Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Yes, Let's Remember Peppermint Flat! Salem Main Street Group Proposes Alley Names

Over at CANDO they've got information on a fun project.

Names for the alleys?
This could be "Electric Alley"
The Salem Main Street Association has proposed formal naming for the downtown alleys. They've identified "five historically referenced alley names" (keyed on the map below) and are looking to name the others:

1. Electric Alley
2. Pastoral Alley
4. Spirited Alley
7. Sun Alley
8b. Peppermint Flats Alley

Should we name our alleys?
(via CANDO, comment added)
The naming proposal is fascinating, but at least some of it on the surface looks fantastical, not really historical. Unfortunately the information comes filtered from CANDO, and the Main Street group has not posted any of the information on their own website. Maybe as more comes out, things will be clearer. (As critics have pointed out several times, the Main Street group is lousy about maintaining a website, blog, or facebook! They operate more like a secret club than a public-minded advocacy organization. Maybe "Dancing with the Salem Stars" will change this.)

Already old, April 24th, 1919
But first off, they've got the wrong alley marked for Peppermint Flat. 100 years ago a note does suggest it's "flats," but it also says the area was mainly between Liberty and High (8a), not between High and Church (8b). Maybe the 8a/8b split recognizes this a little, but 8a is really the right one. It is low land, flooded seasonally, and where the peppermint might have grown. But because there are parking decks there, it's a much less interesting alley.

Earlier usage confirms the singular, "flat," and underscores that it was a block for brothels, gambling, and drugs. It was our district for Vice! Gold Rush towns have often leveraged their red-light districts for tourism, and we might embrace this. But we should not offer a version of it that's completely sanitized and neutered. I know, tragedy+time =comedy. But still, it's not just a Disneyfied red-light district full of beautiful whores with hearts of gold. There were real people involved, many of them struggling.

There was great sadness also
July 20th, 1900

November 14th, 1894

March 2nd, 1905
At least in the 19-teens, "Electric Alley" does not seem to be attested, but perhaps it was a later use. It refers to the PGE building, now called the Electric Apartments. It's a logical enough extension. But more strictly, while there was a bowling team called the Electric Alleys, and possibly a bowling alley even called the Electric Alley, there does not seem to be a street alley with this name.

Opening of the Electric Building, September 21st, 1917
(The building's plaque says 1920, but we can date it to 1917.)
And what about the Pastoral, Spirited, and Sun alleys?

Just generally it is not clear these names were historically attached to the area of a specific alley, and it might be stretching things to claim that the alleys themselves had these specific names. In my readings of the newspaper during the streetcar era, alley names have not jumped out as significant. That's not to say they didn't exist, but it is to say they were not prominent if they existed at this time. It may be that names coalesced later in the interwar period as autoism came to prevail.  If so, were people on foot at this time pushed to the alley? Or were they celebrated in the alleys? There might be interesting transportation history here in addition to any referential significance of the names themselves.

As for new names, alley 5 was the site of the Bell Tower, the fire bell, and that certainly was a significant place for Salemites. "Bell Tower alley" rings the right note! (Have to think more about the others. And while we're on the topic of reviving historical place names, consider "sleepy hollow"!)

Hopefully the Main Street group will publish more on why they think these names are appropriate. There is the potential for interesting history here. And really, it would be great to have a set of more particular downtown place names that have at least some basis in history. That would be a meaningful enrichment to the urban fabric. But it would also be nice for them to be more than nostalgic confections, and to have more than a fanciful relation to the actual past. Better documentation will help secure their place in our history. This could be an exciting project for better downtown history and extra juice for tourism and other downtown visits.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

Apparently some people already have informal names for some of the alleys downtown. Someone posted on the CAN-DO page these suggestions:
"Wisteria Alley (where there is wisteria growing over the alley); Salmon Alley (because there is a piece of art that includes a salmon); Goose Neck Alley (because there is a mural of a goose)......"

I liked the person's reasoning, so I am promoting the idea of finding a local historical or physical connection on the City Council Facebook page.

You suggested background on a few, but sorry none makes sense to me, so I hope others have some good suggestions before it is all decided.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Re: "sorry none makes sense to me..."

What does that mean to you? Peppermint Flat has the same kind of reality that Badger Corner has. The Bell Tower is very similar. What is it about these that do not make sense?

If you want to advance "Goose Neck Alley," you should explain why it is better than "Electric Alley," which with it would be competing. And maybe it is better, since it's not clear the way was ever called "Electric Alley."

But in the context of the historical focus, Wisteria, Salmon, and even the Goose, all stem from more recent changes to the alleys, and are less historical in that way.

At the same time, Wisteria is proposed for #4, instead of Spirited, which seems weak; and Salmon for #6, which apparently has no candidate. In the absence of more historically apt names, these might be strong candidates, since as you point out they link to real physical characteristics visible now, and by which people might orient themselves.

But since you had advocated for Badger Corner, it is a little odd to hear you dismissing names that have some basis in older usage. There are problems with the slate that the Main Street group proposes, but the idea of reviving historic names seems like a good one.

Jim Scheppke said...

I have been thinking about this and have come up with a different idea. Why not name the alleys after Oregon Poets Laureate? We have had nine Oregon Poets Laureate to date. Each block of an alley could be named after a different poet laureate and their poetry could be painted on the walls of the alley along with other appropriate artwork. Just affixing a name to an alley doesn't really get us much. Alleys that celebrate Oregon poets and poetry would be a real tourist attraction! It would draw people to visit the alleys and linger and read the poetry. How about that idea?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The names of Oregon poets is fine idea!

But I am hopeful for something more intensely local, that the project will focus on the city of Salem itself and less on any metonymy of Salem as Capital or stand-in for the whole State and its government.

Are any of the Laureates from Salem or lived in Salem during their writing careers?

If we recognized people, rather than historic place names or nearby art, we should consider a project to recognize important Salemites who aren't as well known as they should be.

People like Obed and Charlotte Dickenson! How about Dickenson Alley?

Our erasure of Chinatown was awful, and commemorating it in the nearest alley might be good also. (This might be #5 or #7.) We show the photo of Sung Lee in front of his laundry all the time (the image is even scanned twice, here and here), and maybe we should do more to commemorate him with more detail and depth. Or perhaps there is a better candidate.

It seems like naming the alleys is a meritorious project, but one that needs more time to develop and mature into something with broad support and compelling names people will actually use.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's more on the proposal at the HLC this month.