PEABODY — This city wants you to know it has culture.
It’s a sore subject just now, after a commenter in a Salem News story cited Peabody’s lack of culture as one of the biggest obstacles it will face in its efforts to revitalize downtown and attract new residents to live there.
In her assessment, Patricia Zaido, executive director of The Salem Partnership, zeroed in on the powerful benefits to Salem of the Peabody Essex Museum and to Beverly of Montserrat College of Art. Such institutions, she said, attract other cultural establishments, including theaters and music venues, and these in turn attract people, particularly young people, bringing the kinds of crowds that support smart shops, restaurants and apartments.
Downtown Peabody has nothing comparable.
Zaido wasn’t finding fault with Peabody, but the remarks stung enough that city boosters contacted both The Salem News and Zaido, making the case that their downtown ... well, if it isn’t all about culture, it soon will be.
The Main Street project is ongoing. Workers are ripping up the road, reducing it from four lanes to two, hoping to coax drivers into slowing down and stopping to look around as they pass through on their way to Salem or the Northshore Mall. But thus far, some of the businesspeople who populate the area are skeptical when it comes to culture.
David Serpa, who cuts hair at the Barber Shoppe on Foster Street, gives a hopeless smile when asked about culture in the downtown. He shrugs and resorts to pointing next door: “We have the greatest Italian restaurant, Petrillo’s. It’s like going to eat in the North End without having to drive there.”
The word “culture” takes Don Stubbs of North East Trains in a different direction.
“The culture down here has changed,” he says. “A lot of the Greeks and Portuguese have left, and the Brazilians have moved in.” He invokes what for many is the greatest cultural setback in recent downtown Peabody history — and yes, it involves food — the loss of Brothers Deli on Maine Street, which moved to Danvers some years ago following a dispute with the landlord.
Down the street, Vince Michaels of A Little Bit of Everything: Pat’s Discount came to Peabody long after Brothers had departed, but he’s heard the stories about the place, a gathering spot for Peabody’s movers and shakers. The city never recovered from the loss, he says. “That’s what people tell me.”
His shop is full of odd treasures, from swords to medicines to batteries to toys, an eclectic inventory packed so you can scarcely turn around without knocking something over. It’s the type of place more often associated with Salem.
Michaels tilts his head at the notion that there’s a little bit of culture right here in his shop.
“There are no people,” he exclaims. He wonders why the city is enlarging the sidewalk when so few use it now. “I find that this town is not pro-business.”
Pointing, he salutes one of Peabody’s primary claims to culture, the Peabody Institute Library. Lots of people go in, Michaels says, but they seldom cross the street to visit his store.
If Michaels is the pessimist, his clerk, longtime resident Joan Morrissey, is the opposite. Pronouncing herself offended that anyone would question Peabody’s cultural relevance, she says, “I think we’re beginning to get more cultural things downtown.” She names the Peabody Cultural Collaborative and its building on Foster Street.
It should be noted that the city has museums on Washington Street, including the Elizabeth Cassidy Folk Art Museum, the Peabody Historical Society Museum and the George Peabody House/Leatherworkers Museum.
The library, meanwhile — a beautiful 19th-century monument to knowledge — houses rare, hand-colored prints from John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
Such attractions speak to Peabody’s remarkable history, but they’re not likely to draw young people looking for a bit of excitement. Accordingly, Morrissey finally concedes that Zaido is not far wrong.
“We do need a bit more,” she says.
The Collaborative, in the former post office building, includes exhibit space and a shop selling locally produced art. The structure was donated by Northeast Arc, and some of the artists are people with disabilities, but it is open to artists in general, and the hope is that it will have an impact downtown.
“People are starting to see there is potential in the downtown,” says Merritt Kirkpatrick, the director. Young artists, she adds, have found downtown Peabody’s second- and third-floor apartments.
To help things along, the Collaborative has made a point of hiring local bands to entertain for exhibit openings. In addition, board members, including Susan Ring Brown and Deanne Healey of the Chamber of Commerce, are beginning to inquire about the theater now hidden behind Maki Sushi and Peabody Estate Buyers.
The city’s community development director, Karen Sawyer, also a member of the Collaborative, is quick to note that the downtown already has City Hall’s amazing, Victorian-era Wiggin Auditorium.
Sawyer, while eager to bring more cultural spark to the area, acknowledges that the obstacles are not insignificant. In addition to the lack of a great museum or college, the downtown is plagued by periodic flooding.
Recent efforts have eliminated some floods, though, she points out, and lessened the impact of others. The days when kids could dive into the floodwater on Foster Street from the mailbox in front of the Collaborative seem past.
One surprising element of the Collaborative effort is that Zaido is now sharing some of the ideas that have helped bring Salem to life. She recently took a guided tour of downtown Peabody.
“They’re doing some good things there,” she concluded.
Among Peabody’s assets, she says, is architecture, including elaborately ornamented buildings, some of which date to the 19th century.
“As I was going through,” she says, “I looked up. They really are wonderful.”