The Homeless Population at 289 Derby


photo: Claudia Paraschiv

Stumps by Michael Jaros

A series of stumps were brought to 289 Derby by city workers to be used as flexible seating for the upcoming Community Design Events, and we wanted to paint them. But who would paint them? On one of our first days at the site, a group of teens from the On Point Plummer Youth Promise came to help. Paint was everywhere, as the stumps took on a life of their own and a series of strange, otherworldly colors emerged. Some stumps were spackled with multiple colors of paint, some were hand-printed, and some were monochromatic. We quickly realized that we had not logistically thought through a lot of things – we did not have water, for instance, to wash off the brushes and rollers and only a limited amount of supplies. Trips to the gas station and ace hardware solved these problems, somewhat.

When the kids left we still had more stumps to paint. A day or so later, two friends brought their two children to help paint the stumps and the process began again: select a nice color from our many paint-cans, make sure there was actually paint in it, find a brush that was still usable, fill up the water bucket, and so on. The kids painted with a frenzy and excitement that oscillated with mild disinterest.

We’d had some encounters with homeless folks who occupied the side of the gas station next to the 289 lot. A man named John had come forward first and talked to us about what we were doing. He then returned with his friend and wrote on one of the doors we had set up for community interactions, which read “WRITE YOUR QUESTION HERE.” The question he wrote was “Why are the homeless treated so poorly?” The second question was: “Why does the shelter not help anyone?” It was a stark reminder of their presence and of their humanity, something we often willfully ignore or place just at the uncomfortable margins of our sight. They were curious about what we were working on, but also wanted to be involved in what was happening. Understandably, they approached our actions with a deep skepticism.

We’d rolled a series of logs near the water to be used for a drum circle during the first event. I’d noticed a group of homeless had begun sitting there and, as I was once more painting nearby, John came and talked to me. I learned a little more about him. He had three sons. He had worked in a variety of fields from construction to IT. He had not seen his sons in years. They did not know where he was. I didn’t ask what made him live on the streets and he didn’t tell me. He asked if it was ok if his friends sat on the stumps in the circle. I said it was fine. I told him I would be moving over to the circle to paint those stumps soon.

I confess I was somewhat afraid to do so. The stigma around homelessness has also affected me, but this conversation with Barry had made me feel less trepidation. I began painting a stump in the circle and very quickly they began chatting with me; some of them asked if they could help to paint. A woman was clearly drunk, but wanted to help. She kept calling me David, instead of Michael, and told me she thought she was stuck on that name because she’d had a son who had died who had had that name. Another woman joined and painted an entire stump and ended it by placing a heart on the top of it. I didn’t catch her name, but she had “been lucky” and gotten her family and her house back after a spate with addiction. She had merely come out there, it seems, to meet with her friends from her harder times. Another man told jokes and riddles, and kept asking me what I thought of them, why I wanted to hang out there with them. A man named Green, dressed in a green hat, green shirt, and green socks jacket painted an entire stump green.

Eventually I had to be on my way and took the paint back to its place and cleaned up. It was a brief, accidental moment, but I think it was important. Empathy is in short supply these days and it certainly tempered any fear or frustration that I may have had at later events as screams might have rung out, chairs might have been kicked over, or fights broken out on the edge of 289. They are there, they are people with hopes and dreams, and they must be a part of the process.

(note: names have been changed)

Snow Boundries

Snow Ways

Snow Ways

How does the snow change what you see? What is visible, now? What is invisible now? How do you decide where to stop shoveling? How do you know who can shovel? What does a shoveling style show?


An Early May Walk through the Point

As we near the end of May, breezy and calm with a dash of rain, the beginning of the month seems an era ago, with its frozen ground, snow drifts, and biting wind. A Friday afternoon walk shows the neighborhood beginning to wake after a long winter: the spring thaw characterized by trees in flower and play on asphalt.


Flowering tree on Prince Street, across from Mary Jane Lee Park.


Salem Street is for play, not just cars!


Balcony of toys ready for outside play in Mary Jane Lee Park.


The middle block between Harbor and Ward Streets reveals dramatic in-between spaces; they host play, especially on small scooters and tricycles.

Tree in bloom on Harbor Street, while the historic, abandoned building awaits its future fate...

Tree in bloom on Harbor Street, while the historic, abandoned building awaits its future fate…


A surprising view, with dramatic sky, towards Ward Street.


The future site of the Ward Street Pocket Park has been the site of informal play for over a decade.


Bright Blooms

Walking the Point

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.

Flowers are resilient

Flowers are resilient

Community garden volunteers - springtime actions

Community garden volunteers – springtime actions

Some fertile soil, but the sunflower didn't make it

Some fertile soil, but the sunflower didn’t make it

Community Events - waiting

Community Events – waiting

Blooms on Dow Street

Blooms on Dow Street

06_Dow Street sign

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.

Dow Street view west

Dow Street view west

08_Harbor Street sign

Harbor Street mural through trees

Harbor Street mural through trees

Toy car speeds down Harbor Street

Toy car speeds down Harbor Street

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.

Park Street is the least vegetated of all these streets

Park Street is the least vegetated of all these streets

The informal mural on Dow Street

The informal mural on Dow Street

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.

old television set face with new plant growth

old television set face with new plant growth

view to Immaculate Conception, the community church

view to Immaculate Conception, the community 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.

A threshold park?

A threshold park?

official history

official history

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.

at play

at play

Rusted gate to city land of electrical plant

Rusted gate to city land of electrical plant

artificial flowers - layers of paradox

artificial flowers – layers of paradox

layers of nature and industry

layers of nature and industry

An older mural, and the new one on the right

An older mural, and the new one on the right

22_how many sponsors does it take to paint a mural

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.

View from Peabody Park, looking towards The Point

View from Peabody Park, looking towards The Point

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?

Get to The Point: Neighborhood Narratives

Share your story! salempublicspaceproject[at]

Share your story! salempublicspaceproject[at]

Some of you may know that the Salem Arts Festival is happening June 7 – 9. Salem Public Space Project will showcase The Point neighborhood at the Community Arts Room. One of the themes that has been discussed during the past few months through meetings for the Point Visioning Plan has bee the image of The Point. Some of the words that residents have used to describe their neighborhood are: community, strong, diverse, unite,d tight-knit, awesome, and misunderstood. While The Point has its problems, many on the outside don’t know all the good stuff that also makes up this awesome neighborhood. We want to collect stories that took place in your neighborhood and communicate the good. And we all know good things happen every day. I don’t live in The Point, but in the little time I have been there, I have had some great experiences. I will share one example.  During the recent lock-down in Boston a few Fridays ago, I could not go into the city to work, and so, my neighbor and I decided to go put up a community board in Mary Jane Lee Park for people to share events. We had one other person with us – William, Doreen Thomas’s son whom many of you may know from The Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park. Well, we soon attracted more enthusiastic help!

For the Salem Arts Festival, we want to collect at least 10 of these stories, each with an image showing where it happened in the neighborhood. We will make an installation that will show off all these stories on postcards on a large map drawn on the ground in the Community Arts Room of the Festival. If you have a story, or think you may have a story, use the sheet below, fill out your story, circle the location on the map and send it to us: SalemPublicSpaceProject[at]

What is your story?

What is your story?

NN_Storyteller Story Sheet


Federal Street

05 federal street07 federal street

06 federal street04 federal street 03 federal street01 federal street02 federal streetI walked on Federal Street and the surrounding streets just before sunset on Sunday. This small contained neighborhood sits above bridge street and its high position gives little away about the industrial street below. Glimpses are caught of the channelized river long abandoned by the mills, and the old unused rail, rusty, awaiting its conversion to a trail. The dogs must be there in their park but I heard no sounds from below. Above, in the idyllic streets where housewrights and tailors and harness makers built these houses in long ago times like 1777 and 1804. I came at an appropriate time of day. The warm winter sun low in the sky reached to brighten the already bright colors and make it all more picturesque, which goes quite well with a January nostalgia. To my surprise I found a wide brick stair that lead down to the functional mess of Bridge Street below; I did not take it, but wondered if it was a public through way. I asked a woman who came by walking her two small dogs; she said she didn’t know, but that she had used it as such on her way to the station. Well, that is good. Perhaps I can do the same on my way to work on a morning when I’m not running late. After I met a woman from Southern California walking down Federal Street; it is her daily exercise. 08 river street

Getting to Know Mary Jane Lee Park

the children of Mary Jane Lee Park. Photos by Pamela Joye.

The children of Mary Jane Lee Park. Photos by Pamela Joye.

If Mary Jane Lee Park is the heart of The Point neighborhood, then children are at the heart of the park.

I met Kara the very first time she took her five children to play in the park. On her third trip to the Mary Jane Lee Park, I asked her if she enjoys coming. “Yeah, it’s fun to see [the kids] have fun,” she answered. “I wouldn’t say it’s fun for me, really.” Her comment saddened me, as I viewed the park as a positive experience for everyone. Since this was the first of three interviews I planned to conduct with Kara, I hoped her opinion would change as she got to know the park.

Her comment, however, holds a truth that took me some time to fully appreciate: for parents with young children, the park is not optional recreation, but a necessary place of play. According to Jan Gehl’s studies, public spaces generally fall into two categories: (1) necessary or (2) optional activities. For the latter, the quality of space has a direct effect on whether an activity – such as reading outside under the perfect tree – will take place. In the case of necessary occurrences, like the workday commute, space has little influence on whether the activity will occur – the unpleasant station and crowded subway car will still be used.

Where does park space belong on the spectrum of necessary or optional spaces? Community betterment organizations often focus on affordable housing – but creating private shelter is not enough. Kara and her wife Jesse were grateful to obtain their apartment through a helpful state initiative, but their outdoor space is limited to a few square feet mainly occupied by the building trash bins. Inside space is also limited, and as Kara notes, “you can imagine in the apartment [the kids] pretty much sit still.” While for some a park might feel optional, for parents with children and little outdoor private space, the park fulfills an essential need.

Carving at the climbing tree.

Carving at the climbing tree.

Play is a necessary activity for children. They will play in open sewers if they have to. In Mary Jane Lee Park, the situation is not so dire, but there is trash strewn about, broken glass in the sand, vandalism carved into trees and violent words in the air. Kara’s wife, Jesse, reflects that:

The trash is not that bad compared to what I thought it would be like. I heard there would be condoms strewn around and hypodermic needles. I see a couple of older Spanish guys from The Point that clean it up. You don’t want the kids playing in glass – see that over there. I wouldn’t trust the sand too much.

Despite all this, on most afternoons, Mary Jane Lee Park is filled with children at play – anywhere from ten to twenty children climbing up trees and sliding down slides. Numerous windows peering down from surrounding buildings seem like ideal viewports from which parents can watch their kids, while staying in with domestic duties. Whether or not the children playing are supervised is debated. Some parents claim to have seen three-year-olds alone at play. The image of the park itself is contested; its role in the neighborhood unclear – is it a liability or an amenity?

Parents and their children at the swings.

Parents and their children at the swings.

How and why do parents and their children use a park seen by some residents as unsavory, if not unsafe? To answer this question, I interviewed Doreen Thomas, a veteran park user with two boys, and as well as Kara and Jesse (mentioned above), who have just moved to the neighborhood with their five children. Their reflections on the “first impressions” the park can make on a visitor are recorded in my first article on Mary Jane Lee Park.

Children on slides and swings.

Children on slides and swings.

At the beginning of the summer, Kara, Jesse and their children were evicted from their single family house. Their ten-year-old son Liam has DiGeorge Syndrome, and since Kara stays home to take care of him, the family relies on a single income from Jesse, a tattoo artist. In January, they fell behind their rent of $1900. They went to court to try to figure out their options, but three weeks after the court hearing, they received a notice to vacate the premises in 48 hours. They went to a shelter in downtown Lynn, and lived in one room for a month and a half. It was dirty and unsafe. The situation held a particularly poignant twist for Kara, who grew up in the wealthy part of Lynn.

Through North Shore Community Action Program (NSCAP), they were able to rent an apartment with the help of first and last month’s rent. (NSCAP is currently slated for Federal Cuts affecting such programs.) They chose to live in The Point because the neighborhood is in their children’s school district and they did not want to uproot any of them from school, especially Liam who has special needs due to DiGeorge’s Syndrome. The neighborhood holds such bad connotations that, for the first couple months, their eldest daughter preferred to walk the couple miles to high school, rather than be seen on the bus coming from The Point.

Kara and a couple of her kids on bikes at the park.

Kara and a couple of her kids on bikes at the park.

Kara and Jesse also had a bad perception of the neighborhood when they moved in. And after more than two months in the neighborhood, they say the perception is the same as the reality. Jesse gives her impressions:

But now we know. The perception is just about the same. Walk five minutes down the street and you’re in historical beautiful downtown. At night, you walk down this way and, if you’re not familiar with the area, the people, the faces, you’re going to be pretty scared…Or robbed.

So far their experiences have been mixed. They have befriended neighbors that look out for each other. They have also seen violence on the streets. Initially, Kara and Jesse let their kids play alone outside, but within a week, their eldest son Seamus, got punched and someone stole Liam’s Pokémon game.

Liam riding in Mary Jane Lee Park

Liam riding in Mary Jane Lee Park

They fondly remember the safety of the park at their former house; it was a “savior,” says Kara. “The park was an extension of our house because it was right across the street so I could see them virtually out of every window.”

Kara doesn’t plan on staying long in The Point – just one school year. And as for Mary Jane Lee Park, “it’s good to have it here, at least I can come here and watch them,” says Kara, but “I would never let them go by themselves.” Many parents both have to work and don’t have time to watch their kids; many kids play alone in the park. Most adults say they watch out for children who are not their own.

Doreen Thomas is one of the adults who has informally supervised the kids of Mary Jane Lee Park for many summers; she reflects that:

There aren’t always parents watching; sometimes there are small kids too. It is necessary for an adult to be there. The city sends over college students (to supervise and conduct lunch programs)and the park kids don’t have that much respect for them since there is such a small age difference. I worry that something could happen.

Doreen Thomas’ mission, to keep kids safe and help them reach their future goals and dreams, began in 2001 when she moved to the neighborhood and started taking her own boys to the park. Her sons were about ten, and when they started going to the park, Doreen recalls that:

There were needles and trash. I wondered why the park was like this. Our park in Everett was very clean. I started going and cleaning up the park. I would bring snacks for my kids, and as others started asking for snacks, I started bringing enough for others too.

Within a year, Doreen met Ms. Cambell, a local community organizer, at a neighborhood meeting and began helping out at St. Joseph’s food pantry a couple blocks from the park.

Doreen remembers that:

for 11 years, Ms. Cambell and I did this – since 2001. We did it because we love children. We had private donors, and St. Josephs was the Church donors, North Shore Medical, Crosby’s Market, Market Basket, a lot of important people in the community. They gave 25 dollars so kids could go to our camp – we’d give them breakfast, the city would provide the lunch. We would take them on field trips, Heritage kids, whale-watching in Gloucester.

The programs for young children – simple, direct and useful – show the possibilities for the intersection between public, non-profit, and private funding and efforts to create productive events in a neighborhood and improve the physical structure. Doreen became the head of The Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park, and worked for two years with the mayor’s support to replace the old, splintering wood playground with a new one. Beyond the visual connection to many of the balconies and windows of the surrounding buildings, the bathroom in Doreen’s basement has served as the park bathroom. She also used it for the storage of new backpacks (for the back-to-school give-away), snacks, and other supplies. On a few rainy days, she even let the kids take refuge there, but once, after hosting an overwhelming forty children, she had to set the limit to ten kids. The park was the physical base of these activities, and the space itself attests to the power of porous boundaries to create a positive environment.

Scrapbook photos of Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park activities

Scrapbook photos of Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park activities

While Doreen still heads The Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park, she is no longer under the umbrella of a non-profit, and cannot continue the work in isolation. She hopes for a public or non-profit partner.

This is a big issue. I need someone who will take me under their wing. I have ten volunteers who are willing to step up and work with me, but there is no funding. And there is a need. We provided an after school program, gave kids snacks and helped them with homework. And the same with the summer program, not everyone can afford camp.

Doreen speaks of the park as a necessity for the many families whose children use it daily. She also notes that she sees fewer children play there since she has stopped her programs due to the lack of supervision and activities. Like Jesse and Kara, many parents don’t let their children play alone.

Currently, there are many stakeholders in the neighborhood that want to improve the park. Doreen approves of the City programs, but she sees that the efforts are fragmented, and speaks of their shortcomings:

The city sponsors an 8 – 9 week program with instructors who do activities with them. They finish at 4:00 p.m. and won’t take them on field trips. The kids need the attention but they don’t get it. People say the kids in The Point are lost. It’s not true. They have dreams, hopes, but they don’t have anyone cultivating. This one young lady, she was the first to go to college from her family. It makes me feel good and continue what I did.

The Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park, the North Shore Community Development Coalition (NSCDC), andthe Point Neighborhood Association (PNA), and the City of Salem all appreciate the potential of the park, but none are united towards a common vision for its future success. While the park is the main spatial focus of Doreen’s work, it remains a peripheral concern for the other groups; its effects are not easily measurable, and the park life is complex. There are the park users – the children and their parents – that everyone “approves of”. Local teenagers, sometimes loud and rambunctious, don’t do anything illegal but are sometimes seen as an inappropriate presence for the children. And then there are the supposed drug-dealers, who “everyone” thinks don’t belong in the park. To this latter group, no one knows what to do beyond the fatalistic notion of “getting rid of the park,” as suggested by one resident. As the City of Salem has obtained a grant to study the area and create a neighborhood visioning plan, what role should the park play? How can it move from a liability to an amenity? The answers to these questions depend on whether the main actors view the park as a necessity or an optional amenity for the neighborhood.

Up trees and down slides.

Up trees and down slides.

This past summer was the first that Doreen no longer had the support of a non-profit, and physical therapy for a foot injury was further reason why she could not supervise the children in the park as she had in the past. If she had been at the park, she may have met Kara, Jesse and their five children, and watched out for them as she has for others. Towards the end of our first interview, Kara said, “the park is the only solace in this neighborhood. I think this is the only place that you can go that looks somewhat decent.” Doreen Thomas can proudly name the children, now first generation college students, who grew up in the park.

To find more photos of the children at Mary Jane Lee Park, visit Pamela Joye.

Photos by Pamela Joye. Scrapbook image by Doreen Thomas.

Share a Chair: Documented by Pamela Joye

Our Share a Chair Procession and Poetry reading was beautifully documented by local, award winning photographer Pamela Joye. See her photos and thoughts here.

Her portrait of the event also appears in North Shore’s Art Throb.

Pamela lingered in Mary Jane Lee Park a bit after the poetry reading and poignantly captured the children’s interactions with the chairs and each other.

Meet Mary Jane Lee Park

This post is part of a series for MIT’s CoLabRadio and first appeared here

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:

 What do signs communicate?

 Where does nature come in?

 Is there a place for creativity?

 How can you fix what is broken? What does color contribute?What gives you a sense of safety?

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.

Left: Doreen Thomas, Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park; Center: Jesse with Liam, Tessa and Katie-Belle (photo by Seamus, their son); Right: Kara and Liam

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?