TOP STORIES: From a kitten crisis to new Ukrainian neighbors

2022 was a year filled with contradictions. Many Salemites told me it was the first “normal” seeming year since the pandemic began as many larger events resumed operations and school began without restrictions in the fall.

Yet across the city, Oregon and the world, so many things remained in flux — inflation stretched family budgets, industries dealt with lingering supply chain issues and pandemic disruptions, and war upended lives for families in Ukraine with ripple effects all the way to Salem.

Here are my top stories from 2022.

2022 opened with a substitute teaching crisis in Salem schools, as so many educators were out sick that the district’s superintendent had to step in and teach math to first graders. As I chronicled the impacts on local students, I also heard from teachers who wanted to substitute but were being held back by district or state bureaucracy, including the cost of licensing. This story shed light on the problems that were exacerbating the substitute challenge, keeping experienced teachers out of the classroom.

I love stories about people who think their city is missing something important and decide they’re going to fill the gap. That was the case with the crew behind So Lame, a group of music lovers who got sick of driving to Portland for a music scene. Interviewing them in their hole-in-the-wall store helped me better understand Salem, and convinced me to get a cheap record player to try out at home.

The long-delayed reopening of Cascades Gateway Park prompted emails from many readers who wondered when exactly the city would allow the public back in, and what was taking so long. With this story, I hoped to dive deeper into what happened in the park after the city decided to allow homeless camping during the pandemic, capturing perspectives from people living in the park, neighbors frustrated by the extensive damage and homeless service providers.

I’m always amazed when people who have just lived through a life-changing, traumatic experience are willing to open up to a total stranger about it – particularly in their third language. Kseniia Hnatovska was so kind to invite me into her family’s Salem home and share the arduous journey that led her, her mother, husband and daughter to flee their home in Ukraine, with no plans to return. It was a privilege to be able to share their story with a wider audience and connect what can seem like a distant conflict back to its impacts in Salem.

While walking along Court Street over the summer, I noticed the massive signs in the window of the former Whitlock’s store and got curious about the backstory. A bit of inquiry led me to Charles Weathers, the Salem developer behind Fork Forty Food Hall, now working on his newest project. Walking through the vacant space with him made for a fascinating afternoon with a few surprises, including the model home installed upstairs that served as a furniture showroom in a long-ago era.

Taking a massive, national issue like inflation and capturing its impact can be a challenge. Our team sent out emails, posted on social media and looked for people who might be willing to open their budgets and personal lives to strangers. I was so grateful Holli Thomas was willing to share and put a human face on an issue affecting nearly every household in the Salem area.

Who doesn’t love a good mural? (With apologies to our one Facebook commenter who apparently hates all of them.)

While this wasn’t the most serious or consequential development of 2022 in Salem, it was a joy to see neighborhoods come together and add colorful paintings to local intersections – and talk to artists and neighborhood residents about how they were approaching their projects.

Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo was one of the first people I met when I began working for Salem Reporter. Our first interview turned into an hour-long conversation outlining the history of federal funding for low-income schools, the No Child Left Behind Act and its impact in Salem, and a half-dozen other topics. I quickly realized every conversation I had with her would be the same – full of context, history and rapid-fire references to academic studies I could peruse to learn more.

Seeing her retire was bittersweet, but I appreciated the chance to talk to so many other people in Salem education and parent advocacy who had benefitted from her deep knowledge and care about Latino parent involvement in local schools.

After I wrote in 2021 about the pandemic’s impacts on vet care in Salem, several readers wrote to suggest a follow-up piece about cat overpopulation. That story got put on the backburner until a board member at Salem Friends of Felines reached out and gave me the perfect window into the issue – a new, homegrown clinic trying to address the huge backlog of spay and neuter surgeries caused by the pandemic. Reporting this was equal parts fascinating (I’d never seen a cat in surgery before) and adorable (so many kittens).

This story grew out of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s visit to the Center for Hope and Safety in mid-October. While escorting the senator around, Sara Brennan, the center’s program manager, mentioned that the length of people staying in their shelter had tripled over the past year because the housing market was so tight. For me, that number so succinctly captured the impact of Salem’s housing crunch, and I knew I wanted to dig in.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.