I really wanted to love Salem.
We’ve rolled into town fresh off a children’s book about famed local architect, Samuel McIntire, which Meredith found by accident at a used bookshop in Vermont. We are eager to see some McIntires. I come prepared to love the town that produced Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, my blossoming imaginary love affair with Salem comes crashing down faster than you can twitch your nose.
First, let’s back up.
Some years ago, during a meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, one of the Chamber members expressed concern that tourist dollars were on the decline. How, he asked the session, are we going to bring money back into this town?
“Hawthorne used to be a big draw, you know,” one member said, “but nobody reads him anymore. Hell, nobody reads anybody anymore.”
“There’s only so much financial mileage,” another said, “you can get out of The House of the Seven Gables. It’s been good to us, but I think we need a new angle.”
[Pensive silence, punctuated by occasional Dunkin’ Donut chewing and slurps of Dunkin’ Decaf.]
“What about a new angle that’s not a new angle?” asks the newest member of the Chamber, who campaigned on a “fresh air” theme.
“I’m not following you. What are you talking about, new guy?”
“Look. Let’s be honest. People come to Salem for one thing. Let me give you an example. I was walking through the Museum Place parking lot not half an hour ago, to this very meeting in fact, and a group of folks from New Hampshire pull up in a big van. Ford Econoline, I think. Anyway they slide the big side door open and spill out all into the parking lot. They’re looking all around going, “WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?”
“So what’s your point?”
“People want witches. So give ’em witches.”
OK, fine: none of that ever happened. But it could have. It would explain why Salem in 2017 does not at all resemble the Salem of the 1937 WPA Guide to Massachusetts.
This is one of the risks you take when you use a WPA Guide as your benchmark: often it can be a reminder of what a city once was, but is no longer. It can function less as a travel guide than as a catalog of loss. The WPA Guide calls Salem “New England’s Treasure House.” Its description of the town foregrounds its former most famous son, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Here are the haunting shades…of every character Hawthorne created, of his old houses impregnated with supernatural influences, and of the eerie atmosphere that still lingers in the narrow streets which the master of delicate implications frequented.”
Today, that is not the dominant impression. Salem reminds me of the City of London: a historically important center of culture and commerce bombed-out and later rebuilt during an epidemic of enthusiasm for poured concrete, a few architectural diamonds remaining in the rough. Salem today feels more like what might happen if an 80’s concrete car park married a New Urbanist outdoor mall, and held the ceremony inside one of those gigantic temporary tents set up to hawk Halloween costumes. It is not uncommon to see women (and men) dressed in Wizard of Oz-grade witch outfits milling about. It’s possible they are members of the Chamber of Commerce. I passed one on Essex Street once, and then twice, and then three times, as he went back and forth along the sidewalk as if he wasn’t sure where or who he was supposed to be.
That’s Salem today: even the witches don’t know where they’re going. They’re bloody everywhere, though. Every other shop is witch-themed, but for all that there is none of the spooky menace or eerie exoticism of the WPA Guide’s description. It’s all terrifically tepid, a brilliant example of the quintessentially American capacity to turn historical tragedy into tabloid triviality.
So at the corner of Essex and Washington, tourists are preening and posing for photos next to a bronze statue of Samantha, the adorably benign character from Bewitched. My heart sinks.
But I can imagine how that conversation went down in Chamber.
“So we need a mascot. Somebody everyone loves.”
“Are we still talking about witches?”
“Yes, keep up! We need a lovable one. What witches do we know, Herman?”
Herman scrolls through the Rolodex, turns up nothing. “Well there’s that one from that TV show. She’s just a doll!”
“Is she from Salem?”
“Well, no, I don’t think so–”
“Who cares! She’s a witch, Herman! We’re a witch town, she’s a witch, it makes perfect sense!”
An exhibit about ocean liners at the Peabody Essex Museum is a refreshing reprieve from the relentless witch-o-rama outside. It’s also an opportunity to tell my kids that I once had bunk beds from the SS United States, which still holds the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. I don’t know if my boys are impressed by this or not, but it almost feels like I did something cool once.
After we exit through the automatic doors George is obsessed with, the museum closes down behind us. We load up the Landcraft and leave Salem without seeing a single McIntire.