It’s Important to Speak Up to MassDOT!

13669032_786648154280_5741532979711256583_nSome of you may remember some concerns about a MassDOT proposal to widen Nesmith Street, which I wrote about back in May. Though the plan comes from a well-intentioned place, hoping to make traffic flow faster and more safely, evidence suggests that widening the road would make the road less safe for pedestrians and drivers alike. There may be fewer fender-benders, but the accidents that would happen would be high-speed and dangerous.

A group of concerned citizens, myself included, has gotten together to get the word out about the issue. We’re having an informal gathering at the park on Saturday, including picnic snacks, a little music by local musician Jon Kohen, a history talk by local luminary Dick Howe, and food truck Spiceventure will stop by. Should be a fun way to get together and have some fun with our neighbors. If you’re interested, join the Facebook event and spread the word!

We’ve already heard from lots of folks passionate about this issue. Sometimes for different reasons!

“…this neighborhood is low-income. There is a disgraceful pattern of destroying beautiful environments in low-income areas. This is no coincidence. The lack of environmental justice is devastating.”

“…As a resident of the area I am familiar with the traffic problem there and widening the road would create more of a bottleneck going towards bridge street. Taking land away from the historic park will eliminate green space that the residents of the area and the city of Lowell including myself enjoy regularly.”

“Proposed plan is completely at odds with the Complete Streets program that Lowell has signed onto.”

If the community doesn’t speak up, they think we don’t care! So what can you do?

1. Show up for the MassDOT Meeting!

This will be at the library on Thursday July 28th at 7pm. This is absolutely the best way to make your voice heard and be a part of the conversation. Information about the meeting is here.

2. Call or email your state representative.

This is a state project, so our state legislature needs to know that we want a plan that works for everyone! Lowellians have Eileen Donoghue as their State Senator, and either David Nangle, Rady Mom, or Tom Golden as their State Representative. Here is their contact information:

Senator Eileen Donoghue Eileen.Donoghue@masenate.gov 617-722-1630
Representative Rady Mom Rady.Mom@mahouse.gov 617-722-2460
Representative David M. Nangle David.Nangle@mahouse.gov 617-722-2575
Representative Thomas A. Golden, Jr. Thomas.Golden@mahouse.gov 617-722-2263

3. Sign our petition

Sign the petition by clicking here. This will be sent to MassDOT and possibly also shared with other decision-makers in the community, like the City Council. Do it and make some noise on social media: Tweet, Facebook, Snapchat, and otherwise spread the word to loop in your friends and neighbors.

Why is this important?

The group discussed together why and how they thought the project should be changed. We agree with one Facebook ally who said: “It’s not about the trees, is not about the noise, it’s not about the money… It’s about making smart decisions that truly make a difference and make our roads safer.”

The major focus of the project includes widening Nesmith Street between Andover Street and East Merrimack Street from two 18’ lanes with exclusive left turn lanes at either end to four 11’ through lanes. This would require removing the existing 10’ buffer between sidewalk and park and all the trees on it. We believe the project is important, but it must be changed in these ways:

Save the Trees
At least six mature Maple trees in Kittredge Park and an additional two near East Merrimack cannot be removed. Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects. These trees only provide this level of benefit when planted between a sidewalk and the street.

Respect the History
Kittredge Park is the centerpiece of the Washington Square historic district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1831, the neighborhood was created, and Nesmith Street was a 60’ tree-lined boulevard with deeds requiring residents to plant more trees. This wasn’t just a street, but a “special place” that attracted many of Lowell’s elite. The park gained more special history when Paul Tsongas “adopted” it as one of his favorite parks, volunteering in it throughout his life. In the final weeks of his life, he requested a photo of Kittredge Park be brought to the hospital. MassDOT needs to respect it as much as he did.

Don’t Make Lanes Too Wide—It Will Make Them Dangerous
Although the intersection is dangerous now, that usually results in fender-benders and other minor accidents. Although there may be fewer accidents when cars may drive faster down the street, accidents will be much more dangerous when they do happen. This is especially true when it isn’t rush hour—the wide lanes have been proven to encourage speeding.

Don’t Make it Less Walkable
A major project at the Lord Overpass is being planned to make it more pleasant to walk along and easier to cross. The Bridge Street/VFW project simplified the intersection, helping pedestrians and cars alike. This project makes things actively worse for pedestrians. They’ll have more street width to cross and will no longer be protected by trees as they walk along Nesmith. At a moment when we’re trying to encourage people to walk from Belvidere to downtown, it’s the exact wrong approach.

Maintain Environmental Justice
Importantly, the Lower Belvidere neighborhood qualifies as an “environmental justice” neighborhood as defined by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Policy. These families, who have small or no yards and dense housing, rely on the park and playground for outdoor activity. Widening Nesmith Street will make the park less enjoyable and harder to get to for this population, a very unjust outcome.

Overall Congestion won’t be reduced: A System-wide Approach is Needed
Although planners claim that widening Nesmith Street will remove a bottleneck, the street will remain at one lane in either direction capacity south of Andover. The bridges will also remain bottleneck areas. We have seen no evidence or analysis that easing traffic on the street won’t just push bottlenecks to elsewhere in the City. What we need is a thorough analysis of traffic in Lowell and an understanding of how much is to and from Lowell and how much is through Lowell before we can understand how we can divert auto traffic and encourage other modes to better fight congestion.

Some have suggested investigating a new bridge, others a three-lane approach. One argued that Route 133 (Andover Street) was improved by bringing it down to three lanes, but is still dangerously fast, so it seems a step backward to make Route 38 (Nesmith Street) four lanes. Making a highway-style road through a lower-income neighborhood next to a beloved park should not be the first resort to solve our traffic problem.

Recommended Reading

Safety Audit:
https://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/8/docs/traffic/SafetyAudit/District4/Lowell-Route38-Accessible_RSA.pdf

Sun Story:
http://www.lowellsun.com/opinion/ci_29814437/clearing-route-38s-clogged-arteries

Project Page:
https://hwy.massdot.state.ma.us/ProjectInfo/Main.asp?ACTION=ViewProject&PROJECT_NO=606189

Notice:
http://www.lowellma.gov/dpw/engineering/Documents/Public%20Hearing%20Notice%20RT38.pdf

160717 - savetrees

City Council Motion Against Transgender Anti-Discrimination Act

A quick post on a time sensitive subject: Dick Howe’s weekly roundup shares the disheartening news that Councilors Elliott and Mercier have a joint motion requesting the City Council “vote to adopt a resolution to oppose the transgender bill adopted by the State Senate which allows access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.”

I imagine many readers of this blog are are already asking “How can I stop that?!” Easy. There are 3 important things you can do here: 1) Contact the city council and let them know where you stand. 2) Show up on Tuesday (register in advance to speak) 3) Spread the word. Here’s how:

1) Contact the City Council

This is easier than you might think. Follow this link and you’ll see a simple form to fill out. http://www.lowellma.gov/citycouncil/lists/ContactTheCityCouncil/NewForm.aspx?PageType=8&ListId={0a606722-04e6-4a9a-8031-3fe071aeb7f9}&RecipientName=&RootFolder=%27

You can even submit anonymously if you want, though your voice will be stronger with your address attached.  I did this just now and it took me 3 minutes. Here’s what I said “I am for the Transgender anti-discrimination act and urge the council not to pass a motion against it. This motion could hurt us economically, as we have seen it hurt North Carolina. More importantly, transgender people need to be protected by our laws, not attacked by them.”  See, easy!

If you have another way to contact them, like if you know them personally or have ever talked on the phone or over facebook, try that too!

2) Show up on Tuesday

This is the most powerful thing you can do, absolutely. This has changed the course of motions, as with the bike lanes on Father Morissette; and changed the way that decisions went, as with the visit from Hun Manet. The City Council, while they have their own opinions, are genuinely interested in being a voice for you and absolutely do not want to be on the wrong side of an unpopular issue.  If you want to speak, you usually have to register in advance (though I think sometimes on a popular issue they just open up the floor). To do that, you email or call the City Clerk’s office mgeary@lowellma.gov or 978-674-4161.

3) Spread the word

One disadvantage this issue has going in is that, as far as I know, there’s not an organized LGBTQ advocacy group in the city. This means this effort will have to be more grassroots, and we need as many people as possible to hear this information. Please share this post or Dick Howe’s with your friends over email, on facebook, on twitter, and in person. The reality is, most people will not have heard that this is happening. It is HARD for most folks to keep up with local news, even though they want to. Making noise and talking about what happens in the community is one of the most important things you do as a citizen.

UPDATE: There’s now also a facebook event here, which makes it super easy to share.

Why is this important?

Now, for those of you who are feeling out of the loop, I do want to talk about this issue in more detail. The bill currently making its way through the Statehouse (passed in the senate, on to the house) would allow a transgender woman to use the women’s bathroom and a transgender man to use the men’s bathroom. This issue has rocketed to the forefront of our national dialogue, and many people are still learning these terms and becoming familiar with what these laws mean.

A transwoman is someone who, when they were born, the doctor said “it’s a boy!” but as this person grew up, that seemed to not match how they felt inside. At some point, they made the physically and emotionally difficult decision to begin living as their real self, changing how they appear to match the way they felt. Some trans people get surgery, some don’t. This shouldn’t matter to you any more than it matters to you what anyone else’s private parts look like. Even outside of trans folks, there’s a lot more natural variation than you might imagine, and frankly, unless those private parts belong to you, it’s really none of your business.

Dick Howe has done a great job with why rejecting this motion is important from an economic perspective. I’ll quote him here:

“With the expansion of MA/Com, the arrival of Kronos and the Markley Group, and all of the exciting work being done at the UMass Lowell Innovation Center, Lowell is rapidly becoming a center of high tech. These businesses and others form a solid foundation in the innovation economy and will only attract similar companies and startups. Yet the people who run these companies, and the people who will be working at them, will not want to come to a community that takes a backwards, irrational view of transgender rights. That is why so many companies have cancelled plans to relocate to or expand in North Carolina which with its “research triangle” had been a leading high tech region.

“This motion urging defeat of the transgender rights bill also jeopardizes Lowell’s efforts to become a college town and to continue to grow as a home for artists. Both of those groups, college students and artists and all those drawn to them, want a community that is welcoming to everyone and that is open to change and new ideas. In fact, every economic development strategy pursued and being pursued by this city will be undercut by the passage of this motion.”

I want to say just a little more about this issue from a moral perspective. To some this can seem like a niche issue, because trans people are a relatively small percentage of the population. Because it hasn’t been a popular issue until relatively recently, others assume that it can’t really be a major issue. The truth is, we all should have been doing more to help this community for a long time. Trans people have long been in need of additional protection under the law, as a group that has experienced violence, discrimination, and suicide at much higher rates, even as compared to gay and lesbian people. 90% of trans people reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. – See more at: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/headlines/beyond-stereotypes-poverty-in-the-lgbt-community/

Additionally, 64% of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime: http://abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

While it’s understandable that many people, especially women, worry about sexual assault, it’s hard to see how a law allowing people to use the bathroom they chose is a real danger. First of all, most trans people already use the bathroom of their choice. Think about it: many trans people “pass”, and using the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth would be a much more uncomfortable experience for everyone. Second, transgender people are much more likely to be a victim of violence than the other way around. Finally, the reality is that sexual violence knows no gender, and no orientation. Especially to children, a trusted adult is much more likely to be a source of danger than a stranger in a bathroom.

Laws that try to legislate trans folks out of bathrooms don’t want them in the opposite bathrooms either. They just want trans people to stop existing. That is not going to happen. We’re going to need a find a way to accept trans people as part of our community. Let’s get Lowell, and Massachusetts, on the right side of history.

Route 38, with trees in strip

The Happiness Cost of Widening Nesmith Street?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, the book chosen for Pollard Memorial Library’s next “Lowell Reads” event. I’m really looking forward to talking about it as a community: it’s a book that goes in depth about if, how, and why urban neighborhoods make us happy.  I bring it up because I read the chapter about greenspace right about the same time I heard of a proposed State project on Nesmith Street.

The intersection of Nesmith Street and Andover Street in the Belvidere neighborhood is a busy spot, and it’s one of the more dangerous intersections in the City of Lowell.  It had 29 crashes in 2014–more crashes than any other intersection that year, with police crediting those trying to “cut in at the last minute,” according to the Lowell Sun. It was the 7th on a list of “High Crash Locations” in the region based on 2010-2012 data, with 19 injuries during that time, according to the Northern Middlesex Council of Government’s 2016 Regional Transportation Plan. This is likely why the state has targeted it for improvement. Nesmith Street is Route 38, meaning it is under the State’s jurisdiction, as many of our biggest traffic problem zones are. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the intersection myself, both on foot and by car, because this used to be part of my commute.

What does this have to do with greenspace? Because the proposed improvements include 11-foot lanes and “may require removing a row of trees between the road and a sidewalk next to Kittredge Park”, according to the Sun. These trees are on the state property on a steep incline between the road and sidewalk. Let’s talk about what those changes might mean.

How did we get here?

Black and white picture of 1981 Kittredge Park

The intersection in 1981, when Washington Square was listed as a historic district.

Let’s start with a look at the history of that section of Route 38. Belvidere Village grew around what is now East Merrimack Street near the Concord River crossing in the early 1800s. Nesmith Street connected Belvidere Village and Tewksbury to the south. In 1831, Lowellian brothers John and Thomas Nesmith purchased an estate and subdivided it, placing a formal park called “Washington Square” at the center of their new neighborhood. Nesmith Street was laid out as a 60’ boulevard with 10’ sidewalks. Deeds required new residents to plant trees along the street for “shade and ornamental purposes.” The area was slowly settled by prominent Lowell residents, and became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Lowell. The horse-drawn trolley connected it to the mills in the Civil War-era, and the electrified trolley ran down Nesmith Street to Tewksbury, opening up the rest of the area to development. The entire neighborhood is now listed in the National Register of Historical Places as Washington Square Historic District.

Washington Square Park had an interesting history, itself! It was used as a cow pasture for a while, and then a Lowell merchant leased it for a garden and saloon. Only in 1860 did the Nesmith Brothers sell it to the City and it officially became a park. The granite curbing the City installed remains to this day. In the 1920-30s, the park was renamed “Kittredge Park” in honor of Paul Edward Kittredge, a US serviceman who died by mortar fire in 1918. Sometime after the 1970s, a sliver of the southwest corner of the park appears to have been sliced off to widen the intersection with Andover Street.[1]

1953 state taking layout

The layout map from the 1950s. Hunts Falls Bridge is on the right, Nesmith Street on the left, with the new highway through the middle. Find more historic state plans at MassDOT’s website.

The nature of the area changed drastically in the early 1950s. The State took a great deal of land north of the river to make the Veterans of Foreign Wars highway, which included a rotary and a bridge to more directly connect Routes 38, 110, 133, and 113. Most importantly, it took about a dozen properties to extend Nesmith Street from East Merrimack to the new Hunts Fall Bridge with a four-lane divided highway. Probably because of the acute angles this created with intersections at Stackpole and Merrimack, channelized right turns were added.

This may create the problem today. Using Google Maps, it looks like each of those 1950s lanes are 12’. They all feed into that 1820s boulevard that devoted 20’ of its 60’ right-of-way to sidewalks and strips of trees. With curbs and shoulders, that seems to leave only 36 to 38’ for traffic, which is striped as two 18’ lanes but, notably, usually used as four 9’ lanes.

When I first moved to Lowell I worked in Salem, and I used to go through this intersection to head east out of town. I vividly remember how confused I was by this road, which is marked as 2 lanes but most treat as four. There are more than a few roads like this in the city, and as a driver unfamiliar with the area, there’s nothing worse than being honked at, tailgated, or encountering an unexpected car in your blindspot as you try to figure out whether you’ve misunderstood the road markings, the other car is just breaking the law, or this unfortunate middle ground where everyone familiar with the road just knows how it works and that they won’t face any penalty for treating the road according to common understanding.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that this confusion plays a role in the number of accidents that happen on this stretch.

It could also just be sheer volume: a lot of cars go down those narrow lanes. Counts seem to be around 30,000 daily. This is more than the VFW Highway or Westford Street near Drum Hill—the only other surface road that has that level of traffic in Lowell is Thorndike around the Lowell Connector and the Lord Overpass. Those cars cross Andover Street, which carries around 20,000 cars daily. The way I understand it, many of those are cars going from Centralville, Dracut, and New Hampshire to jobs closer to Boston.

So, the trees should go?

Kittredge Park, Lowell, MA purple flowers, monument, structure

Kittredge Park in 2013 from Life from the Roots blog

At first blush, it might seem like it makes sense to sacrifice that planting strip, historic as it may be, to make it safer for those thousands of commuters. But I wonder whether it will make the road either safer or more pleasant. In Happy City, Mr. Montgomery argues cities that have faster traffic aren’t actually “happier” according to surveys. Instead, he discusses studies showing that greenspaces, trees, and nature bring mental and physical health benefits. The benefits are there even if people have just glimpses of nature, but are stronger when people can interact with the greenspace. He argues that his own research showed that small amounts of greenery everywhere was more important than occasional trips to the park.

I know trees make a big difference in my own sense of how inviting and pleasant a street and walkway are, but I wanted this to be a little bit less anecdotal, so I asked professor Google about it, and I came up with this report, “22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.” Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects.  It suggests that a single tree could create $90,000 of direct benefits.

I think it’s especially important for this area to keep its trees, even near a tree-filled park. The trees separate the road from sidewalk, making it feel safer and more pleasant. This street is an important pedestrian connection between Belvidere and downtown, and you see lots of students and families walking. We should be focused on making it more walkable, to encourage those living in the western reaches of the neighborhood to walk and explore downtown and keep the park inviting for those who live in Lower Belvidere.

Route 38, with trees in strip

Route 38 today, courtesy of Google Maps. Note planting strip, trees, and sidewalk on right.

So what is the solution?

Back to the intersection. The State sees there are a lot of accidents, and there is a lot of congestion, and wants to fix that. I suspect that clarifying the markings alone would help, but it’s hard to see how wider lanes, which we know encourage cars to go faster, wouldn’t just make the minor crashes into more serious ones. Do we really need 11’ lanes, or can we make the existing 9’ lanes safer?  Maybe 9’ is just too narrow, but National Association of City Transportation Official (NACTO)’s Urban Street Design Guide calls for 10’ lanes, so maybe that could be a compromise.

On the other hand, maybe we could reroute some of the overall traffic away from that stretch of Nesmith? An interesting chapter from Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s “Traffic Demand Management Encyclopedia” suggests that even a 1% decrease of cars on a congested highway could reduce delay related to congestion by 10-30%.

nesmithdetail

Nesmith Street in 1879, when times were simpler. What is now Kittredge Park is labeled “Park Square” between Lower Belvidere much as it exists now and large estates that have yet to be subdivided. Thanks for the maps, Center for Lowell History!

But I have to confess, I do feel a little hopeless about any effort to eliminate Lowell’s gridlock, as State Senator Donoghue suggested was this project’s focus. It seems to me like at certain times of day, we just have too many people trying to get from the North to Boston or the reverse, passing over a limited number of bridges over the river. I was listening to a podcast this week that talked about traffic problems, and it quoted a study about the paradox that tends to happen when you add lanes to a busy road: once you make it less congested, more people drive, and it only gets busier again. Do we really think there’s any capacity we could add that could overcome the number of cars going the same direction we experience at rush hour?

While traffic safety is important, making roads smoother for cars often comes at a cost. In this case, with trees on the line, the cost is clearer than usual. Because so few of Lowell’s streets have trees or planting strips separating sidewalk from traffic, it seems short-sighted to sacrifice one of the few in such a critical area without exhausting every other alternative first.  I have to ask: why would we put so much effort into making the Lord Overpass safer and more pleasant for everyone only to go in the opposite direction on another important hub?

Notes

[1] Thanks to The Massachusetts Cultural Resource System, Center for Lowell History Digital Atlas Collection, Lowell Historic Board Belvidere Historic District Brochure, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust Belvidere Village History, and Wikipedia for historic facts.

Love and Hip-Hop in MRT’s The Realness

Chris and I caught Merrimack Reparatory Theater’s new show “The Realness” on opening night, and we both really liked it. I bet you would too! Here’s a quick post about why.

img_2984

Aspiring journalist and suitor T.O. interviews MC Prima. Photo via Sun Blog.

10 Reasons you should check out The Realness:

1. It’s funny, fresh, sweet, well-acted, and emotionally engaging without being depressing.

2. There’s a lot going on, with themes of gentrification, authentic culture, artistic integrity, gender, class… but it doesn’t feel heavy, and it doesn’t feel obligated to spoon-feed you a message.

3. It’s set in the world of hip-hop in 1996. I think people in my age bracket will especially enjoy the nostalgia factor.

4. It’s a play that’s not about white people. Nothing against white people (I am one), but I bet if you see plays, you’ve seen a lot of plays about, by, and for white people. It’s nice to hear other stories.

5. Related to that, it seems like MRT is clearly trying to expand their audience and the kind of stories they tell. If you want to see more plays that reflect the diversity of our community, you have to vote with your wallet and go see them.

6. You probably can’t go see Hamilton (sigh…), so this might be your best shot at seeing some hip-hop influenced theater.

7. If you don’t like hip-hop or musicals and are hesitating, don’t worry. The whole thing isn’t a musical, it’s just set in the world of hip-hop performers. And I overheard at least one person after the show saying “I wasn’t sure if I should see it, because I don’t know anything about rap, but [detailed glowing review]”.

8. The playwright is award winning and this show is world-premiering here. That’s cool for MRT and for Lowell.

9. Look at this great set. And it’s cooler in person.

10. Cost shouldn’t stop you; they offer $10 tickets next Wednesday for Lowellians. And if you miss that, you can check out discount passes at the library. Also, they’re piloting this rad program of free childcare for one performance each run, this time it’s the 26th.

I hope you’ll check it out! If you do, or if you’ve caught some of MRT’s other new stuff this season, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

artplace_map

A Place for Art in Lowell

Chris and I attended an interesting meeting last week hosted by Lowell National Historical Park and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. They welcomed Javier Torres, the Director of National Grantmaking for ArtPlace, to discuss his organization, the National Creative Placemaking Fund, and what they might be able to do for Lowell.

Someone pointing at art shanty robot.

One example grantee built “Art Shantys” on a frozen lake that had been losing water to draw visitors during winter and attention to the dwindling lake.

ArtPlace is a ten-year program collaboratively funded by a number of private foundations and financial institutions and guided with assistance from a number of federal agencies. As Mr. Torres described it, their goal isn’t just to fund arts and culture projects, but rather to fundamentally shift American policymakers’ strategies to include arts and culture as a core sector of community planning. What does that mean? It means ArtPlace is trying to get local, state, and federal institutions to think of arts and culture as just as important to solving community problems as transportation, housing, public safety, and other core civic sectors.

They’re doing this in four major ways:

  • Community Development Initiative, which I’d describe as a one-time set of six pilot programs
  • Field Building, which includes building connections between planners to learn from one another
  • Research, which includes documenting strategies and creating measurable metrics of success

and what is sure to be of most interest to Lowellians:

  • Grantmaking, through what they call the “National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

The program could be a great benefit to Lowell. It provides up to $500,000 (although it looks like the most common amount granted is $250,000) with seemingly few strings attached. Even more interesting is that half a million dollars is earmarked for Massachusetts this year, giving Lowell a leg up against communities in other states. However, the grant is still very competitive. They fund about 25-30 projects a year, but receive upwards of 1,000 applications.

National Creative Placemaking Fund projects

An eligible project must fit a few criteria. It has to affect a specific geographic community, the place in placemaking. Rather than, “Helping low-income people throughout Massachusetts,” it must “Help everyone in Lowell,” or “the Acre” or “the 500 block of Merrimack Street.”

It also has to clearly define a planning and development challenge or opportunity. Several of the questions asked during the session focused on what this exactly meant. They try to break it down with a matrix, which looks kinda scary but is actually a neat idea:

Matrix with Ag/Food, Economic Development, Education/Youth, Environment/Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce

The challenge or opportunity must align with one or more of the categories along the y-axis. He gave the example of economic development – the challenge of keeping businesses open during a construction project, and transportation – the challenge of getting a group of indigenous people without cars to a nearby train station. There are more projects on their website, including economic development – challenge of isolated rural communities not mixing; environmental/education – opportunity of a nearby hummingbird center to provide eco-tourism and education; and economic development – the challenge of having community residents benefit from gentrification and demographic change.

The application is also graded on the compelling way arts and culture is deployed to address the challenge and opportunity, and a clear measure of success.

One thing Mr. Torres stressed was that they were looking for unique projects, meaning it helps if proposed projects are different from grants they’ve given in the past (including all the examples here!) In fact, he said that the priorities for this year were Environment/Energy, Health, and Public Safety.

The grants are open to any individual or group: government or private, nonprofit or commercial, single person or huge institution. However, they’re targeting civic/social/faith, commercial, and philanthropic individuals and groups in this round. If an individual is doing the project for a profit, they qualify as commercial. If they’re doing it for a church, they would be civic/social/faith. If they’re donating their time, they might qualify as nonprofit. If they’re donating their time and materials, they might qualify as philanthropic.

What’s the Process?

Most of the questions at the session involved the specific process needed to apply for a grant. It seems simple:

Before February 16: The first step is to create an account at this site. Registering doesn’t cost anything, is simple, and doesn’t obligate you to apply (you do need to provide an EIN or SS#).

Before March 2: The next step is to send in an application. Each individual or organization can only submit one application. The application asks about the amount requested, the total budget, and 900 character answers for each of the four criteria. It also asks for other information about the geographic location of the project and when you think the money will be completely spent (they give you three years).

They also ask for a three-minute video in which you tell them more about the project. Mr. Torres stressed that they don’t want anything fancy; they just want to “get to know you.”

After May 31: ArtPlace will score the applications based on the clarity and compellingness of the four answers, with tiebreaker bonus points for priority projects. At that point, they will contact top applicants for a second phase, where they begin to dig into what partners applicants will have (they have to have partners), how exactly the funds will be spent, whether the impacted community has been engaged, if the project requires more resources to sustain, and other in-depth questions.

What sort of projects does Lowell need?

I’ve heard a number of ideas already being discussed. The best thing is that Mr. Torres explained that multiple projects from Lowell don’t necessarily compete against one another. Rather, they would each compete on their own merits. Although I doubt they would choose more than one project from Lowell in a year, I do imagine that it only helps Lowell’s chances to submit several different creative projects.

Lit up graveyard

Providence recently secured a grant to help them light up and make programming changes to a community center and cemetery suffering from disinvestment.

The audience included a wide range of folks, from youth service providers such as Girls, Inc and Boys and Girls Club; artists and gallery owners from Arts League of Lowell, Brush Gallery, UnChARTed, Western Avenue Studios, and more; community agencies such as Community Teamwork, Inc. and Coalition for a Better Acre; activists from Lowell Bike Coalition; downtown business owners; cultural organizations such as Angkor Dance Troupe, COOL, and Lowell Heritage Partnership; and uncountable others—probably over 100 in the audience.

I’m really interested to hear what folks come up with, almost outside of what actually ends up applying or winning. A prompt like this can encourage folks to think creatively and reach out for collaboration in new and surprising directions.  My understanding is that the key will be to really clearly articulate a non-arts-related challenge and an arts-related response. I’ve already heard suggestions of challenges to tackle including homelessness and panhandling, empty buildings, and low amounts of transit use; and opportunities including the canals and unutilized hydropower stations. And I think both Chris and I have employers considering  applying as well. But I hope we hear lots of different ideas, from lots of different folks. Because they’re looking for submissions outside governments and nonprofits, it would be great to get the business community, churches, and fraternal organizations more involved.

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Trump in Lowell: One Perspective

My fingers are still numb from standing outside the Tsongas Center tonight, and I can’t feel the keys under my fingers. They were exposed to the 15-degree-weather because I was photographing the attendees and protesters at the Donald Trump rally. I’m not going to talk about the politics, although Paul Marion has an interesting piece over at richardhowe.com. Instead, I’ll just describe the scene for those who weren’t there.

Trump Rally attendees in line

Attendees wait in line around Cox Circle to enter the Tsongas Center

The entry line to the arena stretched all the way around the corner to the post office, starting before 5:00 pm. We heard from a police officer that officials expected 9,000 for the venue of about 6,500 seats. A wide variety of people were in line—although not quite reflecting Lowell’s diversity, there were nevertheless young and old, men and women. Along the sidewalk to Cox circle, bundled-up gentlemen sold Trump scarves and buttons.

Many seemed interested only to see the spectacle—one even said to the protesters “I agree with most of you, I just am curious!” Others wore full Trump regalia, with “Make America Great Again” hats decked in rhinestones. Where did they come from? A member of the Lowell Live Feed Facebook group examined Roy Garage, and found a mix of bumper stickers and several plates from other states.

Free Speech Area sign

Free Speech Area sign at Tsongas Center

The police were extraordinarily friendly, directing traffic and wishing everyone a good evening, whether they were heading into the arena or into the “Free Speech Area,” which had been blocked off with police tape. The idea of limiting protesters to a cordoned-off area—away from the sidewalk, behind the Tsongas sign, and on frozen snowy ground—was debated both in the protest and on Facebook. However, all protesters I saw respected the police tape, as organizers started chants with megaphones and reporters took video from the sidewalk.

Like the attendees, protesters were a mix of locals and organizers from Boston and Cambridge. The protest was organized by the local group Community Advocates for Justice and Equality and the Cambridge-based Black Lives Matter and Boston-based ANSWER Coalition. Based on the faces I recognized and UMass Lowell accessories, most protesters were from Lowell—community members, activists, faculty, and students. Paul Marion counted 150 and growing toward 200 at 5:30 pm—by the time I came back with a camera at 6:30 pm, the group had shrunk to about 75, but they were an almost entirely new set of people who came in to relieve others who dropped out because of the cold.

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Protesters at Rally

Two organizers with medical crosses on their jackets handed out hand warmers and cough drops, and told protesters that Subway was open with bathrooms and a warm space. Many took the advice and ducked into local establishments to warm up before braving the cold again.

Organizers also handed out signs that read “Lowell welcomes refugees,” “Lowell is an immigrant community,” and “Trump is not welcome.” Others had hand-made signs: “Lowell: No Room for Hate,” “Dump Trump” and many, many others. The protesters chanted, “How do you spell racism? T-R-U-M-P,” “Trump is a cancer, the people are the answer,” “Say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here,” along with classic “This is what democracy looks like!” They also sang “Black Lives Matter,” to show solidarity with those Trump attacks in his rhetoric by adding “Muslim Lives Matter” and “Mexican” and “Women’s Rights.”

Counter-protest

Counter-protest

Things were largely respectful and peaceful between both groups. However, it was shocking to see a couple of folks who shouted “White Power” and “Death to Muslims” at the group—frightening, as there were many Muslim and non white people in the crowd. We also heard a strange counter-chant from a rally-goer: “If refugees look like me, they should come here legally.” (We have a series of posts about refugees here). However, only one counter-protester appeared to stick around with an “All Lives Matter” sign.

Drummer at protest

A drummer kept the beat for the chants

Our night ended with listening to one non white protester describe how she was turned away because of what she looked like and assumed a trouble-maker. Reportedly, several folks interrupted throughout the rally inside the arena with protest. Those wanting to hear more should check out the above-linked Facebook forum or the Lowell Sun, whose reporters supposedly were not allowed to leave until well after the event was over! It may be because of the crowd I follow, but almost everyone I heard describe it on social media called it one of the most bizarre nights they’d experienced in Lowell.

DSC_0038

More than 150 protesters filled the area at one point, with a stream coming to relieve those who had to leave because of cold.

I Could Never Do This! Thoughts Watching MRT’s “I and You” Take Shape

As part of MRT’s Cohort Club, I get to observe new shows from first read-through through every step of the process. It’s an amazing opportunity, one I’m really enjoying. Sitting in on a rehearsal of the upcoming “I and You” on Sunday, I was struck by how incredible it is that anyone is capable of doing the difficult work of making theater.

I was watching them rehearse and block a difficult scene. I and You is a story about two teenagers getting to know each other as they work on a school project about Walt Whitman. The show covers a lot of ground, but central to the story is that special teenage kind of conversation, as two people who are still in the process of defining themselves test each others’ limits, sharing deeply in the way few adults easily do.

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, as photographed by the talented and fun human Meghan Moore.

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, as photographed by the talented and fun human Meghan Moore.

In the scene I was watching them rehearse, actress Kayla Ferguson takes the lead during an emotional, physical sequence. She had to time her lines and actions with the music playing in the background at that moment, while taking a quick emotional turn when the scene changes tone rapidly. As I watched, she and her co-star Reggie D. White ran the scene again and again trying to get the timing precisely right. Five minutes of physical, emotional acting, only to immediately have to take feedback on everything from tone of voice to overall performance. Not one person in a hundred could handle what she had to do. Memorizing, getting delicate physicality right, doing emotional calisthenics and making yourself vulnerable in front of total strangers, only to immediately be told that a minor detail needs adjusting. I don’t even like it when someone looks over my shoulder while I type! How amazing to be so vulnerable and yet so open to feedback. I think of acting as the ability to realistically recreate emotions, but it’s so much more.

It’s also fascinating to watch Director Sean Daniels shaping the show. Two weeks into rehearsals, the show was blocked, and it basically looked how it will on stage. The actors run through the scenes until they hit a roadblock or until the director stops to fix something. Sometimes 10 minutes go by with no comment. Other times they do a sequence over and over, tinkering until it works. Some notes are big. I heard Sean ask the actor “What do you think he means when he says that line?” and offer feedback about what the character’s thinking and why a scene progresses the way it does. Other notes are minor physical adjustments: “Can you angle this way when you say that line?” “Can you do this in one movement, rather than two?” It’s easy to see the delicate balancing act a director faces between shaping the show to be technically elegant and meet their vision; and letting the actors experiment and use their own creativity.

A play can seem like such a magical thing. But the effortless, immersive chemistry we see on stage is the product of hard, sweaty, repetitive work. The good play is carefully chiseled from beneath the raw stone. It’s such an education to see the artists at work, I’m very grateful for the experience.