A funny thing happened on my way out of Salem...I stayed. I ended two decades of nomadic life and found myself putting down roots. But was Salem a wise choice? Have I settled down or simply settled? Many of my friends are asking similar questions.
After pondering this personal predicament for a number of years, I have come to the conclusion that, for me, it is more than simple inertia or worse, sheer laziness. I discover that I have developed a sense of community, of belonging, with a network of friends and acquaintances, that has grounded me here in a spiritual and material way. This is what keeps me here. It certainly isn’t the nightlife, nor the host of restaurants catering to a vegetarian diet, nor the multitude of cultural events in our fair city that engages my loyalty.
I think most would agree that one of Salem’s finest points is its location, which is halfway to everywhere one wants to be in this neck of the woods. The conventional joke is that Salem is the hub of our region, but nothing moves here. East and west offer nature and nurture, while north and south give culture and community. Yet even with Salem’s wonderful proximity to mountains and beaches and big city Portland and tie-died Eugene, Salem still ends up being nowhere.
But if one looks hard enough, there does appear to be life in our city after all. If so, then what may be lacking isn’t the cultural heartbeat, but rather a catalyst that compels the individual and collective creativity, reinventing the community of Salem into something deeper and more gratifying. Among other things, we lack a networking medium that publicizes the Salem scene in a comprehensive and interesting fashion, beckoning us to get involved. I’m doing my bit with Alternatives to create that medium because I believe in it.
There is an institutional vortex here that is not easily overcome. You cannot put such a high concentration of lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, criminals, and mental patients all in one place and think it has no effect on the energies of the populace. Balancing this bleak observation are the many talented, eclectic, humorous, free and forward thinking people doing their thing in Salem. It’s a minority, but too small and too powerless to resist these influences? I think not.
Can these people create the cultural critical mass that lifts the tone above the drone of the State and its institutions? Have enough of us set roots and spread wings here to change the cultural climate? If Salem is to evolve beyond its present hubness, we need to find each other and co-create.
Using a well-known analogy, I think we have a good 99 primates doing the most creative work imaginable, right here in Salem. What may be needed is that one-hundredth monkey among us, quietly learning a new, evolutionary behavior which slightly tips the scales of group consciousness, setting off a subliminal signal that triggers an “Aha!” response, culminating in a wake-up call to the slumbering masses living to retire. The effect could change the Salem experience forever.
Richard Baynton, a long time Salem resident, is a co-creator of Alternatives. Update 2002: Richard now lives in Eugene.