Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gentrification in Salem

I don't often comment on pundit-bloggers like Instapundit or Daily Kos, but Megan McArdle hit a nerve with me:

One of the reasons that I left New York (I mean, aside from my awesome new job), is that I didn't like what the place had become. I grew up on the Upper West Side when it was still the place where Leonard Bernstein had set West Side Story: a poor-to-middle-class place with no good restaurants but all sorts of interesting local places. The fifteen-story co-op in which I was raised felt in a lot of ways like a very small town.

By the time I left, in my thirties, the Upper West Side south of 96th street was wall-to-wall investment bankers, and the ubergentrification was creeping towards me; I lived across the street from the last grocery store south of 125th street that didn't carry artisanal cheese. I have no objection to artisanal cheese, of course, but the monoculture was oppressive. None of the finance people or their associated service personnel seemed to live in my neighborhood; they came there to sleep. On weekends, they left for their country houses as quickly as their expensively garaged cars could carry them.

The road to Salem's gentrification began sometime in the late 1970's, when the Essex Street Mall was created, which blocked off Essex St. to traffic between Liberty St. (now New Liberty St. and the Museum Place Garage) and Washington St. The East India Square Mall (now Museum Place) was built, and there was the Pickering Wharf development (now a hotel). The first condo complexes were built on Central St., and Federal St. (at the corner of Washington across from the court complex).

At that time, the last remnants of the old Salem that I grew up with were fading away. The Paramount theatre that so many old-timers remember was gone by 1970. But in 1982, the biggest department store in Salem was no more.

Almy's, Bigelow & Washburn was gone. Due to congestion downtown and a declining economy, it closed forever. A condo complex--and the old Almy's clock--now sit on the site.

For me, that marked the end of the Salem I grew up in and the Salem I loved.

I had many happy memories of "going downtown" with my mom and her daughter to go shopping.

That was the start of my bitterness over Salem's change.

Salem experienced more decline. The Second Salem Fire happened around this time: The Salem Armory and the Masonic Temple were burned by an arsonist in 1981. (The armory's drill shed is now the visitor's center; the front shell, demolished, is now a park.)

Gentrification continued, with more steam, in 1985 when the Salem Common Neighborhood Association was established. My family lived in the public housing at the Phillips School in the neighborhood, so this was my first encounter with gentrification. Residents in my building were never really welcomed to SCNA's meetings. They still aren't.

Sometime in the late eighties and early nineties, yuppies began to discover Salem. They, and the city, also discovered Salem's history, specifically colonial history to 1812, to be good for property values.

Or, as I like to put it, the appearance of history is good for property values. Just ask Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Now, the forces of gentrification are just across my street. The Salem Jail is being developed.

And I'm unhappy, as you already know if you're a regular reader of mine.

McArdle references an article in the Times about the galloping class divide in Manhattan in explaining why she moved out. A money quote:

Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, has written about the phenomenon of Americans who feel impoverished because of the towering wealth of those above them. In New York City, he said, those feelings are compounded by the sense that much of the wealth at the top is derived from financial instruments that merely move money around.

It’s one thing if people are adding value to society,” Professor Frank said. “But there is skepticism that this is all a shell game and these guys are not adding value, at least to the extent that justifies their salaries.”

What do people like Polly Wilbert do? I grew up around factory workers, my best friend Leo Jodoin is a carpenter, my mom raised foster children. What do the denizens of Washington Square or Federal Street do?

At least I can explain my own field of IT. I have never seen an explanation of gentrification in Salem that didn't involve historic-property owners capitalizing on their property values and refinancing, apparently to fund lawsuits against the city for destroying the "character" of their neighborhood, or against their own neighbors for repainting their houses in the "wrong" colors.

In New York, no one knows where gentrification will stop. I don't, either, but I know I won't like the journey.

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