Saturday, May 19, 2007

Salem's Future in a Second Energy Crisis (Part 2)

[This post is part of the World Without Oil Game. It might be fictional but the opinions are real.]

It's 2007 in Salem, 33 years after the First Energy Crisis. What's different?

There are many, many more cars in Salem than ever before. In 1974 there were few parking lots, one of the biggest being the Almy's lot at Church St., in the rear of the store. There were also lots at Rich's and Giant Valu (a grocery store), the biggest stores on Highland Ave. at the time.

There were no malls and no parking garages.

In 1976, Salem's first parking garage was built on the site of the old Paramount Theatre on Essex St. (adjacent to Almy's). Salem's first (and second) malls followed, the East India Square mall under the garage, and the Hawthorne Square Shopping Center on Highland Ave (between Rich's and the then-new Salem High School.) The first private parking garage would not be built for another 10 years or so, when Naumkeag Mills, the big factory complex at Palmer's Cove was redeveloped as an industrial park.)

Today, Salem has 3 garages (2 public, including the new South Harbor Garage, and 1 private) and officials want to build at least 3 more (including 1 private garage.)

With an increase in cars has come a decrease in commercial space. Virtually all of the factories in business in 1974 are now gone. Parker Brothers is gone, and now "luxury" apartments are on the site. Sylvania closed both its Salem plants in the early '90s; one of them belongs to Salem State College and the other is an empty lot, undeveloped due to litigation from the neighbors. Except for the remains of Flynntan, you would almost never know there was an industry.

Salem's downtown, as a shopping area for residents, is dead. Almy's is long gone and the East India Square mall was remodeled into Museum Place and, like downtown itself, primarily caters to tourism. The old Jerry's Army and Navy--the big clothes store downtown--closed long ago and you can no longer buy baked goods at Bowman's or chocolate at Connelly's; they're gone too. (I bitterly regret the loss of Connelly's, since if they'd only held out for a little while longer, they'd catch the gourmet chocolate wave and I would be there every day!)

What industries Salem has are tourism and condos. Recent administrations and city councils have grasped onto luxury condos as the answer to Salem's decline. In 1974, very few people lived downtown outside of rooming houses. In 2007, there are some 500 (by my imprecise estimate) housing units downtown (in a square bounded by Bridge St, Hawthorne Blvd., North St. and Washington St.)

(Disclosure: I'm one of the 500 units, living near the train station.)

Most of these new residents are carrying mortgages up to $500K. In downtown Salem (!!) Virtually none of these people can shop without a car. There's nothing for them. So they have to get in their cars and drive at least to Highland Ave., or more often to Danvers or Peabody. And shopping drives our economy in the US.

Salem is not like, say, the Back Bay of Boston with Newbury St and Boylston St. where there are many choices and many opportunities to shop on foot (or at least with a handcart to take that LCD TV home!)

We've always had lots of traffic--we are the crossroads of the North Shore--but these developments have given us even more. So much more, that the previous administration pushed through a new roadway, the Bypass Road, that I wrote about in Salem's Last Road.

In 2007, there are 4 bus lines and the commuter rail, terminating at a truly depressing train station. I'm the only one I know who uses public transit--I can't drive due to poor vision--and it is not fun humping groceries home on the bus. In 1974 you could ride a bus to Marblehead. Not any more.

A few politicians have talked about improved transit. Every so often, the idea of extending the MBTA Blue Lynn to Lynn and Salem comes up. It's been often shot down in Salem; it would "destroy the character of the city". (The Blue Lynn to Lynn project exists only because officials in Lynn have pushed it very aggressively.) Much-needed improvements to Salem Depot were killed by one of the neighborhood associations several years ago (These associations are de facto arms of government composed of wealthy property owners more intent on preserving property values than the quality of life for themselves or anyone else in the city.)

Public transit in Salem is usually seen as a welfare program to get the domestics and other "low-class" service employees to work. (My family was lower-lower middle class and I am no prize in the social strata category myself, so don't take offense.)

As mentioned in the last post, Salem Harbor Station still operates now, as in 1974. It still runs on coal and still pollutes. Unfortunately, it's also the biggest commercial taxpayer we have. We're stuck with them and our increasing need for power. It'd seem that coal would be immune to the oil shock, but the coal barges, do they not run on oil? We also have an oil terminal and a LNG facility on the waterfront. The old Boston Gas (now Keyspan) aggressively pushed natural gas heating, as did other utilities.

We are no less vulnerable to the Second Energy Crisis than any other North Shore community. In fact, we're worse off.

Our car-centered, congested, historic little city is headed for disaster. The average Salemite would be screwed without their car. They need it. They can't walk to the neighborhood store; in many areas of Salem, they no longer exist! Where will they work? There are few jobs in Salem that aren't low-wage service or tourism jobs.

So what's next? We do have some strengths, and they don't depend on escalating property values for a few. We can still respect our history yet make a viable future for our city.

[To be continued.]


gerben_wulff said...

I see opportunities here. A LNG terminal nearby means you can have trucks and busses on LNG. Cars can drive on CNG. A terminal secures the supply of natural gas.

Illiana Speedster said...

Sounds like your town is quite similar to mine. Most of the local stores were pushed out years ago by the big box mega-stores that moved in. Most people aren't in walking distance from a grocery store or market. Or any store for that matter. So we have the mega-stores on the far outskirts of town and a mall that is a 20 minute drive away. Maybe we'll start to see a turnaround and the mom and pop stores will rise again?

David Moisan said...

I am very uneasy about LNG. We have Peak Gas to worry about (why it was never modelled in the game is a mystery). It's bad enough we might be dependent on coal with the power plant.

In Nigeria, there are people who tap into gasoline pipelines. Sometimes, there's a spark and people die.

Imagine getting your gas shutoff and in desperation, you are determined to get that gas no matter what you do to your meter--or your pipe.

We have the big LNG tank located just off Bridge St. The authorities have a contingency plan for it in normal times. These are not normal. Forgot to mention also the big Pickering tank farm and terminal next to the power plant.

Take care.