Side Ways Salem
by Susanna Baird
Out-of-towners in hand, I love to show off Salem. We visit the Peabody Essex Museum, we visit the Salem Witch Museum, we grab a meal at a restaurant on the wharf, then stroll past Salem Harbor on our way to The House of Seven Gables. “You’re so lucky to live here,” they say. And I am.
Alone, I’m equally grateful for Salem, but tend more to the quiet areas just off to the side of the main thoroughfares. Right downtown or along its edges, these side ways are beyond most visitors’ tourist-vision. In them, I can take a “break-ation,” a 20-minute respite that pulls me outside my every day long enough to drink a cold drink and get back to my bustle before anyone knows I’m gone.
71 Essex Street to the Waterfront
When my kids were young, I spent many mornings in the green space between the wooden Narbonne House, built in the late 17th century for a butcher, and the 18th century brick Derby House on Derby Street. A short wooden walk stretches from the Narbonne House past a few interesting signs, my favorite discussing the archaeological activity that’s taken place at the site—150,000+ artifacts unburied!
The walk ends at a green space with a small lawn with some seriously beautiful trees on the right and a charming 18th century garden on the left. If you stroll the garden, notice that, in the fashion of the day, herbs and flowers are planted together. Find a grape arbor and fruit trees toward the back. Do not, as my child and a friend once did, throw fallen fruit at the surrounding houses unless you want to raise the ire, and the voices, of nearby neighbors.
I’m pretty happy to stay in this space for my full breakation — louder and crowder (not a word!) by the water — but if the coast is clear and I’m feeling salty, I’ll cross Derby and settle into one of the waterfront Adirondacks facing the harbor.
Cold Drink, Caffeinated: Iced coffee or a honeydew bubble tea from Jaho, 197 Derby Street
Cold Drink, Juiced: Strawberry and kiwi juice from Romeo’s Juices, 62 Wharf St./Pickering Wharf
Cool for Kids: The “Public Stores” section of the Customs House is hidden in the back of the building, adjacent to the green lawn with the big trees. When it’s open, you can pop in and take in a sampling of the luxury items that arrived to Salem by ship in the 1820s. No staff, no fees, easy in, easy out.
Brown Street to Charter Street
You’ve probably driven down Brown Street, you just didn’t know it. It’s the short street that runs from the parking lot behind the Witch City Mall to the Roger Conant Statue and the Salem Witch Museum. About halfway down the block, you can enter what the PEM calls the “Federal Garden area” and I call “the cut-through behind Goodnight Fatty.”
The area is currently under construction, but still offers some interesting and beautiful things to see. My longtime favorite is the Derby-Beebe Summer House (built 1799), a tiny off-white house with a green door, built so the swells who lived in the Gardner-Pingree House could eat their lunch almost outside. I find the steps good for sitting and sipping and looking at the small (currently untended) garden, which features several excellent fruit trees.
Whether walking through or step-sitting, note the red building, built in the mid-19th century to resemble a late 17th century Quaker Meeting House, and the small white structure, which measures a neat 10 feet by 10 feet. Known as “ten footers,” these little buildings were once common on the North Shore. This one was a shoe shop.
Keep on, pausing to note the totally random historic doorway removed from 53 Charter St.– that’s the once-spooky house next to the Burying Point —and stuck onto the back of the big brick building we used to call the Phillips Library, but which is actually named Plummer Hall. End up in the courtyard at the Salem Regional Visitor Center, aka the Salem Armory. When it’s not busy, I love hanging out here. You can play two-minute tourist by reading the signage posted in the walkway or taking in the military timeline carved into the ground, or you can sit on one of the boulder-benches placed around the courtyard.
If you cross Essex, you will find one of my favorite sitting spots in all of downtown, the Axelrod Garden Walkway. It’s usually far less crowded than the Armory courtyard, and musicians often set up nearby on Essex, providing a little mood music. The walkway offers benches and benches, trees and trees, even a little outdoor sitting room on the Charter Street end.
Cold Drink, Caffeinated: Iced Cereal Milk Latte from Brew Box (131 Essex Street, across from the Armory). To make the ICML, Brew Box soaks cereal in milk, removes the cereal, adds a shot of espresso, and pours over ice.
Cold Drink, Juiced: Pineapple lime apple ginger juice from Front Street Coffeehouse, 20 Front Street
Cool for Kids: If you’re playdating, the Armory courtyard and the Axelrod Walkway are great spaces, especially in the early morning and early evening hours. The Armory area is semi-contained and the Axelrod’s setup – benches on one side, grass and trees on the other – makes for good playtime in the “woods” for kids while you and a friend sit on a bench across the walkway and pretend you don’t know them. Dusk at the Axelrod is particularly lovely — lights planted in the ground alongside the museum building come on, and the kids I know love to walk among them.
The Ropes Garden
If you can, enter the Ropes Garden (318 Essex Street) through the Federal Street Extension entrance, a left not far past Murphy’s Funeral Home. You’ll see the garden’s greenhouse and, especially around dusk, rabbits. The front is lovely, but coming in from the less-traveled back feels special, local.
The garden hosts its fair share of tourists and Salemites alike. This year, the PEM, which owns the gardens and the Ropes Mansion in front of them, invited families to adopt beds, creating their own designs. With benches placed in shady corners, the garden offers a nice stroll-sit combo, and if you have time to hunker, you can grab a book from the Little Free Library at the front entrance and give it a test-read.
The reason I’m including the garden, though, isn’t the flowers or the pebbled walkways, the pretty sundial or even the goldfish pond. On the far end of the garden, around the side of the house, is one of my favorite trees in Salem, with massive roots and a lumpy trunk I want to hug every time I see it. Just beyond, there’s grass perfect for the picnicking ambitious, but the stairs next to the tree suit me fine.
Cold Drink, Caffeinated: Draft cold brew from Gulu-Gulu Café, 247 Essex Street
Cold Drink, Juiced: Spicy Green Tonic, Life Alive Organic Café, 281 Essex Street
Cool for Kids: Coming in the front entrance of the garden, you can cut right and take a very short, semi-secret trail to a different view of the goldfish pond.
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Susanna Baird is a writer and editor living in Salem. She splits her time between creative pursuits, magazine work, and client projects, including manuscript consultations. In addition to serving as administrative editor at Talking Writing, Susanna is the co-chair of the Salem Literary Festival Authors’ Committee, runs a monthly writing workshop, and is president and co-founder of The Clothing Connection, a small nonprofit getting clothes to Salem kids who need them. Find her online at susannabaird.com.