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Dispute brews in Hollow

Condos, rentals planned for Salem tannery sites, but locals would prefer jobs

Rose Mary O’Connor of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association at the Salem Oil and Grease Co. site, which is scheduled to be redeveloped. Rose Mary O’Connor of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association at the Salem Oil and Grease Co. site, which is scheduled to be redeveloped. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / January 22, 2012
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More than a million people visit Salem each year, but few tourists can be found about 10 minutes away from the downtown toward the North River. Here, there are no plaques or signs to mark one of the country’s earliest industrial sites, a warren of tanneries that operated more than 200 years ago and, for a period, produced the largest amount of tanned leather in the country.

They call the hills and flatlands along the river Blubber Hollow, a tribute to the blubber and oil drawn from whales brought to the tanneries in the 18th century. While the factories prospered until the middle of last century, almost all closed or burned decades ago - leaving fallow, highly polluted lots that blight the neighborhood today.

These days, developers are looking with favor upon the dilapidated ruins. Nearly $80 million in investment is planned for the area, and it’s possible that within a year, work could begin on all of the sites. The projects include a $30 million office park on the site of the former Sylvania light plant that would include the Salem Senior Center; a $7 million building that would house 44 condos and 6,000 square feet of commercial space at a former tannery on Goodhue Street; and another $40 million for two separate projects that would add 271 apartments and 22,500 square feet of retail space at two other former tanneries.

“If you look at these sites, they are an eyesore,’’ said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who has championed development in the neighborhood. “All of the redevelopment plans will greatly improve the way they look, as well as the city’s bottom line.’’

If built, the projects would add about $1.1 million in new taxes to the city each year. But in the 19th-century cottages once built for factory workers - who for generations passed along those homes to their sons and daughters - few are talking about the new tax revenue. When they look at the empty fields where many of their relatives once labored, they are reminded daily of the death of an industry that once employed an entire neighborhood. Their main concern is bringing jobs back to the hollow, not building apartments.

“We’re all for development, but we want to see jobs,’’ said Rose Mary O’Connor, chairwoman of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association in the hollow. “These were leather factories. They were places where people went to work. We want it to go back to what it was - a light-industrial area.’’

Here, the past seems everywhere. Talk to old-timers and they’ll rattle off names of families that left County Cork in Ireland during the Potato Famine and filled an urgent need for skilled workers in the hollow. They helped create the city’s first Irish stronghold, and bolstered tannery production during the glory days more than 150 years ago. Between 1844 and 1850, the number of tanneries more than doubled in the hollow - from 41 to 83 - and by the 1870s, more leather was tanned in Salem than anywhere else in the country.

An 1886 union strike brought production to a standstill, after workers demanded that their weekly hours be cut from 70 to 59. The four-month strike ended violently after a union leader was shot to death near a tannery. The strike marked the beginning of a decline in the industry, as tanneries lost employees and contracts. The Great Salem Fire of 1914 pushed the tanners into further decline, when nine tanneries burned, along with much of the rest of the city.

Joan Sweeney, who has lived in the hollow for seven decades, remembers the tanneries as places where anyone in the neighborhood could find work. As a child, she watched the North River change colors, depending on what kind of chemicals were being used to tan the leather. “At times the river ran red, white, black, and green,’’ she said.

The river still runs through many of the abandoned tanneries, but now few pay attention to its flow. On a recent night, in the shadow of the river, more than 100 people gathered at a Moose lodge for a neighborhood meeting. Among the group were Sweeney and the hollow’s city councilor, Paul Prevey, who say new residential buildings will put a strain on city services, and cause more traffic in the already congested area. Like O’Connor, Prevey wants businesses on the sites, not residents.

“I think we missed the ball because we were the passive participant,’’ said Prevey. “I think the city should have been much more aggressive in trying to make sure the developments fit in with the character of the neighborhood and wouldn’t overwhelm it.’’

Darrow Lebovici, president of Historic Salem, called the proposed projects a “short-term’’ fix that does not adhere to the neighborhood’s master plan. The 2003 plan calls for a balance of new commercial and residential investment in the neighborhood. “This administration believes in development of any type at any price,’’ he said.

Driscoll countered that the process has been fair and market-driven. “We want development by choice, not by chance,’’ she said. Driscoll said the proposals were not perfect, but they would serve to clean up polluted land and bring investment to the city, along with new residents and tax revenue.

Driscoll said the city would prefer commercial investment on the sites since it would generate a higher tax rate, but after decades of trying to lure developers, only one property attracted commercial interest. “We don’t want perfection to be the enemy of the good,’’ she said.

Besides more traffic, and more people, few long-term residents can predict how the projects will change the hollow. Most agree on one certainty, however.

Said resident Beverlie McSwiggin: “The leather shops aren’t coming back.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.

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