PEM Expansion — Shade Trees Are Not Really The Issue

Community perceives a lack of respect from the Peabody Essex Museum as construction plans are released.


There are days when I am surprised at how easily people's emotions can be stirred — in this case it is the future, or lack thereof, for two small Honey Locust trees, seven Red Oak trees and the location of a construction crane on the pedestrian mall.

As a young Derby Street kid I remember walking across the old Empire's parking lot as I crossed from Charter Street to Essex Street. I could have been going to Almy's or on my way to mow the lawn at my grandfather's house in North Salem.

As I approached what was once Liberty Street, I would stop and watch as a large hole was excavated for the foundation for the first expansion of what we knew then as the Peabody Museum. Later downtown, journeys that summer were interrupted to watch steel beams go up. The arrival and placement of the huge stone facade panels kept me fascinated.

Whatever controversy came with that project escaped me. My interests as a 12-year-old were elsewhere.

Some years later when the museum expanded again, there were multiple issues that resonated with locals. Mention Liberty Street, the Armory facade, the Church Street parking lot, the Marine Arts Gallery or the Essex Institute to a Salem native and you are sure to get an earful. Memories are long and in many cases grudges are still held.

There is also a perception that it is the that is driving the current plans to "improve" the pedestrian mall. I am one who believes that is true.

The recent Public Shade Tree Removal Hearing where the fate of seven trees that line the southern side of the pedestrian mall between New Liberty Street and East India Marine Hall was discussed has stirred those old memories and freshened a few of those grudges.

The PEM has ambitious and expensive plans. They have become a world-class destination museum. 

What they have not become is an institution that demonstrates a feel and understanding for the community in which they do business. Ask the typical Salem resident what the PEM does to support the schools, children's organizations and businesses in town and you will get a blank stare. This doesn't mean they do nothing; it means that they are not visible enough.

Seven trees have the potential to either derail their public relations campaign or keep it on track. It would be nice to hear the PEM tell us exactly what their plans are, how they arrived at those plans, and what will be done to replace those trees or to pay for their loss.

How about plans for those mall businesses that put push carts in that area? Are their plans to assist them for the duration of the construction?

In the same vein, where is the replica of the Paul Revere Bell at Armory Park? It disappeared this week.

This issue isn't really about trees or bells. It is about respect for the community through due public process and direct communication with those who are affected. The trees are nice, but they can be replaced. 

PEM hired the very well-known and respected Claudia Chuber to help them overcome their own local public relation shortcomings. It is past time for some true public outreach.

You have a nice air-conditioned auditorium, PEM. Maybe it's time for the public to have a chance to speak directly with those who are doing the planning.

Denise Kent August 15, 2012 at 10:28 AM
It's not about trees, so why all the tree comments? The concern is over the PEM's lack of communication and perceived (actual?) diregard for residents, and how their continued expansion and failure to keep promises have left many citizens suspicious and jaded. I enjoy the PEM, but I also miss the irginal, crowded, quiky collection, and long to see those treasures returned to a permanent display. I also worry that Essex Street is becoming "PEM Street", as the museum acquires building after building. So, no, it's not about trees- it's about trees, traffic (pedestrian mall survival), and the changing character of our downtown, which may affect our quality of life. It's about transparency, respect for community, and fulfillment of promises.
Stanley Eisen August 15, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Jacquie Valatka August 15, 2012 at 11:01 PM
Why would anyone bash one of the best things Salem has to offer? Our kids have visited with their school classes & they have hung their own artwork through collaborative events like "Art Can Make a Difference" with the SEF. Children are inspired & have developed a love of history, art & museums by the hands on approach. We have participated in countless world-class int’l festivals and exhibitions for free by being Salem residents. The PEM feels like family to me, when my dad was ill it was the last place he got to enjoy art & on my daughter’s 6th birthday she asked to go to the PEM. We have seen local shops & restaurants open & flourish since the PEM's first major expansion. Now the PEM is expanding again and will reinforce Salem’s reputation as a world-class destination. Come on Salem - let us treasure one of the city’s gems.
john August 15, 2012 at 11:24 PM
Because they dont pay taxes.
Salem is my home August 17, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Sheesh! I'm SO "with" Jacquie Valatka. The PEM is one of the best museums in the world -- and I have had the good fortune to travel widely and go to MANY museums. And it seems to me that the PEM gives a LOT back to the community, starting with free admission (I don't see the MFA or the Science Museum giving DAILY free admission to Boston residents, do you?) It holds a lot of terrific programs all of us can attend just by walking in; the magnificent Moshe Safdie building is a tremendous anchor on a mostly pedestrian pedestrian mall (that's an intentional repetition), and yes, it does bring a lot of people to a our city who wouldn't (as I wouldn't) come for all the Witch Kitsch. Yes, the PEM may have hastened the demise of some businesses (my favorite, Signatures, is one), but I hope it DOES start doing a better job of addresing all these public relations issues. Wake up folks, the world is changing -- all the businesses Mr. Legault mentioned in his article are gone, gone, gone and wouldn't be here whether the PEM was there or not. Let's leave the "history" behind and value such a wonderful asset!


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