To the editor:
We have an election coming on Nov. 5, and what Salem does in this election will set the tone for how this city progresses over the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Is Salem a growing, accepting and optimistic city that needs to deal with the consequences of that growth and maintain our place as the center of Essex County, or do we want to turn inward, try and turn the clock back, and close the door?
I have lived in Salem for 30 years now. I’ve seen the renaissance that we’ve gone through, the improvements to the city’s infrastructure, finances and residential amenities. It’s not all because of the current mayor, for sure – but the financial stability we enjoy (some of my colleagues complain about our taxes but I’ll remind you all our budget passed unanimously) has put us in a position to start making the improvements to parks, roadways, and our infrastructure that has been happening now for a decade. There’s always room to get better, and many things can and should collectively be better. But the core of Salem is strong, and that’s part of our problem as well as part of our success.
Over the last decade in particular, the economic recovery has made the metro Boston area one of the most expensive places to live in America. A lack of space to build combined with high construction costs and increased demand has driven housing prices to record highs. The two-bedroom apartment that I rented with my wife in the early ‘90s for $850 as young professionals now costs more than double – if you can find anything. Salaries haven’t doubled. Government can’t fix this fundamental imbalance, but we can implement policies that give people a better chance of being able to find a home they can afford. With the reuse zoning passed this year and some of the other work going on we will make Salem more affordable for people. It’s not the solution, but it helps.
But the politics of this city have deteriorated in the last decade, too. I don’t know all the causes. Maybe the national political situation has been a factor, with increased polarization. Maybe the fact that we’ve had the same mayor in office for 14 years thus far factors into things – though I’ve lived here long enough to remember similar fights in other administrations. Maybe social media plays into this. Salem has a much more engaged population than many cities, which is great for participation and democracy. We also hold grudges well here – and 14 years is enough time for grudges to accumulate. The Salem News can’t find enough paper to hold everything that’s set off one person or another – but from Salem State University having the unfortunate right to build a garage none of us wanted to cobblestones discovered on a street in the McIntyre, there’s all sorts of things that have triggered grudges.
And thanks to social media, there’s also a forum to let every mistake, misunderstanding and conspiracy theory pile up and amplify. Neighborhood associations have become clubs that work openly to boost their preferred candidates. The culture of civic life has picked up the toxicity of national discourse and made it even more personal.
I don’t have a magic solution to fix it. But I’ll say this. The people running for office this year generally fall into two camps. One camp sees optimism in Salem’s changes, recognizes that it’s not always right but are willing to work to improve. One camp mostly sees our current state as a threat, and feels that blocking and shouting “NO!” is what’s needed. I fall firmly on the side of optimism, understanding clearly that we have systemic issues that need to be corrected even as we move forward. I believe the voters of Salem when given a choice will choose optimism. We’ve seen that divide increasingly in the last couple of City Council terms. Local government is important, and a city needs to be proactive in making itself a better place. Our elected officials need to work together even when they disagree, not simply gumming up the works – and they also need to ask hard questions even of things they support.
I’ll be gone from the City Council in two more years. I hope to leave a Salem that keeps looking forward, not backward.
Ward 5 city councilor