Ever since I moved to Salem, a town on Massachusetts’ North Shore, its residents – on the commuter rail, at the farmers’ market, sitting in cafes, or walking along the pedestrian walkway – have happily gushed over their town. In the same breath, however, they often warn me never to set foot in a four-by-eight-block area called “The Point”. It wasn’t long before I began to explore this neighborhood. A stone’s throw from Salem’s thriving downtown, The Point has been isolated for decades, but more by the barrier of perception than by any physical obstacle.
At the geographic center of The Point is Mary Jane Lee Park; it also happens to be the social heart of the community. What can a park reveal to the uninitiated about a neighborhood? Can it be a point of entry for learning about the area, for making it less invisible?
Salem Public Library keeps a folder full of old articles about The Point. When I opened the worn file, I found two decades worth of clippings about the neighborhood and its park. Headlines like “Police, [and] Salem Point residents take on [drug] dealers” (1997) contrast with more hopeful articles. A 1993 story reports how the park was renamed after Mary Jane Lee, an activist who had fought for affordable housing in the area. But when you first walk across the grass towards the playground, you might be unaware of this history. You might not even notice the park’s name, spelled out in flaky gold lettering on a hunter-green placard, ten feet off the ground.
Sitting on a bench, you may feel out of place; everyone else in the park seems to know each other. Too timid to people watch, you may turn your gaze towards some of the space’s details: chains around trees, bright red benches, candy wrappers in the grass. Soon, these details spark questions:
Soon though, you’ll be roused, distracted by the life of the park. Listen to the park as you read on:
Only kids are in the park on this breezy Sunday afternoon. Four boys on three scooters play on the asphalt, makeshift basketball court. Three girls sit in a tree, singing. Their voices rise in little shouts above the hum of hard, plastic wheels on concrete. Two small boys play in the sand at the corner of the playground. They gather sand in a plastic work bucket.
A mother has come to the playground with her daughter in bright, pink pants.
The two small boys have moved the bucket of sand and turned it upside down. They pick up the bucket, and the sand pours out in a heap. Now they grab handfuls and throw sand at the three girls, still in the tree.
Bits of paper trash contrast here and there with the grass and sand.
Three boys race on the scooters and the boy in the blue shirt wins, although he is the smallest.
There is a slight breeze rustling the full canopies. The trees frame the blue sky to your left. Two clouds, far off in the sky, glide above the power-lines.
People chat loudly on the first balcony of the apartment building to your right.
Three young men, one smoking, have begun talking by the first table. Now they slowly make their way across the park. The girl in pink pants and her mom have moved to the swings.
About an hour later, a ball gets stuck in the high branch of a tree. One of the boys is pressured by the others to use his basketball to dislodge it. He doesn’t seem to want to do it, though. There are loud objections, interjections, a stalemate. A kid passes behind you, smiling as he tries to ride two scooters at once. A father, whom you’ve met, tells his daughter ‘time-out’ to catch his breath from chasing her around the sandy playground. Both balls are now back on the ground, although you missed seeing how the one in the tree was retrieved.
Doreen Thomas’ favorite part of the park has always been children playing. Doreen used to spend most summer days in the park, with the neighborhood kids, two of whom were her own sons. She is the president of Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park, a volunteer group currently without patronage. Once under the umbrella of the now-defunct St. Joseph’s Church, her collective of volunteers is presently without a non-profit organization for their philanthropic activities benefiting the area’s children.
While the past decade of Doreen’s life has been entangled with the life of the park, Kara, Jesse and their five children are just now beginning to know it. They moved to The Point a couple of months ago in order to stay in their children’s school district, after being evicted from their spacious single-family home last spring. While their negative perceptions of The Point have yet to be mollified, Kara calls Mary Jane Lee Park “the only solace in the neighborhood.”
There is no formula for getting to know a place. You can’t single-handedly orchestrate getting to know another person – the conversation takes two. One must also enter into a dialogue with a place. I asked first Doreen and then Kara and Jesse the question I myself have often wondered while sitting in Mary Jane Lee Park: Can a visitor understand something about this neighborhood by spending an afternoon in the park “at the heart” of the community? While Doreen worried that, seen on the wrong day, the park might show an unfairly dark side of the neighborhood, Kara and Jesse both thought that, on sunny days such as the one on which we met, visitors would get an overly positive image of the area. Their responses address the two parallel worlds of the park – a daytime world of kids happily playing in sunny surroundings, and an opposing nighttime world that’s present during the day only through certain artifacts, like broken glass, trash, and small plastic baggies.
This fall, the City of Salem and the North Shore CDC, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), will begin gathering data for a “community-driven” visioning plan of the area. The MAPC’s website claims that the project will be a “landmark collaboration among, city, regional, nonprofit, and grassroots stakeholders to develop a Vision Statement and Action Plan for the neighborhood.”
How will the visioning plan hold all the worlds of the neighborhood? Is it possible to achieve “a common vision to strengthen the neighborhood” as Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll foresees? In a neighborhood where voter turnout is chronically low, and community involvement ebbs and flows, can the shared space of the park facilitate more inclusive interaction? What role will the park continue to have in the daily lives of Doreen, Kara, Jesse, and their families? What can these experiences teach about what can facilitate interactions between disparate people?