It’s hard to go into a place without an agenda. As I begin my walk on a Sunday morning in late April, my agenda is to photograph The Point for “The Beauty of the Point” series, (a fledgling in April). I imagine big beauty to make a big point: the neighborhood is misunderstood and here’s a photo of an ideal tree lined street to prove it.
Perhaps I am still an outsider. Perhaps I don’t see certain things. Or by simple bad luck, I miss all sorts of harmonious happenings occurring just seconds before I happen along. Or perhaps my words cannot carry to you the subtle beauty I do find; small things show joy, activity, striving, an enjoyment of life, a smile for the almost spring day.
The surrounding reality dominates these small things and, while beautiful, they tell a bittersweet tale: no one goes into a “good” neighborhood to photograph “good things.” Of course, people may go there to also set the record straight and show the loneliness of still idealized suburban bliss. Set to capture the suburban banality, the photographer unwittingly smiles at the blooming azaleas. Here, I come in search of flowers and trip over the trash. In both instances, the case for a place is complicated by its own complexity. This is what I found walking The Point in April.
The flower growing between asphalt cracks encourages me to bring out my camera. Still on the edge of the neighborhood, I walk along the path traced by Palmer Cove shore. The southern edge of The Point is not a distinct line, but depends on perception and changes like the tides.
The most popular community garden in Salem, on the edge of The Point, is alive with a half dozen people talking, planning, painting, plotting and potting. Perhaps there will be a version of this garden in the center of The Point and not on the edge, soon enough. My first stop is to look upon the sunflower bud we planted two days ago; it lies as if slain on the nutrient rich soil we brought to help it grow. Across the way in Mary Jane Lee Park, the bulletin board is up and clean but unused. With disappointment at eyelevel, I look up: the street trees relish the day and their young chartreuse buds reach up to the sky to contrast it, and my perception. This is Dow Street.
I then turn North and walk along Congress Street – a potential bustling business thoroughfare, if you are to believe the musings of an older gentlemen discussing possibilities for the area at The Point Visioning meeting from several weeks before. On the corner of Harbor and Congress streets, the branches of a mature tree frame an old mural placed three stories above street level. Its bright colors convey a favorite message: this is a good neighborhood. A play car speeds down Harbor Street towards me as I cross, and some of the bodegas are open for business.
I keep walking. On the other side of Harbor Street, after passing Park Street, a narrow concrete alley and the least park-like of any of the streets, I happen along two novena candles placed on the sidewalk in front of another sort of mural. This mural, at sidewalk level, is different in many ways from the city sponsored one celebrating community. The unambiguous symbols of “R.I.P” on a gravestone and the candles on the sidewalk speak of the tragedy that occurred on this very spot. The message of the earlier official mural depended on the bright colors more than the content. Here these deeper colors of brown, black, red, and green against the masonry canvas communicate somber remembrance, but the direct message it what stays in your mind.
Thoughts of this mural occupy me as I aimlessly walk and snap photos: on Prince Street, a shell of an ancient television set provides a tiny shelf for tiny plants to grow; on Ward Street, parked cars perfectly frame the spire of Immaculate Conception, the neighborhood church.
As I walk back down Congress Street, I come to the northern edge of The Point. Here, a fragment of a park uses a checkerboard pattern to distribute the slight trees, brick-like paving, concrete paving, concrete benches or barriers, all organized along hard lines. This small, sterile park is the threshold to the neighborhood along Congress Street; a descriptive tourist board hints at the neighborhood’s history, but this official place feels incredibly out of place. The park is an attempt at improvement, perhaps, but only symbolically.
In this dense neighborhood, space is a premium, and this piece is not useful for play or for parking and so it remains unintegrated and unused. I walk along Peabody Street and I see layers of play through chain-link fences that provide a peculiar layer of transparency and security: the small diagonal frames beg one to look through. Somehow, these fences that frame the intermingling of disparate elements provide a greater opportunity for dialogue than the straight-jacketed park.
The edges of the neighborhood certainly show the most outside investment when compared to the central streets. A new official mural, opposite the relatively new Peabody Street Park, is also unreachably high on the third story of the blank brick side of the building. At eyelevel, a plaque highlights the many donors that made this mural possible. The message here too is familiar: this is a good neighborhood. It’s not a bad message, but it must be up high, where the contrasting messages that lie closer to the ground can’t contradict it.
As I look back towards the neighborhood, I begin to accept the competing narratives of the area, even as much of my work strives to bolster the good – much like the City Officials. But how can this attempt for improvement be robust and not mere lip-service? One truth is that those seeking to improve must first listen – this walk was an attempt to listen.
Are the officials listening to what the community really has to say? How can the official line engage the multifaceted community threads?
How can the community more effectively express their desires?
How could such a dialogue lead official efforts to truly benefit the community they claim to want to serve?