Previous posts have harped upon that the revelation that the last century of “development” has brought no “growth” to Salem, in that its population today is the same as a century ago. In other words, population density is half today what it was a century ago, implausible to anybody stuck in Salem traffic.
Which raises the obvious question – where the hell did all those people live?
It may be true that people did live in more crowded quarters a century ago, in large multi-generational families, often with boarders besides. And single family houses on expansive lots were uncommon. But those factors, though appreciable, cannot by themselves account for the drop in density.
The Real Answer: parking lots and street widening devoured housing.
In dozen of locations across Salem, residential buildings were torn down to make space for cars, to park them, to drive them. Replacing these lost housing units was never a consideration, until the last few years. Several “then and now” examples illustrate just how much was discarded.
Church Street Lot
First up is perhaps the most infuriating example, the block between Church and Federal Streets south to north, St. Peter and Washington Streets east to west. A victim of the benighted urban renewal push of the late 1960’s, the area is now the Church St parking lot, with space for hundreds of cars.
A quick count of the late 19th century “Then” map finds 30+ houses lost. Given that most were 3+ stories, and estimating 15 persons per house, gives possibly 500 people displaced, in just that one block. Given nowhere to go, most of the displaced likely departed Salem for good.
The only buildings to survive, outlined in blue, were the former central firehouse with its striking lookout tower and the adjoining Salem Water Commission office, now repurposed as the Firehouse Coffee Shop (what else?) and Milk and Honey Green Grocer, respectively. In the red outline was built the Salem District Courthouse, a hideous example of Brutalist architecture (among other oversights were windows and natural sunlight) that itself is destined to be demolished and replaced by appealing condominiums, should problems with toxic material buried at the site be overcome from when the lot was a “lubritorium”.
The promise of urban renewal was that developers would scramble to fill the area with “outstanding” modern replacements, but proponents failed to comprehend that if there were no impetus for expansive projects before clearing, there would certainly be no impetus after. And there was none.
Though other nearby lots have been slowly filled over the 50 years since urban renewal sucked the heart out of historic Salem, this block remains impermeable to development. So far as can be determined, there’s never been a serious proposal. The infuriation is that the Museum Place Garage sits across Church St, which outside of October rarely passes 50% occupancy. Why park there when the more convenient surface lot bids attention? Until the surface lot is displaced the parking garage, which barely generates enough revenue to maintain upkeep, will remain underused.
North Street Overpass
The next example, also downtown, is an area that fell victim to both street widening and house clearing, the Bridge St / North St intersection. Building of the North Street Overpass in the early 1950’s not only took out the historic Old North Bridge, site of Leslie’s Retreat in 1775, but necessitated removal of scores of buildings along North and Bridge Streets (marked with dotted blue line), displacing hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses. Worse, building of a cumbersome half-cloverleaf to connect Bridge St to North St removed Odell St. from the map forever, and took out the North Street Arena (round red building in the 1911 map), home to roller skating, boxing and wrestling events. Talk about losing your mojo!
To appraise how much was lost, note that the FW Webb building, now right next to the North Street cloverleaf, a hundred years ago had dozens of structures between it and North Street.
The part of the cloverleaf nearer courthouse row was removed almost a decade ago to make room for construction of the new Salem Courthouse. The former Baptist Church (large red building just outside dotted line) was moved closer to North St and incorporated into the Ruane Courthouse as the Essex Law Library.
The overpass was built to eliminate the railroad grade crossing at a time when trains to and from Peabody passed frequently. But with only one small freight train a week passing through the overpass has long outlived its usefulness, and hinders traffic between downtown and North Salem. For a multitude of reasons it needs to come down, but that’s a topic for a future post.
St James Church campus
The next example is notable because the offender was the Catholic Church, showing that not only government organizations were to blame for sundering Salem. Behind the St James Church and former St. James School is an immense parking lot along Bridge St, where once there were a half dozen houses. Even worse, a past forgotten widening of Flint Street took out a handful of homes between the church and the street. Not all that many homes lost here, but dammit, generations lived in those homes.
That parking lot today is never filled, outside of the occasional funeral service. Only a few dozen dispirited and general elderly parishioners attend weekly services, even after the St. Joseph’s congregation in The Point (obliterated) and the St. John the Baptist Polish congregation (downsized to the John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine) downtown were folded into St. James. This white elephant of a church cannot hold on for many more years. To make up somewhat for the lost housing the former rectory on Federal St has been converted into apartments, and the former convent is being condo-ized. Perhaps shortly the school and the church itself will follow? Desperately needed housing, after all, is a higher purpose.