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Genius loci

Salem Common

A fog-shrouded walkway in Salem Common, 2014. Photo: Jeff Folger

When it comes to the idea of genius loci, I need to be very careful. Spirit is a loaded word in my hometown. Salem, Massachusetts, is perhaps known first and foremost as home to the witch trials of 1692, which marked their 325th anniversary this summer. This dark period has spawned a culture of kitsch — witches, haunted houses, and T-shirt boutiques — that often overshadows Salem’s rich history of maritime trade, American revolutionary history, art, and culture.

At the intersection of kitsch and history resides a space not uncommon across New England: the town common. Salem Common lies just outside downtown and, as with most small towns in our region, is the heart of the city. If, as our Roman ancestors believed, a genius loci is the protective spirit of a place, where else would these spirits hold dominion but within and around town commons? Imagine spirits sheltered within the embedded landscapes that pepper the towns of New England, keeping watch over our daily lives.

Originally grazing land designated for commoners’ livestock, or collection of firewood and turf, our commons have evolved. In Salem, the common embraces the kitsch: It is the terminus of the annual parade that launches our October season and host to our monthlong Halloween festival. But it is also home to seasonal rituals: Santa’s arrival to the roof of the neighboring Hawthorne Hotel each December; the first muster commemoration, this year celebrating the 380th anniversary of the first military muster in the American colonies; the Witches’ Cup bike race, during which elite cyclists hurtle around the turns at breakneck speed; beer and wine, food, and ice cream festivals. Families use this space as an extended back­yard for picnics, reunions, and weddings.

In our pedestrian-friendly city, it has a gravitational field of its own. Whether it is simply to take a turn around the common, pause at the playground, throw a Frisbee, walk a dog, or as part of a run (the loop is almost exactly a half-mile, convenient for keeping track of distance), Salem Common is a touchstone. Our family walks always end up at the common, as if there were some centripetal force drawing us to it. After a pause, however long or brief, the centrifugal force spins you back into the city along some tangent.

To borrow from Louis Kahn, much like the street, the common is a “room by agreement.” It is a shared space, open to all. It does not judge, exclude, or marginalize. It has remained truly common. Lewis Mumford said, “Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.” I don’t think that our protective spirits have the motor car in mind, either. When you next drive by your town common, pause, park, and join the room by agreement. Take a walk with a friend.