One of the favorite activities of people who live in Salem (Oregon) is asking ourselves, "What's wrong with this town?"
My wife and I have a Salem address, though we're outside the city limits, so we're entitled to engage in this ongoing question that lacks a precise answer. Here's my current contribution to coming to grips with Why does Salem suck?
I'm moved to write about this subject because I just got back from a visit to Portland's Bridgeport Village, a mere 45 minutes driving time from our home -- yet light years distant in terms of energy, interest, positive vibe, and overall entertainment value.
There's nothing like Bridgeport Village in Salem. Or anything like the Pearl District in Salem. Or anything like NW 23rd Street in Salem. (I'm vaguer about Portland's east side, but I'm sure there's plenty of cool areas over there that also put Salem to shame.)
The best way I can describe living in Salem is when you feel rundown and lackluster, but you're not really sick. You just feel out of sorts. It's only when you're back to normal that you truly appreciate the difference between vibrant health and merely getting along.
When I get out of the car in Bridgeport Village, or some other Portland locale my wife and I like to visit, I immediately feel energized. Salem sluggishness lifts for a few hours.
Today I was able to move easily between four favorite stores: the always interesting Apple Store, a great Barnes & Noble, REI, and Whole Foods. Each was filled with people who seemed to express more positivity and a vest for life than Salemites.
One of the theories put forth by locals to explain the Salem sucks phenomenon is that the governmental and institutional side of Salem -- which is significant -- casts some sort of psychological pall (I'm tempted to say "spell," but that would fit better with the Massachusetts Salem) over the city.
We have the main state mental hospital. Penitentiaries. Government offices galore. And of course the Capitol Building, which houses state legislators who often can't be described in any sort of positive terms.
There may be something to this state capital theory. Salem seems to be to Portland as Olympia is to Seattle and Sacramento is to San Francisco: a second-class city that is over-shadowed by it's nearby way cooler metropolitan area.
One problem with Salem, among many, is that there isn't any area or neighborhood -- not one -- which has a critical mass of "must see/go to" places that appeal to a wide variety of people like so many locales in Portland do.
I mean, there are places a Prius-driving, vegetarian, progressive guy, namely me, enjoys a lot in Salem. I like the Great Harvest Bread Company, Venti's, the RJ Dance Studio, and Pacific Martial Arts (where I have my Tai Chi classes).
Each is on the same downtown block of Court Street. The Beanery, my favorite coffee house, is just a short distance away. So this area of Salem is where I hang out the most. But it doesn't draw people the same way a genuine attraction like Bridgeport Village or NW 23rd Street does.
There's just not enough there anywhere in Salem for that. Hopefully one day there will be. The downtown riverfront holds considerable promise, as it has begun to be redeveloped in a mixed use fashion.
For now, though, the present is pretty depressing. Whenever we drive into town we pass the Sunnyslope shopping center in south Salem. A stand alone building with a drive-up window has been under construction there for several months.
Naturally my wife and I have been curious about what it would turn out to be. A week or so ago I came home and said, "There's a sign up on the new Sunnyslope store. You'll be underwhelmed to learn that it's a... Subway."
"Figures," Laurel responded. "Salem loves Subway. Big high calorie uncreative sandwiches. There's plenty of Subway stores in town. Now we've got another one."
Well, people who live in Salem are used to being disappointed. We missed out on a Trader Joes when Corvallis got a store, though Salem has three times more people. On the title of a post about Trader Joes passing up Salem I also used the words, "Salem sucks."
Probably will again.