Boston Street Crossing. Phase 2 Opens and a Mural Adorns Phase 1.

The Boston Street Crossing project for formerly homeless individuals redeveloped two former decrepit buildings along Boston Street. Phase 1 opened in March at 43 Boston Street (12 units) in Gallows Hill, in an old tenement steps from the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials and Great Salem Fire Memorials. Up Boston Street, Phase 2 at 179 Boston Street (14 units) opened in early October, remodeling an elegant Second Empire house atop a Gallows Hill ridge overlooking Peabody. Both now contain studio apartments with private baths and kitchenettes, versus shared bath and no kitchen facilities in their previous incarnation as SRO boarding houses.

179 Boston St grand opening

Phase 2 Grand Opening


Phase 2 Interior

Boston Street Crossing is operated by the non-profit Harborlight Community Partners, with on-site counseling from Lifebridge of Salem to provide needed supportive services.


Phase 2 before renovation. Greatly improved

Glad to see these open, as supportive housing for the repeatedly homeless is desperately needed in Salem. Hell, a homeless women died of exposure atop a ridge just last month in Gallows Hill Park. The Gallows Hill neighborhood is better for having these homes among us.

Now to make the opening of Boston Street Crossing even better, Phase 1 now sports on its east brick wall a grand new mural.mural-43-boston-st.jpgSuch vibrant murals have become common in The Point neighborhood on the other side of Salem, but this is the first one for the Gallows Hill neighborhood. Given the two bodegas that also opened on Boston Street recently (for those not from NYC, bodega = Hispanic mini-mart), these openings are perhaps indicative of improved ethnic diversification of the once thoroughly Irish-Catholic enclave of Gallows Hill.




Proctor’s Ledge Memorial Weighed Down

Besides the flowers and small gifts and spare change (yes really; the tenants down the block at Boston Street Crossing shelter appreciate the donations), in the last month the habit has become to stack river stones atop the Memorial wall.



Following the Hebraic custom of setting small stones upon grave markers, visitors to the memorial have been piling river stones atop the rough-hewn wall. There’s even opened a competition of which of the deceased gets the largest pile. Currently John Proctor is leading, with Rebecca Nurse close behind.

There are lots of river stones placed in the trough beneath the memorial wall. So many have been picked up and placed upon the wall than in several places the ledge underneath is poking through. Likely the stones will be allowed to amass past Halloween, then city workers will sweep them back into the trough.

The memorial is loaded with symbols, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to review them.

  1. A single tree in the center of the semi-circular memorial. The victims were hung from trees, not a prepared gallows. Enough said.
  2. Rusticated stone wall. In precolonial New England property lines between farms were marked by rough stone walls. Many still exist around the North Shore.
  3. Trough of smoothed river stones. At the time of the hangings a babbling brook ran along Proctor’s ledge, flowing down from the peak of Gallows Hill, emptying into a pond that filled what is now the Walgreen’s parking lot before emptying in turn into the North River. The condemned crossed a small bridge over the brook to reach Proctor’s Ledge, so the sounds of the water rushing around river stones might have been the last sounds they heard. The brook still exists, running underground now through pipes, except for a short surface eruption behind 15 Pope St.
  4. Semi-circular recessed crevice. After the dead were kept hanging all through the day, as a “warning” to passersby, the bodies were cut down and reputedly thrown into a crevice on Proctor’s Ledge to rot. Under cover of darkness family members came to retrieve the remains and give them surreptitious burial. The memorial is built into one such crevice.
  5. Simple name markers carved into flat stones. No more information than name and date of death. Simple stones for ordinary people living ordinary lives. More ornate markers just would not do.
  6. Vertical, not horizontal, name markers. The first attempt at a fitting Witchcraft Trials memorial, opened in 1992 in the Old Burying Point cemetery downtown, featured name markers in horizontal stone slabs. Too many visitors mistake them for benches and sit on them while eating fast food meals, desecrating the memorial. Lesson learned. No eating lunch at the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial. Image result for Old Burying Point cemetery 2018

St. James Church Nearer, My God, to Closing

The St. James Church on Federal Street (parish established 1850, current church building opened 1892) was for more than a century the heart of the Irish Catholic community of Gallows Hill. More Irish immigrant children attended St. James School than attended Salem public schools. Thousands were baptized there, confirmed there, married there, lay in memorial there.

But that time is so early 20th century. St. James, like all Catholic churches in Salem, for that matter all Catholic churches in the Boston Diocese, has fallen on hard times. The school closed in the early 70’s, the nunnery soon thereafter, the rectory, once home to as many as eight resident priests, as well. The magnificent church is still open, but the congregation has diminished to almost nothing, a few dozen mostly elderly congregants at Sunday Mass. To reflect the diminished presence the directory sign was recently painted over, but painted so thinly that the former schedule is visible underneath. Almost weekly funeral services reflect the advancing ages of the remaining congregants.

000_0339What happened!? Well a large part is the increasingly secular culture of America, but more significantly it is the ongoing, never-ending priest pedophile scandals. Church leaders promise full disclosure, then another release of records reveals more crimes, more abusive priests, more cover ups. The Catholic Church worldwide has indeed been revealed as a “vast criminal conspiracy“. There seems to be a new report of corruption and criminality in every newscast. Pennsylvania last week, Virginia this week.

The priest pedophile scandals have especial resonance for St James Parish, for it was here that one of the first priest sex scandals came to light. The Rev. Joseph Birmingham molested dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of young boys during his tenure at St James in the late 1960’s. It was one of those molested, Paul Cultrera, who went public in 1992, causing dozens of others to come forward with their stories of molestation at the hands of Rev. Birmingham. The Catholic hierarchy naturally suppressed Cultrera’s disclosures, an effort abetted by Birmingham’s “fortunate” premature demise in 1989.

It was not until the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe revealed the multitude of priestly molestations in 2002 that the Birmingham crimes again came to light. The full shocking story is ably covered in Hand of God, a documentary put out in 2006 by Joe Cultrera, brother of Paul, and a film that should be must viewing for all Salemites. Bonus credit to any viewer who grasps the sexual pun in the title.

One particularly tristful scene in Hand of God is when the film crew passes by the former rectory. “There,” exclaims Paul Cultrera, “top floor, left front corner. That’s where the bastard raped me.”

161 Federal (2)

Third floor corner

Wonder who has that apartment now, or if they know what went down there.


The bygone vibrancy of St James parish is recalled by the washed-out sign behind the former nunnery on Bridge St along Blubber Hollow. Despite the conversion of the former nunnery at 162 Federal St into eight apartments, open just this month and now available for rent, the sign still remains. The parking lot for the “nunnery apartments” is still under construction (you can rent here; you just cannot park here), so the faded sign remains, at least for now.


Restoration of former St James convent

There have been transitions to try to restore St James. For the first church closures 15 years ago a lay committee recommended that St. James, as the least busy church in Salem, be closed. The archdiocese snubbed that recommendation and instead closed St. Joseph, the most busy parish. Go figure. In 2013 St James, St John the Baptist, and Immaculate Conception parishes joined as a collaborative, along with St. Anne atop Castle Hill, saving expenses by sharing one pastor, clergy, staff and other resources. The collaborative did not reverse the decline.

Then in mid-2017 St. John the Baptist parish was dissolved and the church converted into Pope John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine. Concurrently St. James and Immaculate Conception were joined together into a single parish and renamed Mary, Queen of the Apostles Parish, or more fittingly, Maria, Reina de los Apostoles, since it is predominantly a parroquia hispana now.

According to the archdiocesan representative “the changes are needed to deal with decreased attendance, donations and participation at all three parishes.” A disaffected congregant was not buying the argument, suggesting that “in five years we’ll be here again saying we’re out of money.”

And specious arguments like this one will not reverse the decline either: “[Bishop Mark] O’Connell said church officials prefer trying this plan rather than closing churches … due to the ‘pagan presence’ in the community.” Really!?

There was once an incredible seven parishes in Salem. Considering that the population of Salem was likely never more than half Catholic, that means at most 18,000 (Salem fluctuated in the high thirty thousands for most of the 20th century) split seven ways, or a thin 2500 per parish. Somehow they all once thrived.

  1. St James: serving the Irish community of Gallows Hill.
  2. St Thomas: at the end of North St just over the border with Peabody. Original parish covered North Salem and the northeastern corner of Peabody. Merged with Our Lady of Fatima in Peabody and accordingly no longer a “Salem” parish.
  3. St Joseph: on Lafayette St in The Point, the first French-Canadian parish est. 1884. Parish dissolved in 2004, church razed and eventually apartments built in its place. School and rectory still standing, empty and in disrepair. St. Joseph’s parish joined to St. James parish in 2004.
  4. St Anne: on Castle Hill the second French-Canadian parish est. 1901. Burned down and rebuilt in the 1980’s, and surprisingly the only original parish still extant, though part of the Salem collaborative with St. James and Immaculate Conception.
  5. St. John the Baptist: on St. Peter St. in downtown area to serve the Polish community, est. 1909. Closed as a parish and re-purposed as the Pope John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine in 2017.
  6. Immaculate Conception: the first Catholic church in Salem est. 1826. Often considered the first Irish-Catholic church, with St. James the second, but as in 1826 there were no Catholics in Salem but Irish Catholics, so calling it the first Irish Catholic parish seems a reach.
  7. St. Mary: Italian Catholic church on Margin St in the Little Italy section, est. 1914, closed 2003. Now the Lifebridge mission providing housing and services for the homeless.

Why St. James church is kept on life support likely comes down to wanting to keep the magnificent building in the herd. The stunning Gothic Revival brick and stone edifice is 178 feet in length, with a fabulous steep-pitched roof nave 98 feet tall. The hulking church is visible from all parts of Gallows Hill, as evident in this photo.St James sunset

Even more spectacular is the church interior. St James Church interior 1

Supreme credit due to the Irish immigrant stonemasons and woodwrights who put the place together a century and a quarter ago.

The pedestrian Immaculate Conception church, where most of the parish action now takes place (it has a bursting schedule of services), just cannot compare. Still, as doubtful congregants attest, it seems likely that St James will close for good “in five years”. Its eventual fate will likely be conversion to luxury apartments / condos. Church conversions are challenging, given the immense interior space that needs to be subdivided, but with all the church closings happening around Boston conversions are being undertaken ever more frequently, and so contractors are getting experienced in church conversions. Note for instance the conversions of Holy Trinity German Catholic church and Immaculate Conception Catholic church, both in Boston’s South End.


Overcooked Homes in Witchcraft Heights. V. Must Love Heavy Wood

Been a while since a visit to an overcooked house of Witchcraft Heights. An Overcooked House is a subcategory of McMansion Hell, but whereby a McMansion comes to detestation by birth, an Overcooked Home comes to detestation by virtue of unrestrained redevelopment from an gracious split-level or raised ranch tract house.

Birthed as a conventional and modest split-level or raised ranch … expanded and added onto and rebuilt and rejiggered so that it graduates to McMansion Hell status, ostentatious and tacky and soulless, causing passersby to screech WTF!”

Though there are overcooked homes in almost any established tract house subdivision, and though there are raised ranches and split-levels sprinkled throughout all other regions of  Salem, for some reason yet to be deciphered, in Salem they are only found in Witchcraft Heights, where they are so prevalent that nearly every street has one, and some blocks have two or three. Unconstrained by any design review board or subdivision bylaws, truly it’s the lawless Wild West, where anything goes.

That screed brings us to this week’s example, which like other examples has been cooked beyond all boundaries of good taste. By good fortune it is listed for sale, giving public access to many interior photos. The photos scream the subtitle to this post, Must Love Heavy Wood. Also: Must Love Backyard Sheds.83 Valley - overgrownThe streetview façade shows nothing truly unusual, apart from the porthole cut in above the front door. Porthole affectation seem almost obligatory in Witchcraft Heights (see here and here). In preparation for the listing a large tree that fully obscured the house was cut down and chipped out, a plastic picket fence added to enhance curb appeal. The  bones of the house is raised ranch, with garage filled in and converted to living space, another almost obligatory affectation. There is the odd stubby third floor, which will be returned to momentarily.

83 Valley interior

The 1st floor is nearly entirely living room, the attic cut out to release a cathedral ceiling, the walls to the 1st floor bedrooms torn down and the space incorporated into the vast entertaining space. With bedrooms consumed they were regained in two ways, first that odd attic bump out seen in the streetview photo, and second a long dormer in the rear added to create loft space overlooking the living area.

83 Valley rear

Rear shows addition onto addition onto addition

Cathedral ceilings used to be all in vogue, hell this blogger grew up in one, but with growing discernment of how expensive such an area is to heat and cool they’ve become quite passé.  Same for loft space, and with access only via that spiral staircase it would be devilishly difficult to get furniture up and down. Spiral staircases are used in tight quarters, but here there is oceans of space so why not instead a conventional staircase?

But none of this is what really strikes the casual viewer. Its all that heavy dark wood, every wall, across the ceiling loft, every floor, even the kitchen floor, the railings, the trim, the moldings, the cabinets, all the furniture, the vanities, heavy dark wood flowing and rolling and strutting everywhere.

83 Valley interior 2

Can there ever be an end to it all the wood?

The other inexplicable is the sheer number of backyard sheds. Four of them, in a vast backyard devoid of flower or vegetable or rock gardens, of any landscaping, of a shrubbery, even of a small pool. Even the truncated patio, smaller than the sheds, provides no justification.

83 Valley back yard

What is there that fills four sheds?

All of these oddities in an immense 3100 sq. ft. listing can be yours for nearly a half mil. A deal, or a white wood elephant? You decide.

Construction in Blubber Hollow. September Update

The news this month is that the new Senior Center Mayor Jean Levesque Community Life Center finally had its grand opening, a mere 25 years after the previous City Hall administration of Mayor Jean Levesque determined that a new center was needed and set the gears moving for a replacement center. Rare is the Salem initiative that gets completed with the lifetime of the family pet. Sigh. So long has it been that this blog writer, a young man when plans for a new Senior Center were first put forth, is now almost eligible for its services.

But here is the CLS, not only housing the Council on Aging, but also the Veterans Services Department and the Department of Recreation, Parks and Community Services. The odd inclusion of ‘Community Services’, without mind you the Oxford comma, to what in most municipalities is simply ‘Parks and Rec‘ explains the insistence of “Community Life” in the official name of what nearly everyone will call the Senior Center.

The other side of the enormous lot where the Senior Center rests, once home to the massive Sylvania plant, awaits its transformation into the Gateway mixed use (multi-family residential and first-floor commercial) project at Four Corners, the corner of Bridge and Boston Streets. gateway-center-plans.jpg
Currently the weed-infested site is walled off from the new Senior Center by a temporary stockade fence, the only sign that plans are afoot to start construction being a forlorn tiny shed placed in the middle of the wasteland, its purpose unknown. Original indications were that construction would begin immediately upon completion of the Senior Center, but it’s three months on from completion and not a shovel to be had.000_0336

Across Bridge St, behind the Dunkin Donuts on the triangle between Bridge, Boston and Goodhue Streets, construction on the River Rock apartment and townhouses continues to please. The more of the central apartment building that appears, the more that is to be liked. The almost playful facade with its twists and turns and projections and recesses, its variety of textures, may alternatively delight or puzzle but never bores. 000_0334Take the bricked east side for playful multiplicity of materials. Below the stone string course is conventional red brick, but above it is press-on stucco imitation brick, assembled much like a child’s Lego set. Only up close can the difference be noted. What will line the roofline parapet remains to be seen, but looking forward to it.

Five additional townhouses to fill the gap before the east side of the apartment building, where Juniors Auto Body Shop once did business, have been approved. Pouring of the foundation is soon to start, perhaps in time for the next Blubber Hollow Construction Update.

000_0335On the other side of the construction site, towards upper Grove St, the framing of the six townhouses is nearly complete. The incredibly intricate top floor roofline has taken months to frame, what with multi-faceted dormers, sprightly gables, and extended eaves, all of which echo vintage homes throughout Gallows Hill. Cannot wait for what more delights the facade covering of the townhouses will present.