SALEM IS NOT A BIG CITY AND SHOULD NOT CHASE A BIG CITY AGENDA

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^ the new waterfront in Salem : emblematic of mayor Driscoll’s 14 years of city leadership

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Reading the many pronunicamentos published about Salem’s future by Mayor Kim Driscoll, I’m constantly wondering whether I’m reading something posted by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Affordability, bike lanes, theme parks, even Sanctuary City (which I supported and still do support) — the entire message is that which Walsh, as Mayor of a huge city — a metropolis — has to face and should face.

Yet Salem is NOT a metropolis. It’s not a big city at all. Why then does Mayor Driscoll want to address Salem’s future as if it were Boston ?

Perhaps she thinks that by creating an arena in which big city issues dominate, Salem will somehow become a city of 100,000 people, even 200,000, rather than the 40,000 who call this quite small city home. Of perhaps Driscoll simply envies big city Mayors, who can perform on the Big Stage dealing with the Big Urban Issues that Mayors worldwide confer about when they gather to exchange ideas about climate resilience, immigration, traffic, the opioid crisis, homelessness, school bureaucracy, international business and social media Woodstocks.

I can understand Driscoll’s thinking here. Much more satisfying to apply her quite extraordinary intellect and mastery of detail to major world issues that will be written about by historians, than to deal with water rates, real estate taxes, public works clean-ups, trash fees, and restaurant closing hours. Or perhaps Driscoll is a noise adept ? Big cities are noisy places — it’s a big part of their attraction. The ears get played to every hour of day and night: the cliche is correct, that the (big) city never sleeps. Salem, on the other hand, is a quiet place. When my Boston-born wife first moved to Salem with me, the first thing she noticed was how quiet our street was after nine p.m. In Salem you can hear the electricity transformers hum. It’s kind of like seeing the full Milky Way on a night up-country, far from Big City lights. Mayor Driscoll might feel as unsettled as my wife. Quiet can be like that. It can leave you feeling isolated, abandoned, whereas noise connects you to the world. It’s the glue of urban excitement.

Salem faces a next phase. We all know this. The 14 years of drama and development, the Pharaohs’ pyramids phase of Salem’s rebirth are over. Seven pyramids in Giza — apart from the city just as Downtown Salem is apart from the very local residential areas of Salem — were nice for Egypt, just as the huge new hotels and trendy bistros and Halloween tourist traps are nice for Spooky-town Salem; but once you’ve built it, you can’t just rebuild, You have to stop and actually use the fortune teller kiosks, the restaurants serving cheese with every kind of burger-greens-BBQ sauce dish, the Talbots-like clothing shops, the wine shops, the coffee houses, the law offices and investment letter research cubicles. There’s a lot of them, at least by small city standards, which are the standards that measure Salem, whether Mayor Driscoll likes it or not. So what comes next ? Not more of the same, because residential Salem IS NOT downtown Salem and has zero intention of becoming downtown-ish.

Residential Salem, which comprises at least four of the city’s seven wards and probably more, doesn’t need bike lanes. It doesn’t want 30 to 100 unit, pyramid-sized apartment complexes with “affordable” set-offs (if you think Salem is unaffordable, try Boston). Residential Salem isn’t at all happy with the anarchy of strip malls and one-offs that make Highland Avenue look like a forest after a tornado has buzzed it, and they sure don’t want more of it. Residential Salem would like its wages to keep up with prices — a policy goal that Mayor Driscoll can do nothing about. Residential Salem would like to be able to go about its business of commuting to jobs; sending the kids safely to a school worthy of taxpayer funding; parks that aren’t dominated by constructs and paving. Residential Salem would like the quiet of its Salem to continue.

There may well not be any meeting of minds between ( 1 ) the denizens of downtown, newly moved into funkytown and wanting more and more of beer bistros, doubled-fee parking meters, bike hobbyists, hotel festivities, water taxis, and noisy beehives of knowledge and idealism, and ( 2) the long-time Salemites who command Residential Salem and live in an entirely different world of commuting to wage jobs, bringing up the kids, and wanting the environment to be silent. Yet it would be good for Salem’s future if Mayor Driscoll were to recognize that her mission to create funkytown has been accomplished — that Salem must not and  cannot now adopt big city signposts — and that now it is time to address the needs of residents who are fed up with hearing about it and paying for it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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