Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Salem, The Once and Future Walking City

Essex St. Fair, part of Salem Heritage Days

[Essex St. Fair, part of Salem Heritage Days]

Continuing my last post on a car-free or at least car-neutral Salem, there's an interesting site called Plug in an address and it will mine Google Maps and give you a score that corresponds to the "walkability" of that location; in other words, the number of stores, restaurants, parks, libraries, schools, municipal offices and other amenities in walking distance.

The Walk Score for my home is 92. That's very good. The scoring system is limited by the information in Google Maps and the accuracy of its address database and by the distance measurement, which is as-the-crow-flies rather than walking distance, but the site is reasonably accurate for Salem, which doesn't have very many cul-de-sacs.

Walkscore, of course, cannot evaluate any of its listings on the variety of shops or the income level of any of their shoppers; I've complained before about the shops in downtown mostly catering to either the affluent or the tourist, neither category of which I fit in.

Still, as bustling as downtown is becoming, I remember when it was much better. If Walkscore had been in existence in 1970, it would have scored my downtown well over 100. There were many, many, many stores and establishments in downtown Salem. At one point it was the retail capital of the North Shore.

This is a part of Salem's history that is often willfully ignored. It doesn't have the property-values snob appeal of Nathaniel Hawthorne's era, but Salem's retail history is a proud one that I was fortunate to grow up in.

And I miss it terribly.

People have told me, "oh, you can't have those days back again!" Why not? The downtown of that era had everything! It was a time when Salem was a great working-class town for all, not merely the 18th-century-historic-themepark crowd that inhabit the city today.

I'll bet if Nathaniel Hawthorne had shopped at the old Almy's, that the store would have been preserved intact with its original use, instead of being torn down for condos in 1984.

Take care.

P.S. Kirk Westphal produced a great video as part of his master's thesis, Insights into a Lively Downtown. This 19-minute documentary about Ann Arbor's downtown is very applicable to Salem.

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