The Story The Map Tells

September 2020 ยท 6 minute read

It’s a beautiful day. The heat of summer has passed, and there is the first hint of an autumn crispness in the air. The leaves are not turning but have started, almost imperceptibly, to curl, and trade the succulent green of spring for a waxy sheen. My walk begins downtown, on the more scenic side of Federal Street, one edge of the historic McIntire District.

I started out down Federal, looking vaguely for a pair of ancient oaks I remembered from a previous walk. Before I found them, I noticed a political sign and posted a bit of a hot take:

A front gate bearing two political signs; one for Ed Markey and one stating 'Not For $alem / stop overdevelopment / join our coalition' A superimposed Instagram caption reads 'Sign on the left reads 'Stop Overdevelopment' and always seems to pop up to oppose new housing. An unfortunately widespread sentiment in the self-identified progressive community'

I don’t deny I was feeling salty

Any time I call out something like that, I immediately worry that I overstepped. It is surely natural to want to protect the things we love about our communities. What does it mean to protect the character of a place or a community?

A shiny plastic sign on a faded red-painted door reads 'NO TRESPASSING / Once known as the Salem Superior Court / this building is the property of the Salem Redevelopment Authority. It has been mothballed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for preservation purposes pending future use/ For non-emergency reporting & information please contact division of capital asset management and maintenance at 617-727-1000'

One way to protect a community is to preserve things that have outlived their function until we can find new uses for them

at a corner of a brick building, a bright red sign attached to a drainpipe reads 'ATTENTION: Falling Ice And Snow, Park At Your Own Risk. Per D.C.A.M

We label hazards

A section of sidewalk has been torn up, exposing a gravel bed. Two caution cones are in the background

Sometimes we replace things that can no longer be mended

Across a wide road, ornamental planters and green caution cones leave only a single car-width passable to cars as a traffic-calming measure. A non-permanent speed bump is stretched over the opening

We prioritize the comfort of pedestrians, the safety of cyclists, and the peace of residents

A view from one side of a street, across the street, where a parking lot also serves as a cross-street to the next street over

Nominally private spaces like parking lots flow into the public spaces of crosstreets when their juxtaposition improves the walkability of the neighborhood

A google map of downtown Salem Massachusetts, zoomed in to show the smallest paths

An intricate network of streets and passages at both large and small scales connect points of interest and activate the landscape


At the end of Federal Street I found myself looking up at a building that I had seen from a distance most days but never really noticed.

A view across a street. In the middle ground is an auto-body shop surrounded by a sizeable lot with a few cars parked in it. Behind the lot is a wooded area, and behind that, six stories of a long dark brick building rise over the trees.

This building occupies a promontory in the landscape and is visible from many points around it

A google map showing a line drawn on Federal Street from Summer Street to Boston Street

This map shows the line down federal street starting at Summer Street. This is one boundary of the historic McIntire District. The picture above shows the view that follows this line southwest, toward Proctor’s Ledge, the site of a memorial for those murdered in the witch trials. Proctor’s Ledge is near where the executions are believed to have taken place.

So what of that building rising over the trees? It is close to downtown, and appears to be in easy walking distance, just over a small rise.

A google map showing a zoomed-in view of the Salem Heights complex.

The map is curiously quiet about this place. It is given a grey marker that says ‘Salem Heights,` which looks like it could be a geographical description or the name of a complex. Unlike downtown, when you zoom in here, all that appears is a cursory rendering of the lanes of a giant parking lot. There are very definite unbroken boundary lines on three sides of the property, placing the only apparent points of egress on its far side at the ends of a winding drive that stretches from Pope Street to Proctor Street, almost the very furthest points on the plot from downtown. In fact, there is one other apparently-official egress, about which more presently.

A view from the Salem Heights parking lot, showing two large rectangular brick buildings, approximately eight stories high

Up close, it’s impossible to fit the whole complex in frame.

A view from the Salem Heights parking lot, showing the driveway

The view down the drive from Salem Heights. Curiously, the planner seems to have sent the sidewalk down the side of the street with the highest number of curb-cuts, then after the last curb-cut, the sidewalk seems to abruptly end, only to resume on the opposite side of the street.

A google street view of the end of the driveway, looking up towards a brick building.

From the other end of the drive, we can guess the likely reason for the sidewalk switching sides of the road. Between the sidewalk, where it has been pushed to the viewer’s left side of the road, and the abutting houses is a buffer of ornamental shrubs. On the viewer’s right side of the road, only a fence and a few feet separate what urban planners or sensitive neighbors might euphemise as ‘significant foot traffic’

In a mulchy circular traffic island, a single Kennedy political sign sticks up.

Whoever has the authority to display political advertising in this place is apparently a supporter of failed candidate for senate Joe Kennedy.

The top of a driveway, curving out of view and down a slope to the left

The view toward the Pope Street end of the driveway. Earlier I said that there was a third nominally-official egress from this property. It is one that might cut five or six minutes off a pedestrian journey to downtown for any of the hundreds of residents of this complex. It’s in this picture. Do you see it?

A small break between two guard rails reveals two freestanding sections of fence with an open gate between them. In front of the opening is a storm drain with a muddy puddle drying around it.

Do you see it now? What are those two sections of fence doing? Do they go anywhere? In winter, is this path kept open or are huge snowbanks stuck in front of it?

A narrow, steep galvanized-steel stairway with iron pipe railings descends from a concrete platform to the barely-visible edge of a cracked sidewalk below.

Even if it was kept clear, what would you think of your chances on this in winter? Note also the main feature of the background that was likely the only reason that even this tiny concession to human-ness and pedestrian uses could be made: no neighbors to complain.

A view across a basketball court, with playground equipment in the background.

After descending the steps, you find yourself here, in this well-kept little park

A view up a steep wooded slope, dotted with trash and downed trees.

Looking back up the slope, it’s obvious where the park maintainers feel that their job ends.

A residential street with 18th-20th -century houses.

A few steps outside of the little park, you’re back in a typical neighborhood of single-family dwellings.


What does it mean to protect the character of a place or a community? Heading back from the little park toward the McIntire District, there is a single point that for me sums up all of the feelings and relationships embodied by this landscape. It’s right between the double lines of Essex Street, the street that in a few blocks becomes the pulsing center of the city. At this end, the street parallel to Essex Street is Chestnut Street, a street full of grand houses that wears the title of “The Most Beautiful Street In America.” In the middle of the intersection of Essex Street and Flint Street, you can look down Essex toward downtown and see a classic tree-lined New England boulevard–not as fancy as Chestnut Street but still full of wonderful and unique houses. If you look the other way, you can see the towers of Salem Heights peering over the treetops, as if to ask why Essex Street slides off to the south rather than continue to the buildings themselves. Across the street, where Flint Street connects to the very end of the Most Beautiful Street In America, a metal crowd control barrier stretches across half the street, and a sign says “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” Behind it, a second row of granite hitching posts barricade the actual end of Chestnut Street against…something. In the farthest distance, across Chestnut Street, a friendly green sign on a sawhorse says “Shared Street” in English and Spanish and bears a picture of a car, a person on a bicycle, and a pedestrian, giving each other space.

View down the center of Essex Street from Flint Street, looking downtown. Both sides of the street are lined with trees and cars. The street is wide.
View down the center of Essex Street from Flint Street, looking west. Both sides of the street are lined with trees and cars. In the far distance Salem Heights can be seen above the trees.
View down Flint Street from Essex Street.
View of 'Shared Street' sign on a shaded street. Granite hitching posts in foreground.
A cream-colored fence in front of an antique home. The fence bears a 'No Parking' sign and one of the 'Not For $alem' signs. The 'Not for $alem' sign says 'Stop Overdevelopment. Join our coalition!' and has a picture of a single-family house on it. The door of the house is decorated with a heart.

A cream-colored fence in front of an antique home. The fence bears a ‘No Parking’ sign and one of the ‘Not For $alem’ signs. The ‘Not for $alem’ sign says ‘Stop Overdevelopment. Join our coalition!’ and has a picture of a single-family house on it. The door of the house is decorated with a heart.