Salem. The word comes from the Hebrew noun shalom, which means completeness, wholeness, and peace. When we look at the Hebrew verb, shalem, it means to make something complete, whole, and at peace. In Arabic, we also have the word sālim, which means the same thing.
I live in Salem, Oregon. Things aren’t always peaceful here.
I have a little bit of a mixed history with this town that I’m going to share as a backdrop.
I worked here, at a turnkey manufacturing company up on Portland Road, from September of 1999 to December 31, 2005. At the time, I lived 20 miles south, in my hometown of Albany.
In the six years that I worked here, I never ventured much beyond I-5 and Portland Road. I had no real desire to. Portland was my getaway place, with it’s ironic, queer, hipster trendiness – it’s artiness and it’s foodiness and all the counterculture that I needed so badly in my life at that point. Salem was just where I worked and that was about it.
I always maintained a little disdain for my state’s capitol city. I saw it as a bigger, rougher sister to my little agriculture heavy hometown – a place that I had a love/hate relationship with for most of my life.
Once my career at Neilsen Manufacturing was outsourced to Singapore, I was sent packing back to college, and then a career at my alma mater. I figured I was done with this overgrown river town, it’s somewhat unattractive urban sprawl, and awkward lack of cultural identity. In the 13 years that I was away, I never really gave Salem much of a thought at all. In fact, I never came to simply visit. It was just a city that I passed through on my way to Portland.
So when did this change? When did I fall in love with this city? Because I am, truly, in love with this place.
Well, we can blame it on Shotski’s, my failed venue.
Shotski’s was actually kind of the embodiment of Salem.
She was a dive bar. She was run down and dirty. Her identity was kind of a free for all: death metal, punk, country, hip hop, drag shows, male revue, burlesque, llamas…she suffered from the same weird identity issues that Salem does. A bunch of different stuff crammed together, that doesn’t really fit right, but still usually coexists fairly well.
After about five months in…I started seeing interesting things happening.
The grunge rock dudes started showing up at the jazz heavy Open Mic events on Mondays. So did the hip hop crowd, occasionally. Miss Gay Oregon popped in one night for a death metal show and paraded around in a room full of bikers and a great time was had by all.
People were cross-pollinating.
And I discovered Salem’s really excellent secret.
This town is full of incredible musicians, performers, and artists. It’s full right up to the teeth. In fact, many of these people have multiple artistic talents.
It’s not entirely weird to find a punk rock front man who owns a successful tattoo shop.
Or a grunge guitarist who is a most incredible photographer.
Or a brilliant vocalist who is also a respected local painter.
Or a drag queen who not only sings, but is a fantastic puppeteer as well.
And the list goes on.
I fell in love with the people here. The talented, humble, versatile people.
And then Salem started to shed her veils. There was Make Music Day, live music on any given weekend in multiple venues, both inside and out, art shows, burgeoning cultural celebrations, awesome craftspeople and local businesses who love to support them.
There are fascinating statues planted all over the city, the waterfront carousel, the dive bombing owls and shakedown squirrels at Bush Park, the magical downtown alleyways, and the local restaurants at the city center that are more collaborative than anyone would ever believe.
Salem is on the verge of becoming a very interesting cosmopolitan location with a blue collar edge. It has its flaws…we’ve been made painfully aware of them over the summer of 2020 and the influx of white supremacists that tied our city center up in knots. However, they were answered by this surging, emboldened, vocal group of young activists who proved capable of rising to the challenge with a stubborn, sustained effort.
Salemanders are resourceful, gritty, down-to-earth, people who are critical of their own faults, but forgiving of others.
This town has heart. It has a real, rough-and-tumble, plucky, humble heart and it’s captured mine.