Monday, January 21, 2008

The Homeless and the "Character" of Salem

The Globe has a good article on the clash between homeless people in Boston's South End and the affluent people who are gentrifying the neighborhood.

Salem, as well, has seen this same friction. We have been rapidly gentrifying and becoming more affluent for the past ten years. Salem has had a homeless shelter for many years, at the Crombie St. Church (since moved to St. Mary's on Margin St.).

Downtown merchants and one notable neighbor, David Pelletier, fought the shelter for years. Benches at the fountain at Town House Square, a relief for weary tourists, were removed; they encouraged the "wrong" people.

The old state welfare office was in the Newmark building on Essex street for many years. When their lease ran out in the late 90's, they were encouraged to go someplace else, moving to Shetland Park, not coincidentally near the Point. With the sole exception of Social Security (now at 10 Federal, after being in Museum Place for many years), there are no human-services offices in downtown anymore. (I'm surprised there are still public housing units downtown!)

I believe, to quote what Microsoft always says for its bugs, "this behavior is by design."

One blogger in the South End says what I've always meant to say but could never seem to write:

Another one of the article's subjects describes how she has heard the patrons of her yoga studio exclaim, "I don't want to go out to my car late at night. I don't want to go there," in reference to the throngs of homeless clogging the streets much like the zombies in the recent film "I am Legend."

My response? You don't GET to go there!! As I have mentioned on this blog before, like a mantra, get over yourselves! You live in a CITY, not a suburb! You don't get to choose your neighbors and keep in mind: they were there a long, long time before you and your yoga mat showed up. If you choose to live in a city, there is a trade-off. You GET to walk out your front door in the morning and walk to pick up your soy latte within 50 steps of your condo.

This is the mentality amongst condo-dwellers even in Salem. They typically paid (er, took out an overleveraged mortgage) $400,000 and up for their condo. The realtor promised them pristine urban living, and since this is Salem, Currier & Ives horses that don't poop, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as a bonus! (UPDATE: You can live with Nathaniel, apparently!)

These people are bitterly resentful of every dirty fact of urban life that intrudes upon the fantasy. They hate each and every piece of infrastructure--snow plows, exposed overhead wires, gas stations, convenience stores, phone poles, the Salem Harbor Power Station--that makes it even possible for them to live where they do.

Even a homeless shelter is necessary infrastructure, considering the alternatives.

I wrote before about the harbor-front condos on Derby St. that won't get built. Look at the location again. There's a gas station next door. The back edge of Derby St. at the South River is mostly industrial; they were there first. And across the water is the Point, Salem's poorest neighborhood.

What would condo owners say?

"Can't you do something about those people?" "Isn't it a shame what those tenements do to the character of the city?" "I'm living next to a gas station?!!"

I've grown up in a city for 43 years and have seen the best, and too often the worst, of Salem and urban living. I've lived downtown for 13 of those years. I was fortunate to be able to choose to live downtown and I tolerate a lot of things so I can have easy access to the T and easy walking to work and the local CVS. I even put up with the Federal St. snobs and those who won't let me in their neighborhood groups because I'm a renter and I didn't take out a huge mortgage for a tiny condo.

It's disgraceful, but not that I expect our politicians to really listen.

Hat tip: The South End Is Over: Be Ashamed....


Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of your post I must take exception to your characterization of condo dwellers in down town (I live right by the old town hall). I think most people, not just condo dwelling city livers would prefer not to see "snow plows, exposed overhead wires, gas stations, convenience stores, phone poles" but we realize it is a fact of life (for now). The big problem that must be solved is the zombie bums patrolling down town.

They are nothing more than a menace to our city. I often see them around 10 Derby square defecating in a semi-hidden entrance way to the lower level shop. Some sleep the days away on benches down town that are meant to be used by citizens and tourists. Others drink them selves silly and discard their bottles around town. I don't want to be subjected to that filth regardless of where I live. If I had a neighbor who exhibited that type of behavior I would call the board of health and use city government to have them shape up. Why can we not do the same with the homeless?

Keep up the great posts.

David Moisan said...

Thanks for the kind words. We can probably stand in Town House Square and point out the "regulars". I sympathize with you on that one; I have no love for panhandlers either.

thesouthender said...

Nicely put!!

We are certainly on the same wavelength. My hat is tipped to you, as well.