Thursday, February 7, 2013

Downtown Alley, Episode 2

Last fall I took a slow saunter via bike through one of the alleys downtown here in Salem. I was familiar enough with this alley to know it was of interest, as at some time in the past (I think the early 80’s or so) it received a fairly careful makeover. It serves as an example of the creativity of a particular era of urban planning, one that was occasionally quite lovely and hopeful—especially after the concrete brutalism of the 60’s and 70’s still scarring parts of this city. Some months ago I posted a photo essay of this alley’s first block (south-to-north); this second installment looks at photos of the succeeding block that warm afternoon.

 The alley in question (between Liberty and Commercial Streets) serves a wide variety of businesses, offices, and residences. This section begins with State Street, one of the broad, nineteenth century thoroughfares found in Salem’s historic downtown core.

The entrance is framed by a fine Victorian shop-front and a tiled, decorative office building fa├žade (the office of one of Salem’s best known architects, responsible for rather a lot of clearly-identifiable edifices in this burgh). A wide brick expanse greets anyone entering this alley, as does one of the signature elements of this (and the next) block: Japanese Wisteria.

This botanical Triumphal Arch creates a deep bank of foliage that is home to many critters. It softens and cools the entrance to the alley in the summer, perfumes it with thick cascades of flowers in the spring, paints it in warm yellow in fall, and wreathes it in wisps of branch and vine in the winter.

Past the wisteria-arch, we enter into the workaday world of an urban alley: back entrances to businesses, garbage dumpsters, gas and electric meters, and the outdoor storage for what cannot be fit anywhere else.

 One building has a stucco wall that, perhaps due to the intrusion of moisture, perhaps mirroring the topography of what is underneath, undulates with a wild, Gaudi-esque vibe. Hidden, tired, and rather dusty, its biomorphic waves always charm me when the light hits it at the right angle.

Strewn along the way underfoot one finds a collection of interesting manhole covers:

Here is an old Bell System access point. It presents the viewer with a magnificently detailed geometric pattern, arresting in its control and execution. All that for a non-slip surface!

 This detail of the cover's center reminds me it wasn’t all that long ago that there was only one “Phone Company” in every town, and that the Bell System trademark was ubiquitous. It meant “telephone.” It all seems closer to Alexander Graham than it does to Steve Jobs now—though it really isn’t.

 Another manhole cover presents concentric circles, emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name and the City of Salem’s ownership, indicating that it provides access to city services, I suppose.

Another cover shows a grid-like pattern, filled here with the crumbled detritus of dried autumn leaves. It proudly announces its provenance, as well. Such care taken with utterly utilitarian things!

Looking up now, one spots a rooster. Yes, that’s right—a rooster. It is ceramic, but a rooster nonetheless, perched on the balcony of a newly-renovated downtown apartment building. I look forward to this whimsical accent whenever I pass through. I very much like the way residences are finding their place back downtown.

Next door to the “roosterage” is the back of another commercial/apartment building. It, too, has been nicely restored, presenting a large expanse of clean, re-pointed bricklaying. It makes one think about what it must be like to live in the middle of so much activity and noise. The brick walls must help.

A yoga studio inhabits part of the first floor of this building, and apparently one enters by the alley—one of a number of such public connections between the main streets and the alley. A very fancy chromed bike rack has been placed by the entrance, complete with an artistic (though now rather altered) welded-chain sign reading “Yoga,” making one a bit concerned about parking her for any other purpose.

Further on one reaches an expanse of wall largely covered in gas pipes, electrical conduit, and ventilation piping. With shadows cast by the afternoon sun, it takes on a downscale chiaroscuro I find rather pleasing.

The ventilation pipes (stovepipes?) here are really quite something. They have to travel up a long distance to discharge whatever it is they carry, creating an effect reminiscent (to me) of the precisionist paintings of someone like Sheeler. I find this particular view rather mesmerizing.

This block of the alley ends with a spectacular display of wisteria again, creating another triumphal arch leading us into Court Street. When I pass through this I am always taken back briefly to a visit I made to Paris when in my teens. I remember slipping from a busy street into the courtyard of a sumptuous art nouveau apartment complex via a short alley hung with similar vines. That is a nice memory to have, even if this isn’t Paris, and there isn’t a trickling fountain in an octagonal courtyard anywhere nearby.

Wisteria is a tenacious plant, and its vines convey that. Here one climes a pole to reach its destination (can wisteria ever be said to have reached its destination, I wonder?). In so doing, it forms Bernini-like columns of life-conveying fiber— perhaps Bernini got the idea from such plants?

The last stop on this block is the entrance to Court Street, where the alley’s asphalt reaches the pavers marking a crosswalk (not a cross-drive, as the sign to the right makes clear); the awnings of the Reed Opera House stretch out to meet the street and the alley emerges once more into the world it serves.

While this block doesn’t have much public art (as did the last one), or a heavily-developed “theme,” its unity is provided by the wisteria, where on a warm day the pigeons gather to be fed by passers-by in its cooling shadows. That's enough of a theme for the birds...and for me. 

Enjoy the hidden blessings of life!


  1. Lovely post. Thank you Upright Cyclist.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I'm always happy to know that someone finds these little bagatelles enjoyable.