"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
Opening paragraph of "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens never spent a moment in Salem in either his lifetime or in ours. Despite that fact, the opening to his 1859 novel seems to reflect the situation Salem now faces with the Salem Harbor Power Station.
In my lifetime, and in the lifetime of the majority of Salem natives, the power plant has been a constant presence, both reassuring and somewhat threatening. Some native Salemites recall the days before the plant opened, most of us do not. Many locals can mark certain points in their lives by the appearance, or disappearance of smokestacks.
My first memories of the plant are of walking up Derby Street with my mother pushing my younger sister in a stroller. At that time, there were three 300-foot tall smokestacks on the eastern horizon. They created an optical illusion where each in in turn appeared taller than the other. When I was a little older, my father would take me to work with him on summer nights at the old South Essex Sewerage pumping station, which sat in the shadows of the plant. I would sit and stare as the navigation lights on the smokestacks flashed in the darkness of the night sky.
Somehow to me, and many others, the plant became a reassuring presence. After all, the power it generated was needed by all and the taxes the city received were lucrative.
As a teenager living in the Derby Street area, my viewpoint began to change. It was not unusual to see my mother cleaning the window sills of a fine black soot on days when the winds came in from the ocean. There were rumblings of health concerns as a result of that soot, which came off the ever present great pile of coal.
The blizzard of 1978 brought the grounding of the oil tanker, Global Hope, and the resultant oil spill into the harbor. That oil made it all the way to the small beach at Derby's Wharf.
In later years, people started speaking of serious health concerns connected to the blown soot and plant emissions. Groups formed, protests were held, and many an argument was waged by people on both sides of the issue. The benefits of industry, employment, and tax payments were weighed against the health risks and the loss of prime waterfront real estate.
Now those discussions (or arguments) need to change course. There are many ideas out there: waterfront developments with hotels and restaurants, park and recreational space, and cruise ship terminals, to name just a few. The reality of some of these proposals must be looked at in detail and weighed against more practical options.
We would love to have an open green space running from Blaney Street all the way to Willows Park. That, however, does not seem realistic. A partnership of the public and private sectors in order to create jobs and maintain a large and stable tax base is what we, as a city, need.
How much will it cost, and how long will it take to clean up the contaminants that have built up over the last 100 or so years? There was coal being processed on that site long before the power plant came into the equation.
Time and cost and the continued presence of the transmission station and sewerage treatment plant just seem to make anything but business or industrial use impractical.
We must look at how to use the 65-acre site best for business and also industrial purposes. The taxes generated there are critical to the health of Salem. What is the best way to continue to create the needed tax revenue?
This is a great and overwhelming challenge for the city and those we have elected. A great city requires leaders who can make hard choices with a vision tempered by reality. We as a city will have to live with the results of these decisions. Those we have elected will have to endure the slings and arrows that result.
Challenge, opportunity, and hard decisions.
This truly is the "best of times, and the worst of times."