Historic Salem (3)

To wrap up my account of a recent visit to the cultural attractions in Salem, Mass., I will think out loud about what made it a good day and what that has to do with marketing Lowell.

First, everyone we encountered was pleasant and helpful, from the parking garage attendant (“I’m glad I moved back to New England”) and the front desk staff at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) to the waiter at Finz restaurant on the waterfront and the guide at the House of the Seven Gables. You got the feeling that these people were used to dealing with tourists and appreciated the visitors. Rosemary and I found our way around the city easily. There are two pamphlets (approx. 5.5 x 9 inches) available everywhere, “Great Stories Begin Here,” Salem’s full-color city guide and free map, and the regional Convention and Visitor Bureau’s “North of Boston” travel guide and map. The marketing tag-line for the city is “Salem: Still Making History,” which is a clever, open-ended slogan that takes the history brand and spins it so that it is forward oriented. They lead with their history but are not limited by it. Maybe our brand should be Historic Lowell. Pick something instead of nothing. We can’t be all things. Try it for ten years, with emotion, with gusto. Let us define the city instead of others who don’t know the complete story or see the full picture. It plays to one of our strong points. The history is a platform for social, economic, educational, and cultural vitality.

The road signs started outside of town. I think the first signs for the Peabody Essex Museum were in downtown Peabody, after the highway sign for the national park on Rte. 128. We got off 128 as soon as possible because of heavy traffic, so we approached Salem through Peabody instead of going further north to Rte. 114, the typical way in. There were a lot of signs along the way directing us to the historic district and attractions.

City Councilor Rita Mercier said, “We need a draw!” a couple of weeks ago when some people gathered at the O’Connors’ house to talk about marketing Lowell. There’s no doubt that the Peabody Essex Museum is a draw for Salem. It’s a big-time museum operation (“…more than 840,000 works of art and culture featuring maritime art and history; American art; Asian, Oceanic, and African art; Asian export art; two large libraries with over 400,000 books, manuscripts, and documents; and 22 historic buildings. Today’s collection has grown to include 1.8 million works….”) Read this about the current museum director:

Dan L. Monroe, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, has held the top leadership position at the Peabody Essex Museum since 1993. He led the transformation of PEM through the consolidation of two small, venerable museums — the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute — to one of the largest and most dynamic art museums in the nation. Under his leadership, PEM has increased its operating budget from $3.4 million to $24 million, its endowment from $23 million to more than $300 million, direct attendance from 80,000 to 250,000, and attendance at PEM exhibitions across the nation from zero to more than 500,000.

Monroe has spearheaded two major expansion projects: a 113,000-square-foot addition designed by Moshe Safdie that opened in 2003, and a 175,000-square-foot expansion planned for completion in 2019. During his tenure, the museum has made several thousand acquisitions, valued at more than $70 million. PEM also acquired Yin Yu Tang, the only complete antique Chinese house located outside China, and renovated and restored existing facilities. Staff has increased from 80 to more than 300.

The $650 million comprehensive Campaign Monroe is leading will advance the museum’s mission to celebrate outstanding artistic and cultural creativity in ways that transform people’s lives. The museum has received gifts and pledges totaling more than $570 million during the quiet phase of the Campaign initiated in 2006, a testament to extraordinary philanthropy on the part of remarkable patrons and to exceptional teamwork on the part of the Board of Trustees and the staff Executive Leadership Team. This is the third-largest campaign among North American art museums in the last 20 years. It includes a $350 million addition to the endowment, $200 million for the expansion, and $100 million to support creative new installations of the collection, several infrastructure improvements to existing facilities and other advancement initiatives.

Lowell does have the largest industrial history museum in the national parks system (Boott Cotton Mills Museum) and renowned special events like the Lowell Folk Festival, Lowell Summer Music Series, and Southeast Asian Water Festival as well as a first-rate entertainment and sports arena downtown (Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell) and Red Sox minor-league baseball (Lowell Spinners at LeLacheur Park), and the massive artist complex at Western Avenue, professional theatre at MRT and strong community groups like Greater Lowell Music Theatre, all attractions that I am sure Salem would like to have. Our national park is more extensive than Salem’s (even if it has been there since 1938) and our menu of offerings is more diverse because of the music events and sports (Single A baseball and Hockey East with the best college teams in the country). The question is, Collectively, does Lowell’s line-up match a world-class museum with a $300 million endowment and 300 staff? Salem’s population is 41,000, compared to Lowell’s 106,000-plus. Not everyone likes museums. 250,000 paid admissions at PEM is a figure far lower than Lowell’s annual tourist count. But what is the combined visitation at Whistler House Museum of Art, American Textile History Museum, New England Quilt Museum, National Streetcar Museum, and Boott Mills Museum? Would it make sense to try a Lowell Museums all-access ticket and promote these as a combined experience instead of each one competing for visitors in its own niche? The root idea for the national park was to present Lowell as a museum-without-walls, taking advantage of the historic architecture (now almost completely preserved) and cultural experiences between the canals and rivers. The late Patrick Mogan would say, The buildings are the props around which the story is told. We have the distinctive setting in place now after 40 years. Are we telling the story in the most appealing and compelling ways? And the story isn’t limited to a park ranger informing tourists—it’s really every kind of expression you find in a small city.

From the PEM we followed a red line painted on the sidewalk to the House of the Seven Gables. Salem copied Boston’s Freedom Trail pedestrian path concept. Lowell should do the same thing. And maybe with a twist, with plaques on the buildings or in the pavement that say “Abraham Lincoln walked this way” or “Mark Wahlberg walked this way” to remind people with a little humor that notable people over the years have stepped right where they are stepping. A friend of mine from London suggested that Lowell is missing an opportunity to tell its revival story by not having tasteful plaques on buildings with information about not only the history of the building but also the modern renovation, with credit to owners who did the preservation work for which Lowell has won national awards. It would be another level of “interpretation,” to use a Park Service term, another way for people to follow the Lowell story.

Despite all that Lowell has to offer, we had a sense last week that there was more “there” there in Salem when we visited. The big ship docked at the national park site was impressive to see. The variety of small shops, even the crazy witch-themed places, created a retail buzz. The open-air trolley buses running through downtown showed you there were tourists. We have the real trolleys in Lowell, but the rail lines run on the outskirts of downtown, mostly, except where Dutton St. crosses Merrimack. Last Friday was not a special-events day in Salem, other than a free day at PEM, and there were a lot of people moving around the streets. It would be worth checking to see what it is like on a typical Saturday-Sunday in the summer. These are my thoughts for the moment.





10 Responses to Historic Salem (3)

  1. Brian says:

    I haven’t been to Salem since I was a kid on field trips or playing basketball so thanks for the posts. It seems to me you did a lot of walking. Is downtown Salem pedestrian friendly? That’s probably a big reason why Salem gets so “busy”. Downtown Lowell has the amenities and attractions to attract more tourists, shoppers, suburbanites etc. a la Salem, but I don’t believe the downtown is pedestrian friendly enough to attract a critical mass of people. Downtown Salem’s walkscore is 97, downtown Lowell’s is 75. http://www.walkscore.com/score/downtown-lowell-ma

    We can have the best marketing in the world and get more people to come to Lowell but as long as visitors don’t feel comfortable walking around Dutton St, Arcand Dr, French St, Prescott, and Bridge Streets then downtown Lowell will continue to struggle. I doubt Salem and Portsmouth have quasi highways(stroads) like Dutton St running through them. 1950’s planners thought by widening the roads more people would drive into downtown Lowell. The exact opposite has happened because by widening the roads people feel less safe once they do get out of the car. Hence the empty storefronts on Dutton st. This also choked off upper Merrimack St from the core downtown contributing to neglect.

    Where is the nicest part of downtown Lowell? I think most would agree the corner of Palmer and Middle st. It’s no coincidence that these streets are narrow and people feel safe walking there. Replicate that type of pedestrian atmosphere all across downtown Lowell and people from Portsmouth will come to Lowell for the day.

    Transportation is not an end itself, but a means to an end. If we all have to drive a little slower through downtown in order for downtown Lowell to thrive then so be it. We won’t need a marketing gimmick either.

  2. PaulM says:

    Brian: Yes, we found downtown Salem easy to get around on foot. As I mentioned in one of my posts, Salem is not a quick exit off the highway. The downtown is dense with all kinds of buildings, from old residences to stores and a cinema, in addition to the historic and cultural sites.

  3. Jacquelyn Malone says:

    Your column provoked a prolonged discussion over dinner at my daughter’s house last night. As someone who started with the Mass Poetry Festival when it was in Lowell and followed it to Salem, I am struck each May by what Salem is doing right – the red line down the walkways, its vaunting of its place in history, etc. But my son-in-law got me thinking along the lines of commerce. One of the things that makes Salem appear to be such a bustling place is the racks of clothes and the pushcarts down the middle of the walkway that obviously was once a street. Here for three blocks people are selling everything from high fashion clothes to tee-shirts and witch dolls. And during the poetry festival, they’re selling poetry books and broadsides. That lively atmosphere projects vitality, even if you aren’t in the mood for buying. (But the energy also makes you more apt to stop, look and, therefore, buy.)

    What if Lowell closed off Palmer or Middle Street to traffic and opened it to vendors? What if the city worked with Western Avenue and the All Gallery to bring their fabric and textile artists to the street – perhaps a pushcart with an exhibit of a small loom for making scarves, etc.? Maybe they could put up a sign saying, “History becomes art,” or something like that. Maybe Middlesex could have a small stand – and UMass Lowell, for that matter. The local restaurants could vie for a hotdog stand and, perhaps, a Southeast Asian delicacy for munching as you walk along. And certainly the outdoor cafes already on Palmer could be drawn in.

    As a Southerner who has made her home in Lowell, I have fallen in love with the city, and I’m thrilled by what you are proposing, Paul.

  4. Nancy P says:

    On July 2, we took the train from North Station to Salem to visit the PEM – to see the Turner paintings. The train is a relatively quick ride, about 20 minutes, from North Station. When we got off in Salem, it was a long walk to leave the station because it is undergoing extensive renovations and a new parking garage. However, the walk to PEM was easy – we followed the red line on the street. PEM was not crowded and we got to view not only the Turner Paintings, but walked through some of the permanent displays. There was not much activity on the street that day- it was hot- and many stores were vacant ( we looked for ice cream but didn’t see any) The train returning to Boston was delayed, and the information sign at the Salem Station did tell us that. It is an easy walk to the downtown from the train station – much easier than Lowell, and well marked. We were not the only tourists who walked to the Salem retail/museum district.that day and it was hot. I’ve never seen any tourist information at the Lowell Train station – just how does one get to the museums and or the National Park from the Lowell Train Station??

  5. Brian says:

    Great point Nancy. Unfortunately any walk from the train station involves crossing and walking along dangerous, high-speed STROADs, Thorndike and Dutton, that kills business and destabilize neighborhoods along the way. At certain points there are 5 lanes!

    Streets are platforms for creating and capturing value. A road is a high speed connection between two places. Conventional wisdom says we need many lanes and high speeds to get cars from the connector to downtown. This is FALSE. We drive really fast (40MPH?)on “Thorndutton” for a short distance to then stop at red lights and go ZERO(that’s right zero) MPH for 60-90 seconds. Essentially not getting there any faster if we drove 20 MPH.

    If we gave ThornDutton a road diet and cut it down to 3 lanes, add a bike lane, and add on-street metered parking the downtown footprint would instantly expand, neighborhood property values would go up, and the Hamilton Canal District would be able to attract development quicker. We would have to drive a little slower and people that need to get to Dracut or Pelham might not want to drive/pass through the downtown anymore but I think creating Lowell wealth is worth it.

    It may even make us a destination city.

  6. George Proakis says:

    Interesting conversation . . .

    When I first worked in Lowell, and Lisa (now my wife) lived in downtown Salem, I spent a lot of time in both downtowns. Salem has a built-in benefit that comes from its waterfront location and the PEM connection. But, it is an extremely difficult place to get to (except by commuter rail from Boston). It has managed to take coloinal-era charm to an extreme, resulting in some very attractive residential neighborhoods within very close proximity to downtown. That has attracted a very young and active population of residents that can walk to and from downtown. Combine that with the year-round visits to downtown attractions, the built-in demand that has allowed for new development downtown, and the absolutely insane level of tourist activity in one month of the year (October), and they have a recipie for success. It’s been interesting to me that Salem is the one city outside of the central Boston core where we’ve seen developers building NEW CONSTRUCTION downtown buildings. I don’t understand the economics that allows that to happen there and not elsewhere, but Lowell would benefit from understanding what makes it possible for that to happen. Now that mills are mostly full, and the rest of the Hamilton Canal requires new construction, that next leap from rehab to new construction is necessary to make things thrive.

    But with all that said, I think that Salem’s greatest advantage may just be that they started ahead of Lowell with more residents and activity in close proximity to downtown. Lowell is getting there now – and that may be what is necessary to take the next steps.

    I will express a huge caution about pedestrian-only streets. They fail over 90% of the time that they have been tried. It’s a great solution to a street where you already have so much pedestrian traffic that it is spilling into the street. But, it is not a great solution for downtown Lowell. I think that Lowell is doing exactly what needs to be done now to balance traffic/pedestrain activity downtown: changing streets from one-way to two-way. Trust me as a somewhat ousider here: the insurmountable challenge of downtown Lowell is that it is very difficult for a newcomer to navigate. Downtown is a very simple grid. But, the one-ways make it impossible to operate that way. The change on Merrimack and Market streets is going to change the entire perspective about how to get into and around downtown.

    And . . . calming Dutton/Thorndike will help too. That, I believe, is still expected to happen with the coming of the next phase of Hamilton Canal work.

  7. Sean Thibodeau says:

    Lots of great stuff here. I love the idea of a combined Lowell Museum Pass. Just want to chime in that Salem also cashes in (in a humungo kitchy way) on the Witch Trials. Come October there are tons of ghouls and goblins shopping a huge row of horror themed businesses (professional haunted houses, costume shops and the like). Not sure what the equivalent in Lowell could be but this certainly injects a young and offbeat flavor to the Salem’s staid/historic institutions (Hawthorne’s seven gables & custom house, waterfront, and PEM).

  8. Gail says:

    PEM is a gem and due to its visiting exhibits gets a lot of repeat visitation, within a year. As someone mentioned above, the waterfront is another advantage, lots of restaurant, boats, and housing. I’ve taken family members on the Duck Boat Tour in Salem. The parking garage is attached to some retail space, and there is a movie theater around the corner. One of the things that has been discussed elsewhere is the lack of non-alcohol related evening activities. PEM is open late one night, and there are lectures. Salem has a ghost tour for visitors. I find the tourist areas of Salem more walkable than Lowell. I believe it has changed, but I used to park at the common for free and walk over to the PEM. One thing that Salem Maritime has done, is you can download audio tours and follow stops on a downloadable map to its sites. http://www.nps.gov/sama/photosmultimedia/audiotour.htm

  9. Brian says:

    Thanks for weighing in. Could there be a correlation between being a difficult place to get to(by car) and attracting new construction in downtown Salem? If downtown Salem, Portsmouth NH, Burlington VT, Boston etc have prioritized pedestrians over motorists and are having success why can’t Lowell?

    oh yeah, we listen to Teddy Panos, C Belanger, George Behrakis, Mark O’neill, etc. who think we need highways to downtown, suburban high schools, and bikeless roads.

    Sidenote: Too bad Centro and Estogo couldn’t stick it out a little longer to see if the two-way traffic lanes would increase business for them.

  10. George Proakis says:

    Brian: I don’t see a reason that Lowell can’t thrive by prioritizing pedestrians. If a mid-sized city needs highway access into downtown to be successful, then I don’t understand Salem or Portsmouth (I think Burlington has a built-in advantage of being a college town with a significant on-campus student population – but it also does have that drive from I-89 into downtown that is a straight shot up one road, but it isn’t right next to the highway either).

    I think Lowell needs to stick with the long game, and that means making a place that is more and more pedestrian friendly and bike friendly. The priority for the connection between the connector and downtown is to make it attractive and pleasant, so that it is good for incoming traffic as a gateway to the city, AND good for those walking from the train station (a walk that I regularly did, but didn’t enjoy). Both Salem and Lowell had cancelled highways that would have brought high-speed traffic to downtown. Neither really needed them.

    What is most missed by highway supporters is the demographics. The Boston area is getting more expensive. There’s a 400,000 unit shortage of housing, and more and more of those people are seeking walkable urban places to live (see Chris Leinberger’s work on this topic, it is really interesting). With more employment centers in the gateway cities, those cities can also provide more housing opportunities, all of which will be more affordable than what Boston and Cambridge can offer.

    I don’t really see Lowell as being that difficult to get to by car. Much like Burlington, VT, you can take one highway exit off the connector, and follow Thorndike / Dutton into the city. It is difficult for a newcomer to navigate WITHIN downtown, and that can be something that can scare off visitors. But, two-way traffic on Market and Merrimack Streets will fix that situation.