Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/18/2012

History of Salem, Massachusetts – I welcome myself back

My writing lately has taken a sharp curve toward poetry. I will start posting some of it here. In the meantime. . . .

The frame house was built in 1757  built to last two hundred
years or built to keep the family warm and secure as long as
they lived there, the builder not thinking two centuries into
the future but constructing a solid stylish home for the now.
The neighborhood is on the main street of Old Salem, in
Essex County, itself named one hundred years earlier for the
thousand-year-old Eastern Kingdom of the Saxons. Essex
Street runs through the heart of the city, a stretch of it
modernized to a pedestrian mall two hundred years after
the house was built to save the retail center of the city from
ruin by shopping centers at the edge of town. The building
next to the house intrudes into the neighborhood, three
square stories of ugly brick built before the city recovered
its sense of history and its determination to keep and
restore homes and other landmarks from the eighteenth
century or,  as is the case with a handful of homes, the
seventeenth century. The ugly brick building was intended
for shops on the first floor and offices on the others,
but is now converted to condominiums for the upwardly
mobile who want to live in the historic district but cannot
possibly afford to buy an historic home on the rare occasion
one comes onto the real estate market. The complexity  of
locating oneself in Salem from a life spent elsewhere—
of trying to learn the ways of a town nearly four hundred
years old where descendents of those who took for their
county and street the name of the shire in England from
which they emigrated four centuries ago live even today,
of marveling at history all Americans claim together but
which we cannot fully understand—
is daunting and requires a knowledge of religious dogma
that could prescribe the hanging of twenty citizens and the
pressing to death of the innocent Giles Corey. The trials and
executions of those persons for witchcraft are not the most
significant events in the life of the city, but they rest over the
history subtly but palpably, perhaps because they have
become part of the religious orthodoxy of the modern city,
the religion of making money–Puritanism gone to pure
capitalism. I lost forty thousand dollars when I sold my
condominium in that ugly brick building during one of those
cyles of the bubble bursting and the rich getting richer.
Is it too dramatic to say that, for living in the
money-making world of modern-day Essex Street,
I might as well have been hanged?

The historical museum of Essex County

The historical museum of Essex County


  1. Wait! Are you living on Essex Street really? I haven’t been paying attention, obviously. I live on Harbor, perhaps six blocks from your image. We should get up for coffee!


    • Ah, no. I moved to Dallas 18 years ago. But until then, yes.


      • Well, if you ever come back north, then… The place is wonderful and deep and overlaid in layers that hardly know anything about each other. I am a member of First Church/Unitarian here, and a member of the choir…;)

        I’ll remember you to Essex Street when I walk through on the way to church on Sunday. We are singing Brahms’ Sweet May and Gabriel/Emerson’s His Eye is on the Sparrow.

        Much of Salem has been hit by the recession. Shops and condos, offices and light industry are vacant just as everywhere, though less than much of the North Shore. The ferry is not operating, and the city is negotiating with various possible operators to get even two runs daily from their dock to Boston, since they own the idle boat.

        You might very much enjoy a recent book, Death of an Empire, by Robert Booth (of Marblehead) from St. Martin’s Press. It’s subtitled, “The rise and murderous fall of Salem, America’s richest city.”

        I moved here in November, and am enjoying the puzzlebox of it all. I moved here to save money over living on the Somerville/Cambridge line. I am living in “The Point,” a neighborhood once Quebecois, workers at the first steam-powered factory in the US, the Catholic ghetto in a Puritan WASP town. Today, it’s the “bad” neighborhood in an upscale town, and I live with a good landlord and very reasonable rent in a neighborhood that is noisy and lively and sometimes a bit unpleasant, full of mostly Dominicans and various Hispanics, walking distance to all the pleasures of this miniature Cambridge-in-the-70s (plus witchy-kitschy, minus universities — Salem State doesn’t count, but the historical preponderance makes up for a great deal!).



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