Wednesday, May 15, 2019

HLC Should ask for More Time and More Public Conversation on Alley Names

The Historic Landmarks Commission meets on Thursday the 16th, and they've got several items of interest.

Bar, saloons, and brewing are important!
Eugene Eckerlen is a candidate name.
(March 23rd, 1909)
The most compelling item is the Main Street Association's proposal for alley names.

Downtown alleys proposed for naming
And what is clear from the Staff Report on the research and naming ideas is that the whole thing is rushed, at least the public portion of it. The project is a good one, but it needs more time, more research, and more public participation. There's no need for a "Boaty McBoatface" kind of popular input (and subversion), but the project needs to cast a wider net of people and ideas, and develop a slate that has actual and broad appeal. In the present list, there is a risk of confecting a sign-board, Potemkin set of notions about the city and its history. The process is also cliquish and too top-down right now. City Staff have been involved since last summer, and only now is it going public. This is bad process, and it should be opened up.

HLC should not give its assent to this first draft for a slate of names.

Historical research suggested most the the name ideas are fanciful
These also should have been published last fall
One element in the poor process is that while the ostensible reason for the names is historical, most of them are neologisms and fanciful confections for modern branding rather than real historical understanding.

The initial research said "unable to confirm," "could not find evidence of this name," "no historic precedent for this name."

Only one of them, Peppermint Flats, had a history of actual use as a place name. And significantly, researchers may have felt they had to censor and scrub it. They cite only a vague mention in a 1939 piece, and do not cite the multiple attestations as a small neighborhood for prostitution and gambling. (See "Yes, Let's Remember Peppermint Flat! Salem Main Street Group Proposes Alley Names" for more on this.)

What we have then, is something that risks being a sanitized version of history that is not very real: A Potemkin history and Disney-style approach to Main Street.

Altogether it's clear the project needs more voices, more involvement, and more time to sift and settle and rise on a slate of alley names that is historically accurate and likely to be adopted and widely used by a broad range of people. It's still half-baked.

Apart from the names, there may be something of an autoist bias here. If we are going to recognize and name this alley system, are we going to see them as an archipelago, a set of islands disconnected from each other? Or are we going to see them a system operating with and across the streets and sidewalks? There's a bias here for seeing the alleys as places isolated by the streets rather than also as connections, and especially as connections across busy streets. There is not sufficient attention to crosswalks at alleys and to ways we might want to prioritize them over the near highways that intersect the alley system. That is something that could grow organically out of the naming project, but it's also something that might helpfully be considered more in this early stage.

So here are the concepts and some additional commentary. You will recall the five leaders (there are several lists in the Staff Report, and it's a little confusing which is the most recent proposal):

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

The Alley Proposals

Maybe "Electric Alley" is good, but why not ask more people?
"Pastoral" alley just has nothing to do with Salem, even with the mural, and with the Old City Hall site right there, alley number two missed the obvious.

They definitely missed on the Old City Hall site
For alleys 3 and 4 here should be more discussion on "spirited" and "fortune" and what all is going on in them. These seem especially forced, and alley 4 has a much better historical name associated with it.

This one seems forced
Eugene Eckerlen had two buildings on either side of the alley, operated saloons, was involved in the Salem Brewing Association (site of the Conference Center's Sculpture Garden), and seems like a good figure to stand in for the renaissance of beer, cider, and pub life downtown. It also highlights the first Eckerlen building, which is a parking lot now. The second one is still standing, but got a moderne remodel. (See here for one angle on the void of the first building.)

Eckerlen Alley sounds great!
The Fire Bell is still around!
At the Civic Center Station
The Fire Bell and Bell Tower was a significant feature at the center of block 5, and strong consideration should be given to reviving that place name.

Again, missed the obvious, the Bell Tower (see here)

None of these sound very good
For alley seven, "George Sun" is better than just "Sun," which was originally published and suggests our star rather than a person, but is this an instance of Anglos picking a token name? Sun seems to be known to us mainly from a transcript of a brief talk in 1922 at a gathering of "community patriarchs of Salem history." White Salemites had selected him already. Other news pieces call him "probably the most influential man in the Salem Chinese quarter" and a second piece also calls him "mayor of Chinatown." So maybe this is right. But would Chinese-American residents themselves choose someone else as most important? "Mayor" seems to be an honorific created by Anglos, and may not be very organic. If we want to honor Chinatown and its erasure - and we should! - any descendants of Chinese-American Salemites might have better ideas, and it's not clear they were consulted and are participating in this part of the naming project.

This is the right idea, but is the net wide enough?

The "8?" alley to the west is more accurate;
and "flat" might be better than "flats"
All in all there's so much potential here, but the current slate of proposed names is confusing, and there would be so many benefits to pausing for more discussion and outreach.

Other Items

Now with the demolition complete on the North Campus parcel of the State Hospital, and with the first phase of development nearing approvals, it is reasonable to see a request to shrink the boundaries of the State Hospital Historic District to exclude the land that is being redeveloped. The lots with Yaquina Hall and the Dome Building would be retained inside the District, but the proposed park and lots east of 25th would be excluded. This seems reasonable.

Seems reasonable
There's also a proposal for some changes to the ground floor and storefront system at the Reed Opera House. The new owners propose to delete the some of the 1970s era rabbit warren of angles and halls, create some new doorways, and install some more modern bar seating.

Maybe a food hall concept for the Reed Opera House?
The Reed is a living building and the first floor has has many changes to the storefront system, and there is no original "integrity" to preserve. Staff Recommendation is for approval. This also seems reasonable.

The first floor storefronts look nothing like this now
(Oregon Historical Society)
And finally the annual awards. The Grey Building will receive the Ben Maxwell Award, and the archeology project at the new Police Station the Virginia Green Award.

The HLC meets at 5:30pm on Thursday the 16th in Council Chambers at City Hall.


Here are some additional notes on the alleys from 2016 and the Public Art Commission.

Despite hopes from 1984,
parking garage + big box =/= vibrant alley
Addendum 2, June 19th

At Council on the 10th, the Main Street Association presented a ballot and schedule for more public comment.

Council additions
It's a little pro-forma: It's framed up as "reviewing the alley names already approved," and adds a lot of layers - like a test! - to filter out comment: Do you live in Salem? Do you own property in Salem? And provide detail how a new suggestion "meets the criteria to be considered as one of the alley names."

Is this really a good-faith effort to solicit public participation?

Postscript, October 4th

Final choices for names
More than 500 people voted, majorities for all but one
With more than 500 people voting, even though the ballots constituted a kind of "leading question," it's harder to argue there wasn't a decent public process. The naming still seems strange. In addition to points above:
  • The Wexford was only around for a few years, and hardly is the most important feature on the block.
  • Fortune's Corner is silly.
  • Cherry Lane isn't a feature on the block.
It'll be interesting to see how these take in popular imagination and use. Maybe these will end up more popular than I expect.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Over at the "Salem History Matters" program blog, they've posted a scan of two articles from 1988 and 1980 by Ann Lossner on Suie Lai Sun born in 1894 and the third child of George Sun. George, it said, came to the US (and perhaps also to Salem, it's not exactly clear which is meant) in 1868 when he was 16. Later, as merchant George also acted as banker for local Chinese residents. The North Salem Fred Meyer is located where Suie's house and orchard was.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added ballot concept the Main Street folks presented at Council on June 10th.