population. Hard to recall today, what with sidewalk cafes and breweries bubbling seemingly on every corner, that even Downtown until recently was a tumbleweed zone. The recovery to the vibrant street life of today is only a quarter century along.
But Castle Hill never lost those varied attractions. Even today it is the most Norman Rockwell of Salem neighborhoods. Neighbors on a hot summer eve sitting on wrap-around front porches chatting to each other; kids walking to the corner store for ice cream then sitting on a street corner licking those cones; pick up ball games in the neighborhood park that actually has, get this, park benches where residents actually, get this, sit and people watch; local sit-down restaurants (Okea Grill, Dube’s), pubs (Tin Whistle) and corner stores (Castle Hill, Family) where everybody does know your name.
In late 19th century the yet to be developed Castle Hill area was almost an island. Note also how Salem Neck before landfill was almost separated from central Salem.
Established in the early 20th century after landfill operations connected an isolated hill to the rest of Salem (see topographic map), Castle Hill was initially a middle class French-Canadian neighborhood of colonial homes (Four-square and Dutch) and triple-decker apartments characteristic of the period. Most homes have been meticulously maintained. A favorite is this magnificent Stick style reproduction (say reproduction b/c Stick was a Midwest style virtually unknown in Salem), with diverse clapping, complex eave ornamentation, and a paint job so glowing it would seem to generate its own heat.
Gallows Hill – Inclusive of Witchcraft Heights and Blubber Hollow
In this survey of Salem neighborhoods the Gallows Hill neighborhood necessarily receives short shrift, as this a blog devoted to all matters Gallows Hill, so read pretty much any other post on this blog for background about Gallows Hill. (Recommended: Top Ten Reasons Gallows Hill is Historic; The Gablefront House Gets No Respect).
The Point – Salem’s only remaining ethnic neighborhood
The Point too has been considered before in posts of this blog, so receives little attention here. It remains the favorite Salem neighborhood of this blogger, with Castle Hill, given the effusion above, a close second. The Point is the only remaining ethnic neighborhood in Salem, though its ethnicity now (Hispanic, el barrio el punto) is far removed from its initial ethnicity (French-Canadian, le quartier le pointe).
No neighborhood is stagnant; it’s the nature and substance of the shifts that can cause friction**
* Because neighborhood boundaries are fluid, ever-changing, while postal zone boundaries are static, over time mismatches arise. A local example is zip code 02120 in Boston, which starts in the South End, gets a corner of Roxbury, includes most but not all of Mission Hill, and even takes a slice of the Fenway neighborhood. Oh my, pieces of four established neighborhoods in a single postal code.