Gallows Hill Park Closure Gets Serious

The closure of Mansell Playground portion of Gallows Hill Park in late December, due to toxic soil contamination, has in late January been cemented by erection of a six-foot chain link fence about the area. The flimsy orange netting originally installed had blown over in many places, a decay possibly accelerated by boarders in the adjacent skateboard yard testing their skills by leaping over the netting. No one is going to jump, climb, or leap over the replacement fence.000_0352
The competence that be the Parks and Rec Department did see to it that two of the three trash barrels servicing the park got trapped within the fence. As well as a personal garbage barrel a neighbor provided to collect recyclable items. The remaining barrel, despite getting emptied twice a week, cannot handle the increased use, meaning that the remainder of the park, already awash in litter and bags of dog poop, will only become more so. Extreme cold mitigates trash accumulation only slightly.

The tarps along the ground visible in the photo represent places dug up for soil testing. Once the boundaries of the soil contamination are demarcated, then a strategy for containing the contaminated soil can be devised, be it removal or encapsulation. It’s likely that the contaminated area will coincide with the sluice pond behind the immense tannery that a century ago occupied what is now Mansell Playground.

Expectations are that containment will commence at the earliest in mid-spring, so it’s likely that Mansell Playground will be closed to public use for most of 2019. So mid-summer basketball tournaments not, late summer cheerleading classes not, toddlers spending leisure time on the swings not. Such are the local consequences of deindustrialization.



Salem Neighborhoods. A. What is a Neighborhood?

Gallows Hill is a historic notable neighborhood in Salem MA. It is the centerpiece of this blog. There are other historic notable neighborhoods in Salem. In compiling post after post about this one neighborhood, it has been slowly realized that there is NO comprehensive listing of the neighborhoods of Salem, compiling names, boundaries, characteristics, and the like. Not in the City of Salem records, not on Wikipedia, not in Historic Salem, not anywhere that can be found.

Such an absence is most unusual. Other cities devote considerable resources to the definitions and characteristics of their constituent neighborhoods. In Boston for the past few decades that responsibility has fallen to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (née the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a name considered too stern, too authoritarian, to retain). The BPDA provides profiles, maps, development details, histories, of each and every Boston neighborhood. The site is a pleasure to browse. Other repositories of Boston, like Universal Hub and Boston Curbed, take their neighborhood designations from BPDA, with minor tweaks.

Even neighboring Beverly, a city often in the shadow of Salem, is aware of their neighborhoods. But Salem — nothing.


A column of Beverly neighborhoods

So as an unpaid public service, this blog will compile and list the first comprehensive description of ALL Salem neighborhoods.

Before getting to that ultimate listing (in a subsequent post), must first deal with the penultimate question of exactly What is a Neighborhood?

Neighborhood Definition

An official definition of Neighborhood, courtesy of Wikipedia, goes something like this:

Spatially a specific geographic area; functionally a set of social networks

There’s a lot of meaning to break out there, so let’s go step by step. In all the breakouts that follow most examples are taken from the neighborhoods of Boston (courtesy of BPDA), for it is those that local readers would be most familiar with.

Neighborhood as a Spatial Unit

  • compact and cohesive, not stringing through many areas of the city like a gerrymandered electoral district.


    Pennsylvania’s former 7th Congressional District. So many neighborhoods sliced and diced.

  • have fuzzy geographical boundaries, so it is often difficult to tell where one starts and another ends. Ordinarily, boundaries between neighborhoods are set by major geographical landmarks (rivers, highways, avenues, lakes). But as the geography changes, so then can the boundaries. e.g. South Boston – Roxbury border was set by the South Bay inlet. As South Bay was filled in the border became ever more nebulous, until now it’s unclear whether the South Bay area (Massachusetts Ave and Southampton St) belongs to one or the other neighborhood. Today, the BPDA puts most of South Bay in South Boston, but that could change. As it is, the boundaries of Mattapan change every time BPDA updates its neighborhood maps.

    boston 1884 map snippet

    In 1884 South Bay separates South Boston (center) from Roxbury (lower left), and for that matter from Dorchester (bottom).

  • boundaries are fluid. As noted in the previous bullet point, demarcations between neighborhoods are ever changing. Second, new neighborhoods can split off from previous neighborhoods, as areas of an older neighborhood become functionally distinct. Mission Hill, a long-term district of Roxbury, gradually became socially and commercially distinct from Roxbury until several decades ago the BRA gave it its independence. The Seaport is generally considered part of South Boston, but it is splitting apart from Southie, culturally, architecturally, and commercially. Soon the Seaport will secede from Southie (according to official arbiter that is the BPDA it already has, though BPDA anachronistically calls it the South Boston Waterfront and not the Seaport).

    south boston - seaport map

    Easy to distinguish nascent Seaport from venerable South Boston

  • though most neighborhoods are contained within a single municipality, some neighborhoods can cross city lines. An extreme example is Chestnut Hill, which contains portions of Brookline (Norfolk County), of Newton (Middlesex County), and of the Brighton and West Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston (Suffolk County).

Neighborhood as an interconnected Functional Unit

  • diverse in functionresidential [single-family through multi-family through large-scale]; commercial (retail, offices, etc); industrial (auto repair, warehouses, carpentry shops, etc); institutional (colleges, churches, government offices, etc); recreation / entertainment (restaurants, parks, sports venues, etc). A true neighborhood ought to have most though not necessarily ALL of these diverse functions.
  • exhibits great similarity in architecture style, unsurprisingly as neighborhoods are developed within a single generation. In Boston there’s no better example than red-bricked Beacon Hill townhouses.acorn st beacon hill
  • often but not necessarily homogeneous in ethnicity. This is the attribute that most urbanites are familiar with, thinking that a neighborhood is not a neighborhood unless it bears an ethnic identity. Think North End – Italian; South Boston – Irish; Roxbury – African; Chinatown – East Asian. Ethnicity is not prerequisite, however. Fenway is a distinctive neighborhood that’s never had any ethnic uniformity; Dorchester has always had every ethnic identity, not any one.
  • ethnicity itself is fluid, as one ethnic group becomes established, pulls up tent poles and moves somewhere else, and is replaced by another ethnic group. It’s little appreciated that Roxbury, today Boston’s quintessential black neighborhood, was once predominantly Jewish, especially the Blue Hill Ave side. In the space of a decade, from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, it became overwhelmingly African (white flight can reach a tipping point quickly). Such ethnic displacement is today lamented as gentrification, as if it were new, but new it isn’t. Gentrification has always been a hallmark of a vibrant changing city.
  • neighborhood activity is centered around a commercial square or corridor (Copley Square for Back Bay; Kenmore Square for Fenway). Larger neighborhoods sometimes have multiple centers (Roxbury with the triad Dudley Square, Egleston Square, and Grove Hall).
  • names are historical and often quirky. They are not bestowed upon a neighborhood, but arise up organically. Some neighborhood names are considered distasteful, if not outright slanderous, with powers that be trying to dignify and replace the original name. The evocative Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan is now officially the generic Clinton, but the change has not caught on and it shall always be Hell’s Kitchen (if ever watched West Side Story, that’s Hell’s Kitchen).  A similar effort is underway in Boston to alter the Bullfinch Triangle District (what’s disreputable about that name) into the Uptown neighborhood. Will it catch on?
  • employing a neighborhood name as a metonym is common. Beacon Hill as a stand in for Massachusetts state government; Fenway as stand in for Red Sox baseball.

District v. Neighborhood

District and neighborhood are interchangable semantically, but there is a difference. A District is functionally a rump neighborhood, containing just one function of all the functions fulfilled by a full neighborhood. Downtown Boston meets all hallmarks of a neighborhood, but the Financial District (banking & investment), Downtown Crossing (predominantly shopping), Government Center (exclusively civic), Theater District (entertainment) and Quincy Market (predominately entertainment) are all single-function districts within the Downtown neighborhood. None is a stand-alone neighborhood.

A Subdivision does NOT constitute a neighborhood

Subdivisions are exclusively residential with exclusionary zoning restrictions preventing any other use. Subdivisions do not have commercial or recreational or industrial or any other function inclusive. Therefore, one must drive out of the subdivision to fulfill any other function of daily living besides residing. Neighborhoods are self-contained; subdivisions not.

Developers apply euphonic names to subdivisions to mimic organic neighborhood names (Rolling Glen Estates, Harmony Acres). Such names are cheesy and readily mocked, Neighborhood Name Generatorbut they reveal a deep yearning to be like a neighborhood, though anything but a neighborhood.

Benefits of Neighborhood

Neighborhood designations matter. They provide cultural and political cohesiveness. They provide a sense of connection. They provide a sense of origin (when Mark Wahlberg is interviewed he says he is from Daw-chesta not Boston. Other celebrities speak likewise). If nothing else, they provide soul to a city.

A grievous sin of gerrymandering electoral districts, besides all else that the practice tarnishes, is that it shreds neighborhoods of a city into tiny inchoate parcels (see figure above). All character, all cohesiveness, is destroyed. Much as one has identity with a neighborhood, one should have identity with an electoral district. A gerrymandered district has no identity, no soul.


Pennies from Heaven on Proctor’s Ledge Memorial

The Proctor’s Ledge Memorial survived its second October Madness in fine mettle. The crowds have dissipated and the Memorial enters its winter slumber. The biggest bugaboo of local residents, traffic, never materialized as most visitors, in clots of three or four, walked from downtown attractions, phone GPS in hand. How does he know? This blogger lives in a house overlooking Proctor’s Ledge, and every glance out the living room window provides a census of activity.Proctor Ledge Xmas
This year visitors followed Hebraic memorial tradition (thanks closing scene of Schindler’s List) and piled river stones atop the rough-hewn wall, so much so that neighbors had to send 311 messages to the City of Salem (here called SeeClickFixit but the same deal). Parks Dept. personnel in early November swept all the rocks into the trough at the base of the wall from whence they came.000_0337

Another tradition that got out of hand this season was placing coins of small denomination atop the wall. The quarters, dimes and nickels were gratefully collected by the denizens of Boston Street Crossing, which became fully occupied by formerly homeless in mid-2018. For them the memorial is their backyard. But the pennies they generally let be. Oh the pennies! So many pennies!Image result for so many pennies gif

Going on past Thanksgiving passersby would sweep a handful of pennies into their pockets, until by New Years the pennies, so many pennies, were all gone. Perhaps even a few Part Dept. employees helped themselves to a handful? There might be a few pennies hiding in the turf above or the rock trough beneath, but it’s not worth the effort to pry them out. In any case the Memorial wall is now denuded of rocks and coins.

Another tradition is the laying of shells, clam shells mostly, upon the wall, but luckily that custom never got out of hand. sea shells proctor ledge memorialOf course there are the many flowers left, which are gathered weekly for compost. Lastly there’s the leaving of greeting cards, which if not rained upon are blown by the winds upwards of Gallows Hill. For residents wondering why memorial cards collect in their driveway, that’s why.

Going into the New Year the Memorial is absent any offering, rarely visited. So it shall remain until pleasant spring weather again returns.

This city [wall] now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning, silent, bare


Construction in Blubber Hollow. End-of-Year Assessment.

The Blubber Hollow portion of Gallows Hill was once home to dozens of productive tanneries employing thousands of workers at peak in the early 20th century. Photos from that period show streets abuzz with people and carts. All those workers need places to sleep, eat, drink, and shop, so cheek by jowl with all those tanneries were apartments, diners, bars, and markets.

When the leather industry collapsed post-WWII and all those tanneries disappeared so did all of those ancillary businesses. Blubber Hollow ‘hollowed’ out, and for the last 50 years or more its streets never abuzz with any activity.


Finally, after decades of trying to build anew but coming up empty, perhaps the rebirth of Blubber Hollow began in earnest in 2018.

  • the new Salem Senior Community Life Center at 401 Bridge Street, at was once the out buildings of an enormous Sylvania Electronics plant, opened for business in September. The building is far from distinguished, resembling more than anything else the warehouses that once dotted the site, but hell, after 25 years of trying to build a replacement for the doddering former center on Broad St, anything will do. The interior is actually way more appealing, apart from head-scratching design flaws, like placing the dance floor over, not under, office spaces.
  • The River Rock Apartment and Townhouse Residences is arising on the site where Flynn Tan tannery once commanded Boston St. The central apartment building is basically completed, being using now mostly for storage of construction materials, but cannot open for tenants until the six townhouses to its northwest are completed. Or the wait for opening could be even longer until the five townhouses to the southeast at 11 Goodhue St, where auto repair shops once operated, is further along than its current stage of framing the foundation.

River Rock Apartments (L) completed but not to open until townhouse units (R) at 90 Boston St are further along

  • At the other end of Blubber Hollow, Ice Cream Way, a conversion of a 1917 Hood Ice Cream plant into ten condo units, with 19 new townhouse units across three buildings to fill the other corners of the site, rose on S. Mason St. The first seven townhouse units, folding in and echoing the design of a modest duplex Queen Anne home, are ready for purchase and occupancy.
  • The Salem Oil and Grease factory at 60 Grove St, spread at one time across half a dozen buildings spanning the North River and empty for decades, is at long last, getting demolished. Another year and it might have fallen down on its own, so decrepit was the factory. Once demolished, perhaps by mid-2019, construction will begin on 140 new apartments across four low-slung buildings that will occupy half of the 8-acre site, the other half becoming landscaped garden space. Perhaps, if projected population growth continues in Greater Boston keeping housing in extraordinarily high demand, in coming years the other four acres could be filled in.

Of the two oldest buildings of Salem Oil & Grease only these sorry foundations remain. Once torn out attention will turn to removing two bridges across the North River that once connected to the building beyond, then to that sturdier brick building itself.

60 Grove St aerial view

Of the sprawling Salem & Grease complex all that remains standing is the red brick building center-left and the garage building bottom-left.

  • Next to Salem Oil & Grease, legal recreational marijuana sales, the first in Greater Boston, commenced just before Xmas at Alternative Therapies Group at 50 Grove St. Sales are brisk, and with the City of Salem collecting 6% on every sale, could put more than a million dollars into city coffers in 2019. With no other pot shops due to open in Salem for at least six months, likewise in Greater Boston, it appears that Blubber Hollow keeps pot excitement to itself for a considerable time.


Not that everything is rosy. Redevelopment of the Salem Suede site on Flint St is on ‘sabbatical’ while the property owners searches for a new developer after the first two successively backed out. The plant is razed, but only serves now as a site for homeless encampments and burrows for the ever-present rats of Blubber Hollow.


All that’s been built so far of the Gateway Center

And the primo site in all of Salem, the corner of Bridge and Boston Streets, scheduled to be filled by a new Gateway Center with shops and ~150 apartments, is also on indefinite pause, a placemarking shed occupying the desolate corner. Both sites have been ‘under development’ for going on 30 years now. Such is fitful progress in Salem.

And worst of all, redevelopment plans by FW Webb Plumbing for the former Universal Steel site at 301 Bridge St were fully withdrawn after local NIMBY’s succeeded in their policy of filing frivolous lawsuit after frivolous lawsuit until finally in exasperation the developer quit and left. Some fifty jobs departed Salem. More on this appalling development in later posts.

And not a setback per se, but the warehouse at 63 Grove St, directly across from the Salem Oil & Grease demolition, has been empty for months, years actually, with a fraying For Lease banner hung over the front. It is enormous, 34,000 sq ft of floor space, built in 1953 at the time the local leather industry was disintegrating, optimism still high that the industry could ride out the downturn. It didn’t, and the building never was fully engaged. It’s in the best shape of any remaining factory building in Blubber Hollow, and an imaginative developer could turn it into appealing living space, what with it’s 200 yard stretch directly on the North River, almost all the way to Bridge St.63 grove st
But enough construction is ongoing to bring hope that with so many people moving in that urban amenities like those that once lined the streets of Blubber Hollow, markets and restaurants and pubs and cafes and the like, will yet return. Already, signs have appeared in the windows of empty 100 Boston St that New England Bakery of Maine is soon to fill the space, specializing in gourmet donuts. What with A&J King Artisan Bakers opening in 2017 up the road at 139 Boston St, and a ubiquitous Dunkin branch down the road at 68 Boston St, any cravings for calorie-rich baked goods in Blubber Hollow will be readily quenched. Pot users around the corner be alerted.



Emergency, Emergency, Everybody to Get from [Gallows Hill] Park*

Daily dogwalkers through Gallows Hill Park were startled the week before Xmas when suddenly the entire lower portion of the park, the Mansell Playground corner, was closed off by orange netting. Turns out that preliminary testing of the soil in preparation for rehab of Gallows Hill Park had detected elevated levels of arsenic in the soil. According to the City of Salem report:

Environmental consultants initially took seven boring samples from across the entire park, with only one boring, from the soccer field, indicating the presence of arsenic at the reportable level. Subsequently 10 additional borings were taken in the soccer field and playground areas. Three of those 10 secondary borings also exceeded the reportable levels of arsenic.

Levels reportable to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) are >20 ppm, while >40 ppm triggers an immediate site closing. Three of the 10 secondary samples at the soccer field exceeded that 40 ppm threshold. Hence the immediate site closing!


Mansell Playground closed

The immediate question: where did all that arsenic come from? The answer is immediately answered when a 1912 photo of the site surfaced, taken from a position in Gallows Hill Park overlooking what is now the Mansell Playground portion of the park.


That immense six-story building is a tannery, a leather factory resident at 50 Proctor St for nearly 100 years. Home to the Cooke Bros. Leather Co., purveyors of fine sheepskins, and to the Acme Leather Co. (the 1912 Salem Directory does not list the specialty of Acme).

Today the tannery is gone, nary a trace remaining. To orient the viewer to current structures: the homes to the center left still stand along Langdon St; the basketball court is just to their right where a slag heap apparently stands in the 1912 photo; the soccer field extends from the middle of the tannery encompassing all the out buildings and the sluice pond. Mansell Parkway was built after the tannery was razed, as best as can be determined in the early 1950’s, and extends from the top right of the tannery down through the sluice pond.

The gablefront house prominent in the rear is 58 Proctor St, still standing today. Just beyond it is 67 Proctor, odd Victorian tower still extent today. The barren ledge over the top of the tannery is Norman’s Rock, today the place of the Salem Heights affordable apartment complex; beyond that the former Salem High School looms in the distance on Highland Ave, today the Collins Middle School. Left of Norman’s Rock, off the left frame of the photo, is Proctor’s Ledge, where a Memorial to the Witchcraft Trials victims opened in 2017.


A view of 50 Proctor St today, the Mansell Playground, from the opposite orientation of photos above. Langdon St to the right, Mansell Pkwy to the left, Gallows Hill water tower overlooking Gallows Hill Park in the center top.


Just the lower portion of Gallows Hill park is closed, the portion outlined in the dotted red line. The skate park and upper portion of park remain open.Though Gallows Hill Park was established in 1912, one of the earliest parks in Salem, the contaminated Mansell Playground portion was only appended in the 1950’s.

It could be that the arsenic contamination came from factory effluent dumped into the pond behind (see photo above), but the more likely source is the coal ash used to fill in the pond when the factory was demolished and the Mansell Playground created and appended to Gallows Hill park, sometime in the early 1950’s. Coal ash is notoriously high in arsenic. Coal ash would never be used as fill today, but doing so was common practice in the mid-20th century.

After demolition of the tannery Mansell Pkwy was pushed through, and the houses now on that street, and the intersecting Looney Ave, were erected in the period from the late 50’s to early 60’s. The street and the park filled with Baby Boomer children, many of whom returned this past summer for an enormous block party. When they frolicked barefoot in Mansell Playground in the 1960’s the coal ash fill was fresh and its toxins near the surface; today after decades of subsumation the arsenic is a foot underground and likely not a threat to cheerleading practices held daily throughout the fall on that ground.

The street and playground are named for Private Benjamin F. Mansell, a Gallows Hill native killed in action in 1944 in Italy. But how does a street barely 100 yards long with only three houses on its length, four if the corner split-level at 11 Looney Ave is included, merit the honorific parkway?


Many detractors of the Haunted Happenings events that dominates Salem streets each October, thinking that the celebrations trivialize the horrid events of 1692 (and they do, but so what), try to put the focus instead on the maritime legacy of Salem. Those efforts never succeed, perhaps because the maritime legacy itself is trivial, lasting a brief generation with no lasting relevance on American culture, besides upper crust houses in the McIntire District. Even favorite son Nathaniel Hawthorne saw it as such (read, or re-read, the opening chapter to The Scarlet Letter).

A grander, more lasting Salem legacy is the leather industry, but it is a legacy mostly disregarded. After all, look at the size of that factory in a residential area! One of more than a hundred such factories in and near Gallows Hill. Leather was King in Salem for over a century, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. A half century after the collapse of that industry the consequences linger: soil contamination in parks, deindustrialization of choice properties, battles over new development, pensions that senior citizens counted on evaporated, traffic and transit patterns designed for King Leather hard to redesign.

It is a legacy that this blog intends to return to again and again.

* With apologies to The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.