Happy Anniversary, Learning Lowell

Checking in on the blog last week I had a little orange notification from wordpress: Learning Lowell is one year old. Time flies when you’re blogging! I thought it’d be fun to reflect a little on how the blog came to be.

A year ago we had lived in Lowell for almost three months, but we were still struggling to get our bearings and to get connected to the city. We’d started reading a bunch of the local blogs to try get tapped in, and they were all hugely helpful in their own way. We owe a special debt to Richard Howe Jr., whom we met after he spoke as part of an innovation event at Merrimack Valley Sandbox (now Entrepreneurship for All). When we introduced ourselves and said how much we appreciated his website as we learned about the city, Dick immediately invited us out to lunch. This friendly gesture was a real kindness on his part, and it was the first of many times people in Lowell’s social media community made us feel welcomed and at home.

One of the reasons we were trying so hard to learn about our new home is that there was an election on the horizon, and we were finding it hard to get up to speed. We often found that the news and blogs assumed we knew everything that had ever happened in Lowell, and it could be hard to untangle what was really going on. We spent a lot of time going to candidate debates and reading up on the issues, and we started to think about other people like us who were new to the city but might not have the time or the encouragement we had to get so involved. We began to talk about making our own blog to share what we were learning.

It was around this time that I first heard the term “blow-in”, and learned that there can be surprising hostility in Lowell politics against people who haven’t lived here their whole lives. I say “surprising” because I’ve never encountered that attitude anywhere but a small town, and I’ve never encountered it in Lowell anywhere but in the midst of political rhetoric. Empty rhetoric or not, hearing that negativity really upset me. Here I was, trying hard to make a new home, and finding so much that I loved about the city. A big part of what attracted me to Lowell was its history of becoming a home for newcomers. To hear that there were people who didn’t want me to be a part of that, it was truly disheartening.

Part of the reason I got excited about the blog was because I wanted to show that a new Lowellian can care just as much about the city as a life-long resident, and to reflect that “new” can also mean respectful, passionate, and happy to learn and contribute. Best decision I think we’ve made while living here. Starting a blog about our journey to become knowledgeable and connected citizens became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we wrote about the city, the better we got to know it. Through the blog we’ve met so many dedicated, friendly, interesting neighbors, all contributing to the city in a million different ways.

It’s sometimes work to keep the blog going, to find new things to write about and to find the time to research and write. But it’s extremely rewarding, and the blog is an excellent motivation to get off the couch and go to the next event, meet a new person, and try a new restaurant or store. I’d urge anybody thinking about blogging to give it a shot, it’s really a lot of fun. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged us this year, especially the rest of the Lowell blogging community and anyone who took the time to help us with an interview or our research. And of course to you, dear Reader. It’s been a good year.

Dick Howe leading tour of Lowell Cemetery

Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

The Lowell Cemetery was founded in 1842, and Catherine Goodwin gave tours of it for forty years. She passed away in 2011, so I was sadly never able to meet her or take one of her tours. In Ms. Goodwin’s obituary, Marie Sweeney of the Lowell Historical Society said, “Her passion was contagious. That, combined with her gift of storytelling, made her an invaluable teacher. She knew how to engage a crowd and make learning so much fun.” Her book and DVD, Mourning Glory, is on sale from LHS.

In 2009, Ms. Goodwin passed the role on to Richard Howe Jr., a local historian, blogger, and Register of Deeds. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend his tour for two years, and he certainly carries on her legacy of teaching through storytelling in a beautiful setting. Last Friday, I enjoyed an amazing fall day while listening to Mr. Howe’s stories. I also heard a mix of people whisper things such as “I didn’t know that!” and “Oh, I know which one he’ll go to next—it must be the chair!”

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

Mr. Howe in front of the Bonney memorial. Many think she’s dubbed “Witch Bonney” because she’s tantalizingly clad and spooky, but we think the legend grew because the statue is so visually powerful.

In fact, I’ve never heard anything but positive comments in person and on Facebook: “Fantastic,” “Richard makes it so interesting, you can’t wait to hear the next story,” “Each time we go, we learn something new,” “Your tours are to die for–no pun intended!!” Not only do they draw both new and old faces, they reach people outside Lowell. I was able to find a meetup group that normally focuses on “Portsmouth and Beyond” for last year’s tour–organized by someone from Pelham.

It’s a “must go” in Lowell. Mr. Howe selects each story for a different reason. Some stories are of famous residents, such as James Ayer, who built one of the largest patent medicine companies in the world. He provided the funding for a town hall for a new town, which was named Ayer in his honor, yet when he unsuccessfully ran for US Congress, he was supposedly burned in effigy in that very town.

He chooses other stories because of the unique headstones, such as the afore-mentioned chair. Horace Ebert was not particularly famous, but his family commissioned an exact reproduction of his chair for his grave. Other stories are simply of everyday people: a particularly tragic one being that of Scottie Fineral, who lost his life in the first Gulf War in 1991, when he was 21.

Mr. Howe pointed it out partly to highlight that although the recency of that war hits modern audiences hardest, many who died in wars a century ago had lives cut just as short. If Scottie Fineral had lived to be my age, he would have seen the rise of widespread personal computers, the internet, smartphones, the new Star Wars, widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians, and so much more. I can only imagine we could say the same thing about those who died in the Civil War, World War II, or Afghanistan.

This is the genius of the cemetery tour: each story is entertaining in its own right, but all illuminate a larger aspect of history. Mr. Howe mentioned during his tour that although many think of history as facts and dates or even discrete movements:

I think of [history] more as a bunch of streams that come together. –Dick Howe, Jr.

As he pointed out, some of the stories cover folks who were born and fought in the Civil War, then went home to Lowell to contribute to huge social, technological, and business advances. The stories show how events in the war led directly to movements during the gilded age in a way two separate chapters in a history book never could. Yet the stories are also more immensely personal and relatable, both because they took place in Lowell and because they are about people: a person who got his start in a drugstore and built a medicine empire, a person whose life ended too quickly in war, a person who just loved his chair. People enjoy those stories because they both entertain and illuminate.

A number of folks have suggested developing more tours in and around Lowell’s downtown, which could have exactly the same effect. Each building or street can tell a story, each story can contribute to a larger picture. In addition, the tours could draw similarly large crowds if marketed well. Who doesn’t want to learn they live around the corner from where telephone numbers were invented or where the sponsor of the G.I. Bill lived most of her life?

Mr. Howe has suggested beginning a weekly downtown tour led by various experts in the community. I would love to see a series of tours featuring, for example, French-Canadian Lowell, urban planning innovations in Lowell, or Lowell from a youth perspective. These tours could not only entertain and enlighten, but bring folks who don’t normally visit Lowell’s historic areas to local businesses.[1] I’d love to hear people’s ideas for tours they could lead in the comments, in emails, or on Facebook!

Finally, I’d like to share fellow bloggers’ reflections and photos:


[1] Notably, most studies include walking tours as an effect (For example, increased historic preservation creates walking tour guide jobs). If downtown tours are started, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to create a small study to measure impact, such as estimating the number of tourists eating lunch downtown.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MA

The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Last week, “Coffee with a Cop” invited the community to meet with UMass Lowell, Lowell Police Department, and National Park Service police. We took advantage of the event, spearheaded by UML, and the free coffee and pastries, provided by the University Crossing Starbucks.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAThe remarkably informal event was a good opportunity to meet with UMass Lowell officers in particular–dozens were in attendance. We talked with many. One said it was nice to be able to talk with actual people and suggested that patrol officers often only talk to “criminals” or “victims.” The sentiment was echoed by another officer, who enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with others and often stops locally for coffee. This was the goal of the event, part of a nationwide program started in Hawthorne, California:

This informal contact increases trust in police officers as individuals which is foundation to building partnerships and engaging in community problem solving. – Coffee with Cop Website

Our longest discussion was with UML Police Chief Randolph Brashears. He believes the big story at UMass Lowell is its expansive growth, with not only more students admitted, but higher admission standards. However, the most interesting story was one of the evolving relationship between the three police departments of Lowell. Only a few years prior, in his words, there used to be a “lot of friction” between departments. In only four or so years, regular CompStat meetings improved communication and the forces have begun cooperating in new ways.

Chief Brashears mentioned that the Lowell Police Superintendent once called him late at night about a problem, and he investigated and resolved the issue that day. He gave me the impression that years ago, that phone call wouldn’t have been made and would lead to festering animosity between the two departments over what might have even been a misunderstanding.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAAnother interesting theme came up: UMass Lowell Police have some flexibility in how they handle student-related crimes, which have led to a reduced number of repeat offenders. The Lowell Police Department will refer student-related crimes to UML Police. The UML Police can refer the offending student to student services, who are able to give an academic penalty such as suspension or expulsion that are a more powerful deterrent than a night in jail, but doesn’t give the student a criminal record that might damage their future. In addition, UML Police can and do follow up with students and neighbors the day after minor crimes such as violation of noise ordinance during a party. Several of the officers credited this kind of diligence to virtually eliminating repeat offenders.

Every officer asked us what our perception of the student population was–if they were giving us problems. We had to answer honestly that although we’re relatively near UML Inn and Conference Center, we had no student-related concerns. Chief Brashears partially credited this to the nature of UML students: many commute in, and many are first-generation students who are focused on their studies, not parties. It was an interesting perspective. For our part, we asked about whether the students felt safe in Lowell, and an officer said he believed that the students had a perception of crime in Lowell that was probably worse than the reality.

Finally, we had an interesting conversation with Chief Brashears about the issue of sexual violence on campus. There are few reported incidents, but he acknowledged that it is a crime that is usually underreported. He did mention there were many semi-anonymous ways to report on campus, including to clergy, student services, and other places, a full list available on the web here. We discussed the fine line between advocating safe behavior and victim-blaming, which could warrant a post all on its own.

Reflecting on the event, it’s notable that CompStat has proven to be a useful tool to improve interdepartmental communication. I understood CompStat as essentially collection of crime statistics, but it’s actually a process that began in 1994 in New York City and has since been adapted in many other cities, including Lowell. It involves the collection and analysis of data, but also development of strategies, rapid implementation (such as deploying additional officers to hotspots or contacting derelict property owners), and follow-up. I now believe it’s a natural place to improve cooperation, as interdepartmental strategies may be generated.

This interdepartmental communication and community outreach is terribly important. Questions about the appropriate role of university police have come up in other communities, and I wonder if the discussion and cooperation between the three police forces in Lowell have headed off controversy by assigning each force to its most appropriate role. However, we didn’t actually get a chance to talk to NPS or LPD officers at the event (although it looked like a valuable opportunity for them to communicate with each other and other community members). Hopefully we can follow up with those forces in the future!

Folks gathered around at 2013 Harvest Festival Mill City Grows Lowell

Mill City Grows and Grows

One of the best things about working on this blog is the way it encourages Chris and I to get and stay involved in the Lowell community. It’s so easy, too easy, to get bogged down in grumpy facebook threads and the discouraging daily grind of city news. But there’s still so much going on in Lowell that’s exciting, encouraging, and even inspiring. Mill City Grows is a great example of the best of Lowell: diverse community members working together to make the city a better place for everyone.

Children pressing cider at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Prepping apples for cider press at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Why a Mill City Grows post now? I won’t bury the lede too far. It’s because their big, annual celebration of local foods, the Harvest Festival, is this Saturday. As previous years, it’s in their original community garden location, Rotary Club Park in Back Central, just about a ten minute walk south of downtown. It’s the culmination of the growing season and all that Mill City Grows does throughout the year: education, farmers markets, and community gardening. Mill City Grows takes over the park and provides an afternoon of games, demonstrations, and food. They and their partners provide hands-on activities involving cooking, bicycle safety, a “stone soup” table in which every participant contributes an ingredient and gets a sample of soup and a cider press demonstration and sampling.

Chris and I got to sit down and chat with co-founder Francey Slater and learn a little bit more about the Mill City Grows story. She said that she and co-founder Lydia Sisson had the idea for years. They had been working as an educator and as a commercial farmer outside of Lowell, but felt there was a great opportunity and need in Lowell:

There was this amazing opportunity in Lowell, given the cultural richness of the city, and the food culture in the city, and… there was a lack of opportunities for residents to get involved in growing food and in accessing healthy, fresh, and local food.

Lydia Sission and Francey Slater

Lydia and Francey, co-founders of Mill City Grows (Photo: Jen Myers)

She noted that culturally-appropriate food was also difficult to find. However, their opportunity came in 2011, when Back Central was the focus of the City Manager’s neighborhood impact initiative. Among other things, the initiative funded a project that the neighborhood itself identifies. That year, Back Central Neighborhood Association identified a community garden. The neighborhood nor the city knew how to create a community garden, so they brought in Francey and Lydia, who jumped at the opportunity.

They worked with the city and neighborhood group to recruit gardeners throughout the fall, and in the spring, they worked with the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Department of Public Works to build the garden. The first garden snowballed into new gardens and new programs, including school education, urban commercial farming, and a mobile market. Each new program was a response to a community request. The staff at Mill City Grows has many ideas, but rather than imposing those ideas, they have used community feedback to choose their focus areas.

Lowell’s support was critical. We didn’t realize how close the partnership with the city government was: it allows Mill City Grows to use designated city land and have access to water and inclusion in the blanket insurance. This has really helped Mill City Grows get started, as raising money for land leases, insurance, and other necessities is often a roadblock to new organizations.

Mill City Grows West 3rd Garden

West 3rd Garden (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Chris and I nearly lost count of how many different dividends that initial investment paid. The gardens are used by a diverse population of Lowell residents-Francey says that at least eleven languages are spoken by their gardeners. She said, “It’s a fascinating world tour to walk through, to see things I don’t recognize or see gardeners harvest parts of plants I would never think or know were edible.” The education is both cultural and practical, as community gardeners learn from one another and from the organization:

Education has always been something that we weave into every aspect of our programming, whether it’s the very technical “when to plant this seed”… to the more theoretical “how do we build a more just, more sustainable food system?”

The benefits that go beyond the gardeners: the community impact of transforming the physical spaces is difficult to quantify, but it is impossible to deny that changing a vacant lot to a raised-bed garden with folks bustling about improves the vibrancy and confidence of a neighborhood. Francey has said she has seen entire neighborhoods transform after a lot has been turned into a garden.

Apples at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

The larger community benefits as well. Francey mentioned that during the Market Basket problem, many people had trouble finding fresh vegetables within walking distance or at an affordable price, while local farmers were not able to move their stock and were losing money every day. This brought up questions to Francey on how much the community can rely on its food system when a single entity was so important. She said food banks saw their demand increase during the crisis, and she actually saw a measurable increase at Mill City Grows markets. She suggested one simple thing anyone can do to help food security:

Even if it’s one simple crop, learning how to grow a small patio garden is something we can all do.

The more direct support to farmers and local food grown and shared, the more an impact to the food system can be blunted. Of course, there are many other ways to support Mill City Grows. If you can’t make it to the Harvest Festival event, there are other ways to get involved. They’re one of many vendors selling tasty fruits and veggies at the Lowell Farmer’s Market in City Hall Plaza every Friday afternoon.  After we chatted with Francey we headed over there and stocked up almost everything you’d find in the produce section, but fresher and often tastier. It’s also important to note that many booths can take EBT/SNAP and WIC. The Farmer’s Market goes on through Halloween, so check it out, and follow them on facebook here.

Vendors selling produce at Mill City Grows Lowell

Mobile Market at Lowell Community Health Center (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Mill City Grows also does this really cool thing called the Mobile Market, where their mini Farmer’s Market van sets up around town. This is an excellent resource for those of us that the regular Farmer’s Market time doesn’t suit. The schedule is on their website here, and you can also get updates on what they’re up to by following them on Facebook or Twitter. They are always looking for volunteers, from folks who can help staff the markets to longer-term skill-specific projects such as web design.

Finally, there may be a new garden coming, so stay tuned to Mill City Grows, and maybe you can start your own plot!

Harvest Festival activities include:

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

  • Rotary Club pumpkin decoration
  • Boys and Girls Club face painting
  • Lowell Community Health Center Teen Block nutrition-themed carnival
  • South Bay Early Childhood Education toddler games
  • MCC and YWCA zero-waste activities and information
  • Murkland School arts and crafts
  • Raising a Reader scavenger hunt
  • Lowell Bike Coalition bike safety and maintenance demonstrations
  • Photo: Jen Myers

    Photo: Jen Myers

  • Next Step Living home energy information
  • Lowell Parks and Recreation kids’ games
  • Lowell National Historical Park pop-up museum about “connecting with your roots”
  • Mill City Grows cider press, stone soup, garden tours, and mobile market and popcorn station
  • Spiceventure, UTEC cafe, Sweet Lydia’s, Brew’d Awakening, and other food vendors
  • Music, live-painting, garden awards, and more!
Cider Press at Mill City Grows

Cider Press at 2013 Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Community Gardens

Community Gardens at Rotary Park (Photo: Jen Myers)


Stage of MRT before play begins

Year Zero at MRT

Aurora and I attended a Merrimack Repertory Theatre performance for the first time. Year Zero was a dramatic and at moments comedic look at the experience of second-generation Cambodians. It takes place in Long Beach, California, the only US city with a larger Cambodian population than Lowell.

Daniel Velasco as Ruthy holding skull (Image: MRT)

Daniel Velasco as Ruthy holding skull (Image: MRT)

In it, a brother and sister (Vuthy and Ra) struggle with their mother’s recent death. Vuthy is a high-school geek who isn’t accepted by the Cambodian or Noncambodian kids in school, and Ra is a college student torn between Glenn, her Chinese boyfriend living in Berkley, and Ra, her ex-boyfriend recently released from prison.

The characters deal with the gulf of understanding among each other and with their deceased mother, the pull and influence of gang life when no alternative seems to exist, and the problem of identity and individuality. Aurora noted that it spoke to how complex dealing with the aftermath of tragedy can be: sometimes the people we are closest to are the ones we are least able to be vulnerable with. As we move forward, we create new versions of ourselves and often try to plaster over the sadness. Is the new version a lie, hiding the most important parts of our story? Or is it more wrong to define us by the sadness of our past, rather than the new life we’ve worked hard to build?

It honestly kept us guessing as to which choices each character would make, so we won’t give away any more than that.

During the play, I wondered how true it would ring to the children of refugees in Lowell. Juliette Hing-Lee, the actor playing Ra gave an interesting interview in the Boston Globe. Her experience mirrored her character in a way: her parents separated and she moved to Long Beach when she was eight. Her mother, like her character’s mother, had many siblings killed by the Khmer Rouge. She said, “The piece is extremely important because it puts into words the experience of Cambodians who came to this country and what they’ve gone through.”

However, in an after-show talk, Charles Towers, the artistic director, said that it was the only play he could find that focused not on the Cambodians who came to the US, but on their children. He also said that he hoped it wasn’t only about Cambodian-Americans, but simply about the coming of age of a brother and sister, a boyfriend, and an ex-boyfriend. To me, it succeeded on this level. In one scene, Ruthy plays Dungeons and Dragons with a friend who moved away over the phone. Having done the very same thing myself, I can’t say the gameplay was accurate, but the sentiment was very on the mark (down to goofy jokes about “Orcs chilling drinking Orc Ale in Orc 40s”).

The one thing that struck me was that the director asked how many folks were subscribers, and nearly the entire house rose their hands. This might be an effect of opening night, but I thought more people would take advantage of MRT’s $5 opening night offer (if paid same-day in cash at the box office.) There’s a similar $10 offer on the first Wednesday of each new show for Lowell residents, and I would encourage anyone wanting a unique night out to take advantage of it.

In addition, there are a number of free engagement activities scheduled for the rest of September, several of which we hope to attend:

  • Wednesday, September 17, 7:30 pm: A discussion with panelists from Lowell’s Cambodian-American community
  • Sunday, September 21, 5:00 pm: A discussion and book-signing with Seng Ty, author of Years of Zero: Coming of Age During the Khmer Rouge
  • Tuesday, Sep 23, 7:30 pm: The Luna Theater will screen Monkey Dance, a 2004 documentary about teens in Angkor Dance Troupe
  • Wednesday, September 24, 7:30 pm: A discussion with panelists from Lowell’s Cambodian-American community
  • Sunday, September 28, 5:00 pm: Presentation and discussion with Angkor Dance Troupe
  • Tuesday, Sep 30, 7:30 pm: The Luna Theater will screen Still I Strive, a documentary about a Cambodian orphanage transformed by the arts

All the activities are at the MRT except for the screenings at the Luna. Hope to see you there!


3 Neighborhoods, 5 Candidates, 18th Middlesex Lowell

The primary election for representative of the 18th Middlesex District is only a little more than a week away, and five people are running for the democratic nomination. The winner of that election will run against unenrolled candidate Fred Bahou in November.

The 18th district contains the Lowell Highlands and the Acre, a district that was nearly 70% nonwhite or Hispanic in 2010, an increase of 10% proportionately from 2000. It’s a growing district, but it also faces some challenges related to crime: although neighborhood scout rates the Upper Highlands as the safest neighborhood after Belvidere and western Pawtucketville, parts of the Lower Highlands and Acre seem to have some of the lowest safety scores.

Cornelius Kiernan* 1949 – 1976 26 years
Paul Sheehy* 1965 – 1972 8 years
Phil Shea* 1973 – 1979 7 years†
Edward LeLacheur* 1975 – 1998 24 years
Robert B. Kennedy* 1975 – 1978 4 years
Tim Rourke 1981 – 1982 2 years
Susan Rourke 1983 – 1992 10 years
Steve Panagiotakos 1993 – 1996 4 years†
Kevin Murphy 1997 – 2014 18 years†
*Prior to 1978, the 18th as we know it didn’t exist; pieces of three districts would be put together to form it. Councilors with asterisks were elected to these predecessor districts.
† Left for higher/different office.

The last I wrote about state politics, Kevin Murphy was still representative of the 18th, but since then, he was chosen as City Manager and the position has been vacant ever since. I don’t live in the district, but because the three representatives Lowell sends to Beacon Hill all work together, this election is very important for all of Lowell. In addition, those elected to the 18th Middlesex tend to stay in office a long time and only leave to pursue higher office or to retire, so the person elected this year could be in office twenty years from now.

A couple of weeks ago, Khmer Post and LTC sponsored a televised debate with a special screening at LTC. I attended that event and was surprised to see a mostly full room. However, it appeared that half the room had Rady Mom or Dave Ouellette shirts, and I imagine that those who didn’t were connected to one of the other candidates. Regardless, it was an interesting peek into a group I don’t see too often. Of course, early all the action was on the screen.

I thought I’d share my impressions taken from the debate, from websites, and from the Lowell Sun. Quotes from the debate may be off by a word or two, but Richard Howe’s blog has the video and a comprehensive summary.

The Candidates

People watching screen at Lowell Telecommunications Corporation (LTC)

Screening of debate at LTC. Soben Pin of Khmer Post is on screen, one of a panel of questioners.

Brian Donovan

Sun interview

Mr. Donovan mentioned that as a retiree, he could devote all his time to the statehouse. His opening statement was direct: “The issues we have in the city are violence and an education system that needs improvement,” and those areas seemed to bring his most impassioned answers, including an opinion that violent crime is on the rise in Lowell:

It’s easy to say it’s safe if you aren’t being affected. – Brian Donovan

He said that gangs were a factor, and he would focus on funding gang units. He showed a lot of anger toward criminals, saying “they don’t care who they’re hurting,” and calling them “thugs.” Along with the gang unit, Mr. Donovan has told the Sun he would make sure police and fire would have “top shelf equipment.”

In response to other questions, he spoke once again about finding state money: when asked about how he would engage with Asian Americans, he mentioned finding small business grants and funding set-asides. Asked about education, he mentioned providing support for college students. However, he did acknowledge the challenge Massachusetts businesses have because of workforce costs: in other words, housing costs.

Jim Leary

Sun interview

Mr. Leary is a familiar face in Lowell politics, an insurance claims manager who has served on the school board since 2007. However, he has made economic development a major focus of his campaign. He would seek grants for infrastructure and job growth; development and marketing of Cambodiatown; and work with the colleges to attract new tech businesses. In fact, he was very animated about the idea of working with Cambodian (and presumably other) businesses to identify their specific needs, and believes a key is to connect Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

However, he also acknowledged crime problems:

I used to run… up School Street, and I would feel completely safe… But when you wake up two in the morning with fireworks, and you start to feel disturbed. – Jim Leary

Finally, he had specific ideas about easing the burden of higher education on students, including pushing more college-level classes in the high school and looking toward the State University of New York system for ways to make college low-cost.

Rady Mom

Sun interview

Rady Mom came to the United States as a refugee when he was ten years old, and has been a resident for twenty years. He now runs a small acupuncture business in the Highlands and has extensive civic experience. Although he was not as specific as other candidates on his plans, he spoke with a great deal of conviction:

It is amazing to have this opportunity. Where I come from, there was none of that.

His approach to violence was somewhat different, in that he emphasized the role of working directly with schools and families in their own language. In fact, this was a repeated theme throughout the debate. He stressed creating connections between community members, between Lowell and the statehouse, and between agencies. Notably, he mentioned that he would make sure Cambodian businesspeople felt it was “OK” to reach out to the statehouse.

I have been a little surprised that Mr. Mom doesn’t share more of his experience in interviews and debates. Even the Sun mentioned, “He almost never spoke about politics, legislation or the Statehouse.” His story as a refugee is chilling, but I’d love to know more about how he’s helped guide Lowell institutions such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

It’s not that I’m a politician… First and foremost, I’m a community activist. – Rady Mom

David Ouellette

Sun interview

I’m familiar with Mr. Ouellette from a number of Lowell events. He’s Lowell’s Senior Building Inspector and founded the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) in 2009. He would resign from his city position if elected, but continue to attend ACTION meetings and walk the Acre. Mr. Ouellette is also focused on public safety, agreeing the community policing and anti-drug campaigns need funding, but had a unique additional perspective as a code enforcement officer:

We go in there after there’s been a shooting… and we write up all the problems in that house. …we have those people move out, because we condemn the property right on the spot, and it gives instant relief to the neighborhood. – Dave Ouellette

This perspective came up again, when Mr. Ouellette talked about a plan to give loans that could provide fire suppression sprinklers modeled on lead removal loans. Depending on the applicant, loans can be fully amortizing and may be deferred until home sale or refinance.

It’s also notable that although Mr. Ouellette mentioned his work discussing with potential business owners about code and law requirements for business, but didn’t highlight the strategy outlined on his website, including increasing street activity through pedestrian and bicycle facilities and community gardening, providing small retail incubation space, and providing sustained funding for those with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Paul Ratha Yem

Sun interview

Mr. Yem is a realtor and former director of the Cambodian American League of Lowell who missed a chance to be put on the official ballot because most of his signature papers did not list his hometown. Nevertheless, he’s running a write-in campaign and had very interesting things to say in the debate. Like Mr. Mom, he came to the United States as a refugee. However, he came to Lowell to do human service work for other Southeast Asian refugees.

Yem would focus on economic development and job creation, and much like Mr. Leary, sees great opportunity in connecting Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

This is the area that I can be proud of… I was with the Lowell Institute for Savings back in the eighties promoting small businesses and promoting home ownership. – Paul Ratha Yem

He mentioned many businesses still open and expanding from the micro loans he organized. Although he did not mention policy approaches in the debate, his website suggests ensuring funding for infrastructure projects, increasing local-hire requirements for development projects, and creating a streamlined “governmental environment.”

Unlike the other candidates, his discussions with residents of the Acre and Lower Highlands revealed immigration and family reunification to be a top issue of most 18th Middlesex residents. He would pursue legislation to give relief for cities with large immigrant populations and reform immigration writ-large. However, he has noted that the Upper Highlands residents cite crime as a priority, and he believes he can help the LPD in their community policing strategy with his experience fostering relationship between communities and police in the Executive Office of Public Safety in the late 80s. I find it notable, but not surprising, that those living in relatively safe areas of Lowell are more concerned about crime than those living closer to the center of the city.

Finally, Mr. Yem displayed some courage on a set of yes/no questions the moderator asked at the end. Unlike all the other candidates, he voiced opposition to casinos and agreed with the Governor’s offer to house refugee children.

My thoughts on critical issues


I was surprised to see almost all the candidates seemingly unprepared on how to address what I see as one of Massachusetts’s most pressing issues: housing costs. It’s not just an equity issue: from my understanding, high housing costs create high labor costs which stifle economic development. Housing costs do not seem to be a leading issue in Lowell, but if Massachusetts is struggling because of housing costs, that will hurt Lowell in the long-run. Even putting that argument aside, housing costs are still much higher in Lowell than in comparable cities in the Midwest and south.

Solutions were not forthcoming. Some of the candidates focused on the need for more market-rate housing without suggesting what barriers may exist, while others focused on the question’s other piece, the Hamilton Canal District. Mr. Ouellette suggested a strategy for improving Lowell’s existing housing stock which is perhaps a greater issue in Lowell than affordability. On the other hand, Mr. Yem mentioned his knowledge of the reality of renters in Lowell: many still pay half or more of their income on rent. Housing costs and affordable housing will be the subject of a future post.


I was not surprised to hear security be a leading issue in all candidates minds, but few made the deeper connections between crime, poverty, and early intervention. Rather, most focused on maintaining or increasing funding for existing police programs. Mr. Donovan even said he thought violent crime in Lowell was increasing, which may play to voters’ perceptions but is not backed up by police reports that include a 14% reduction in aggravated assaults compared to last year, continuing a trend that began in 2010 (link to Sun article).

However, I was happy to see that after discussing funding, many of the candidates had more suggestions. Mr. Yem mentioned assisting the police have a force that racially reflects Lowell better, Mr. Mom and Mr. Leary mentioned a focus on schools and families, and Mr. Ouellette outlines eyes on the street and mental health funding as other strategies to reduce crime.

However, I would have liked to see more comments on the role of the state in encouraging evidence-based policing, including the increased level of safety that police accountability and procedural justice brings. Nobody mentioned the problematic recidivism rates. I also was disappointed in the lack of mention of the role of organizations ranging from UTEC to Lowell House.


It is of course notable that all candidates are men. When asked how they would support women to fill the leadership pipeline, few had ready answers. Mr. Ouellette even said, “That’s a good a one!” Ultimately, each suggested a different approach, from connecting with UMass Lowell (Mr. Donovan) to finding mentorship opportunities (Mr. Leary), to ensuring education is preparing women for careers (Mr. Ouellette).

I thought it was especially interesting that Mr. Yem brought up the difficulty of recruiting women at the Cambodia Town organization in a culture where men are traditionally dominant. However, Mr. Leary’s suggestion may be best: “Start listening.”

Majority-Minority District

I found it notable that there was only brief mention of other races and ethnicities outside of Cambodians. Many of the candidates made the basic argument that strategies would help people of all races, such as crime reduction and job creation. However, it seems that the persistent poverty many of the groups face require a special approach for each group.

Notably, only Mr. Yem addressed the audience in another language than English, but I have no idea if that would help or hurt his chances in the primary.

Youth Engagement

Finally, I was disappointed nobody got the chance to comment on one of the more disappointing results in the Lowell legislature: The Vote 17 Amendment to the Election Reform bill. The entire Lowell delegation supported that bill, and it will take more pressure to get the good idea moving.


The most interesting thing that I found about this slate of candidates is that they do not sort easily into a left-right spectrum. All were focused on the particular needs of the community; all advocated for funding (although each funding priority was different); and all were democrats in a slightly different way. Some mentioned funding more often, while others suggested inter-community negotiation and discussion. Each brings special focus and skills, and I hope to continue watching them all, regardless of who wins the primary and the final election.

(Edit: A former version of this post was missing a number of previous representatives. Thanks to Dick Howe for assistance.)

A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

Paul Marion’s excellent post series about Salem a few weeks ago struck a chord with me (Read it here, here, and here). Last fall, I worked in Salem as a tour guide during their busy season, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Salem and Lowell, two cities with a lot to offer but a big difference in tourism volume. I have a couple of thoughts about what Salem does well, and how Lowell might think about playing to its own strengths in similar ways.

Connected Narratives

One thing that I think Salem does really well is sell a series of stories, a clear and connected set of narratives. A trip to any place is an immersive experience, and people want a trip to offer specific feelings. Salem has done an excellent job of simultaneously packaging itself as a place to:

  • Have fun while exploring wacky spooky history (the sillier shopping, the Witch Museum and other funky touristy “museums”),
  • Connect to the Colonial American past (The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime Historic Site, and the lovely cemeteries and historic neighborhoods), and
  • Experience a sophisticated cultural destination (the formidable Peabody Essex Museum, and the more upscale shopping and dining).

Visiting Salem is an immersive experience. Here, the red line leads you to the Witch museum with a B&B next door. (Google Maps)

Salem is an immersive experience. Here, a red line leads you from Witch Village to the Witch Museum and nearby B&B.

These three separate but overlapping narratives bring in a critical mass of visitors and give them a clear sense of Salem as a destination. Lowell has strong narratives too! I think this is one of Lowell’s greatest strengths, and when I say that, keep in mind that I visited as a tourist before I ever considered living here. I think Lowell is really lucky in that many of its biggest draws from a tourism perspective fit into a series of stories or ideas.

  • The most obvious is the industrial history story associated with the National Park here.
  • Overlapping with that is the theme of textiles generally, with the National Park, the Textile Museum, and the Quilt Museum.
  • Another strong motif is immigration and different ethnic and cultural groups, again told in the Park, and with our many unique ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants.
  • Finally, there’s an overarching story here about revitalization, about historic preservation and a cultural turnaround.

Although these narratives exist, they are not quite as smoothly packaged yet as Salem’s. It wouldn’t be too hard to put together brochures or walking guides along these lines: “Lowell will have you in stitches for your day of textile fun” or “Eat your way across the Acre.”

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour.

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour (Bing Maps).

Outreach to Boston

The day we visited Boston, we found 2 pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

The day we visited Boston, we found two pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

Interacting with the folks on tours in Salem made it clear to me that it has figured out how to sell itself as a day trip from Boston. Salem gets tons of non-regional visitors, especially during the Halloween season. People I chatted with were often visiting Salem for the day as part of a longer trip to Boston. Lowell is just about the same distance from Boston as Salem (theoretically half an hour by car, 30-45 minutes by train), but I think we’re not reaching this market as well as we might be.

salem3One explanation for this? Salem has amazing tourism outreach. Check out this example from Faneuil Hall. Here’s one of the big card displays offering the visiting tourist a million options. See Salem? It’s there twice, in Salem’s nice glossy booklet and in House of the Seven Gables. Where’s Lowell? Nowhere. Now, sometimes I see the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau booklet there, which is something, but that booklet is covering a huge area, and Lowell’s just part of it. I think the unprepared tourist, trying to decide what to do with their day, is unlikely to be led to Lowell.

Now why is Salem so much better at this? Some of it we can’t change. Lowell’s biggest draw is the National Park, and the National Park can’t spend money on advertising. Like literally, legally, they can’t. Salem’s National Park stuff is a smaller piece of the pie, proportionally. The mighty Peabody Essex, other historic sites, plus all those funky stores and touristy “museums” band together and spend a lot more money than Lowell can, at least right now. That doesn’t mean Lowell can’t apply its resources strategically, of course.

What can Lowell do?

Quilts on display at NEQM.

I think the biggest thing Lowell can do to try to copy the positive aspects of Salem is think about how to strengthen and play to the strong themes it has going. I get the impression Lowell does get “textile” theme tourists, for instance. How can we figure out how to make their day in Lowell a more immersive, memorable experience? I think a store that sold fabric or crafting supplies in the downtown might be a good fit there. Maybe we can figure out how to better wind in Lowell’s modern textile artists too. I notice that several of this years’ Parker Lectures are textile-themed, that’s probably a strong connection.

Mill Works, contemporary fiber art recently exhibited at ATHM.

Also key: more communication and collaboration between Lowell’s diverse forces, as suggested by the recent marketing meeting in June and the emergence of First Thursdays. If Lowell’s forces put their heads and their money together, they can present a stronger, more unified front.

On a smaller scale, there’s something everybody excited about Lowell can do to help it. Good internet reviews and buzz are a big part of how people make their travel decisions. This is an area where Salem is running laps around us: for example, the Peabody Essex Museum has 135 Yelp reviews. The American Textile History Museum has eight. Each of us can help Lowell by taking to our favorite social media and making sure that people know about what there is to do in Lowell. Consider taking a minute and dropping some positive Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews of restaurants, stores, and cultural destinations you like. Follow and Like the cultural organizations you enjoy, and Share their pictures and announcements with your friends. I’m not suggesting any level of phony boosterism. But these things do matter, and it requires such a teeny amount of effort to support the organizations in Lowell you want to see do well.

I’ve visited both Lowell and Salem as a tourist, and now I’ve guided tourists in both as well. Both are fun, vivid places, with lots to see and do (and eat). Lowell is every bit as interesting as Salem as a destination, and I often chat with tourists in Lowell who’ve had a wonderful experience visiting the city and have really felt a connection to its stories. I don’t want everything that Salem has for Lowell: some of its spooky tourism crosses the line from cheesy to downright disrespectful. Chatting with Salem locals, it was clear that too much tourism can be a curse as well as a blessing, and that sometimes the city could be a weird place to actually live. But I’m confident that Lowell could handle a little more tourism without losing its strong sense of itself.

Let us know in the comments if you have thoughts on other good strategies Lowell could adopt from Salem or other potential tourism role-models.