All the News from the Salem Inn and In Salem

Thursday, February 25, 2010

2000 Words About Salem

I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends visit last week.  Jim, a fine writer and critical thinker, was kind enough to write a guest post for the Salem Inn Blog.
2000 Words About Salem

I’m embarrassed to say that up until a week ago, I had never been to Salem. Let me modify that, I had a business meeting there several years ago that lasted about two hours, but I had never been there just to relax and look around.  I had never been to Salem to see Salem.  Recently, thanks to the new economy, relaxing and looking around have become my favorite pastimes and I’m here to tell you that Salem is worth every valuable minute of your time. 

Boston, my hometown, is a messy place to drive.  The legendary traffic might gradually slow to a crawl on the interstate. A five-minute trip can become a forty-five minute curse, and you’ll never find out why. Parking is hard to find or expensive, sometimes both and never neither.   In Salem, the locals think traffic is heavy when they get stuck at the same light twice.  They have a point, and I’ve heard it gets much worse in the month of October, but I was up there recently during midweek and I can tell you, the lack of traffic alone made me feel like I was on vacation. It wasn’t rural calm.  Nope, there’s plenty happening, people going here and there, obviously an industrious place with lots of restaurants and shops, things to do and lots of people doing them, maybe a delay when a parking lot empties, but traffic?  Not a problem. And parking? Plentiful.

Truth be told, I had mixed feelings about Salem.  It might seem impossible to have feelings about a place I had never been, but Salem is part of our national consciousness.  Most of us learn at a very early age, before we are even capable of understanding, that Salem is that notorious colonial place where a real “witch hunt” took place. Foolish young girls playing on the fears and superstitions of an entire community claimed that they were cursed by some of the townspeople who they didn’t like.  Religious extremism and group hysteria combined to drive people mad and blind them to their own hypocrisy while they sought scapegoats to purge themselves.  The girls were eventually discredited, but not before several innocent people were “convicted” and hung for their “crimes.”  Today, it seems impossible to imagine.  And since I paid attention to history I asked myself, what was wrong with the people of Salem? 

During the decades after the witch trials, New England grew into its heyday, a world-class center of industry, whaling, importing, exporting and fishing.  Capitalizing on its own fine harbor, albeit small by later standards, Salem became one of New England’s wealthiest seaports, which was saying a lot.  By 1790 it was the sixth largest city in America.

After the decline of New England’s industrial importance and the need for deeper and bigger harbors, Salem gradually became a cultural and financial backwater.  A third class cousin to Boston which had already taken a back seat to New York, Salem would eventually realize that it could make money on its heritage, its wits and charm and on its historic shame. Through clever marketing, Salem became and is today the Halloween capital of the nation as if its witch trials bear a resemblance or are somehow related to our fastest growing costumed holiday.  The entire month of October is taken up with a pasteurized, polished, well-publicized and fantastic illusion that has absolutely nothing and everything to do with Salem’s sordid past.  If you’re interested in that sort of thing, I hear it’s quite a show.

Frankly, for me, it was a reason not to go.  I am not a gawker. I don’t want to stare at the hideous. I am not a big fan of Halloween. Why would I go to that place?  Of course, my denial of Salem, based on vague notions and faulty logic, was as silly as Salem’s promotion of itself. Perhaps Salem is to blame for me not knowing it, but the reality of Salem is far different from its image, and I’d say, far better. 

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and checked into the Salem Inn, an historic brick structure of three adjoining townhouses which was originally owned by Captain Nathaniel West, one among hundreds of well researched and interesting Salem characters, himself a victim of a very public and particularly sordid divorce trial.  Because of our national obsession with new and better, in many towns West’s townhouse would stand out as a unique historic feature.  Not so in Salem.  Perhaps it was the shame of the witch trials, but more likely it was the sheer magnitude of Salem’s wealth, whatever the case, Salem got this part of its historic preservation completely right.  West’s house and history, although very fine and interesting, are just another dot on a thoroughly researched map of perhaps the finest historic district in the United States!  The McIntire Historic District, so named because many of its premier examples are the work of Architect and Housewright, Samuel McIntire, is an area of over four hundred Federal era homes around the Inn that have been preserved and maintained, many in their original splendor.  To be sure, some of these homes are museums, but by and large they are living, vibrant 21st century domiciles that do not reek of mold or dust.  Salem is alive! 

As if that weren’t enough, there are three other historic districts in Salem: Derby St., Lafayette St. and Washington Square.  Although none of these districts are contiguous, Salem is so conscious of its heritage that when walking from one district to another you’ll be hard pressed to know when you’re out of an historic area. Homes are often and prominently labeled with construction dates, builder, homeowner and/or the trade or profession in which they worked.

Without consulting a guidebook, my wife and I began to get an idea of who these people were, what they did for a living and what kind of community Salem was, but unlike at an historic re-creation or in Boston, we were not being spoon-fed a scripted story, or conducted on a history trail that is burdened by the intensely modern city around it.  With the help of a couple of brochures from the Inn’s supply, we imagined the streets, unchanged except for their surfaces, gauged the proximities, we spent the entire day on foot, and considered the tradesmen, whose lucrative work might have seemed hopelessly archaic except that the smells of the very same sea still fill the streets of Salem.  And a tall sailing ship sits at one of its wharfs. 

Not your typical coastal village with miniature streets,  Salem grew up as a commercial hub, with wide avenues and a thriving commercial center, the place where the region’s great traders made their homes.  These were not crusty old fishermen.  They were young, educated, powerful, smart, handsome, and brave men.  They were also despicable, cutthroat, scandalous and depraved men. In short, they were in some ways just like us, but they were more capable.  They moved mountains of goods and resources by sea on sailing ships. They amassed great wealth.  Walk around historic Salem, you’ll see where they lived, and guess what, all the sights are free. The traders already paid for it.

Before you exhaust yourself, check in at the Peabody Essex Museum.  This will cost you a little bit of money, but it is well worth it.  It is certainly one of the state’s finest museums.  It is well-staffed. The curators and other personnel are professional and courteous; there is no barrage of info or herding. We saw one art exhibit and an artifact display, but I most enjoyed the Yin Yu Tang House, the premier exhibit in the museum’s permanent collection.  First I want to point out that this house, an actual home built and lived-in in China up until 1980, is very aptly suited to the museum because of Salem’s interest in and preservation of its own old homes.

The Yin Yu Tang house was built around 1800 and was the continuous home of eight generations of the Huang family before being sold and transported in its entirety to Salem. The Huangs were shopkeepers and tradesmen, not the wealthy aristocrats of Salem, but still a respectable and financially secure family.  What is most remarkable about the Huang family home are its dissimilarities to our own homes.  It has doors and rooms and roofs and windows and stairways, but that’s about where the similarities end.  This is like no place I have ever been.  It is a literal and metaphoric door into another world.  I could not have dreamed it up.  I am not interested in spoiling it for you.  Go.  See it.  Take your time.  I’m going back.

We were only there for 26 hours, but somewhere in that timeline we drove to Winter Island, a small harbor island connected by a bridge on a very short manmade neck.  In addition to a handful of homes, the island sports a roomy Victorian mansion home for wayward boys (I wonder what the recidivism rate is) and an oddly named Wakiki beach.

Next land mass over, at the Salem Willows the remnant of an old style amusement park seems to be growing a little wilder, a little less interesting for its honky-tonk entertainment value and more interesting for its truer recreational potential, which I think is as a seaside pedestrian park. When we were there, all the shops were shuttered for the winter. The park was snow covered, even the trees looked cold so we decided to stay in the car, but then I spotted a fox.  After it went down the boat ramp to the beach, I followed it on foot from a considerable distance.   Fortunately I had my camera with me.  What’s cool is how easy it is to keep an eye on a fox on a beach where there are only rocks to hide behind.  And if I stood still when he looked toward me, he couldn’t see me.  Back home in Hyde Park, a coyote (we have a surprisingly large population) will slip out of view in seconds, if he feels like it. The fox had a mangy looking tail, which is a bit of a disappointment considering how luxurious a good fox tail can be, but just the idea that I was sharing the beach with a fox made me feel good, not so inescapably trapped in the urban. Looks like another place I’ll be seeing again.

Finally, and fittingly we stumbled on one of those incredible restaurants that plug away day after day serving a hundred or two people with very little fanfare but with a tremendous amount of grace and true class.  It was an accident.  One of us said she was hungry.  We turned to read the menu on the storefront wall and the man walking in front of us stopped, held the door and practically ushered us in.  His manner implied that there was no place else we could possibly be going.  He was right.  Red’s Sandwich Shop is just about the best restaurant I have ever found by accident.  I never saw an ad, never read a word, never heard a review, a comment, a whisper or a clue.  No sir.  This was pure luck. It just so happens, I love sea bass, my wife does too.  Seared sea bass, 6oz at least, cold beet and fennel salad on a bed of raddichio, a cup of unseasoned, perfectly cooked brown rice...$6.95  We’ll take two.  No joke, Feb 18, 2010.  $6.95  I wanted to order four and take two to go, but I decided not to indulge my greed.  Even more amazing was that there were about eight other specials on a par with that one.

Their menu says that they won an award for the best breakfast in Salem for 23 consecutive years running and in fact there was a fellow diagonally across the aisle, an obvious regular, who ordered bacon and waffles, but I didn’t even care...the lunch could have been half as good for $6.95 and I’d go back.

Then we went home. Less than an hour away by car, around a gallon of gas, about 20 miles.  I can do it on my bike in less than 90 minutes.  Goodbye Salem.  Hello Salem, now I know you’re there.

One more thing Salem, for ignoring you for all these years, I want to say I’m sorry and thank you for taking me back, no questions asked. Would you mind ditching that Halloween costume?


  1. Please take a moment to check out Jim Lewis's blog of essays and poetry at

    It's really good, thought-provoking reading.

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