I’ve often heard that Lowell’s Acre neighborhood has experienced an incredible revitalization in the last decade. By many accounts, the relatively safe, clean, and strong neighborhood I’m familiar with was very different only a few years ago. Describing the Acre of 10 years ago in a story about Moody Street’s transformation, CBA’s website mentions “vacant buildings falling into disrepair and families moving out.” Although University Crossing, the new Jeanne D’Arc office, and several CBA housing projects are among the most visible aspects of the revitalization, there is a concurrent, smaller-scale effort that looks as if it’s paying just as many dividends: projects led by the Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION).
Dave Ouellette, president of ACTION, took members of the community on a tour of a few of these projects in November. The tour was publicized by Do-It-Yourself Lowell, a citizen-led initiative to facilitate similar projects and events throughout Lowell. I found Mr. Ouellette’s story instructional and inspiring, as the projects tie sound planning principles with a community focus in a way that has helped redefine a neighborhood.
North Common Amphitheater
We started our tour with the North Common Amphitheater, also known as the “Welcome Rainbow.” The origin of the Amphitheater and ACTION are tied together.
The Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) had served as a neighborhood organization for the Acre since it had formed in 1982 to successfully oppose a plan to raze the Acre’s Triangle neighborhood. However, in a community meeting organized by the Lowell Police Department after a 2009 shooting, discussion about a resident-led neighborhood organization moved Mr. Ouellette to found ACTION to more directly speak on behalf of residents. In addition, ACTION understood that physical projects along with sustained outreach were needed to reduce crime and increase community.
In 2010, CBA funded travel expenses for Mr. Ouellette and five others to attend the annual NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute, a three-day training session that includes a workshop in which teams create action plans for their communities. These plans, which had to “show substantial change,” were eligible for a $2,000 reimbursable grant from NeighborWorks. CBA’s team created a plan to improve the amphitheater.
Mr. Ouellette told us that he grew up in the housing next to the North Common, and remembered that the 1970s-era amphitheater once hosted music and entertainment. It was a place to meet neighbors. However, by the late 2000s, lights around the amphitheater had been out of service for twelve years. Vegetation obscured it from the road, and gangs used it as a fighting arena. The team realized that it could be a benefit to the community once again.
It was the start of a years-long project involving many groups and people. Suzanne Frechette, Deputy Director of CBA, and others assisted the group with an initial clean-up and power washing. In 2010, they asked the city to cut down the vegetation. In 2011, ACTION facilitated a partnership between the City and YouthBuild America to reconstruct the concrete steps: YouthBuild built the forms while the City mixed and poured concrete. In 2012, Western Avenue Studios, YouthBuild, and the Boys and Girls Club sponsored an invitation to the community to paint 26 mural spaces with “Welcome” in the many languages spoken in Lowell. The Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) provided paint, brushes, and other materials. Finally, the City restored the lighting, an $8,000 project in itself.
Each step built upon one another. Each step proved the next step was possible. Most importantly, each step involved the sweat equity of the community the project would serve. In an unveiling celebration, Mr. Ouellette stood in front of the amphitheater, one empty mural space remaining, and asked, “What does this mean?” People shouted out answers until one came up with: “One City, One World!” The crowd cheered, and this became the phrase on the top step.
Wilfred Lavasseur (Whiting Street) Park
The tour then moved to the Wilfred Lavasseur park, which until 2012 was an empty lot. Although once children had played in the lot, it had since become a dumping ground and a hotspot for drug deals for more than a decade. The City administration was impressed with ACTION’s leadership on the North Common project, and asked for help to transform the city-owned empty lot into a community space in 2011.
Alleys between houses were often used by drug dealers to enter and exit the lot, so the group created a plan to fence the alleys off and create community gardens along the edges of the park. Along with grants from the City, Mass Service Alliance, Lowell Rotary, and NeighborWorks, Mr. Ouellette said ACTION “used the City as Lowes.” They recovered bricks from a renovation project near City Hall and intercepted the concrete barriers that would separate the center of the park from the gardening area.
Most notably, when the Revolving Museum closed, it threw away many mural panels. ACTION and Mill City Grows came together to rescue dozens of pieces of art from the dumpster. These are now displayed on the fences of the garden and in other community garden locations across the city. More than 200 volunteers built the fifteen garden plots, shed, benches, and pergola over 18 months with the help from the city, CBA, Mill City Grows, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, UMass Lowell, and YouthBuild.
The space is now used actively by community members of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, and they keep an eye on the once-derelict lot. The operations are overseen by community member Billy Heath, who attended the Garden Coordinator Institute, a seven-part workshop provided annually by Mill City Grows.
The tour then turned to what may be ACTION’s next project, Decatur Alley. The old path runs between Merrimack and Salem streets, stretching from University Crossing to Decatur Street. Although Mr. Ouellette remembers walking the path as a child, it had since become overgrown and was used by drug dealers or others attempting to duck under fences to evade police.
Last year, ACTION and CBA organized and participated in volunteer crews to clear the alley of vegetation and trash. The crews included members of groups throughout the community, such as dozens of volunteers from Somebody Cares. In a Sun story, Mr. Ouellette said, “We found 12 mattresses, six tires, air-conditioning units, needles, everything you could think of.” ACTION also reached out to the homeowners abutting the alley, including UMass Lowell. They convinced the University to not erect a fence that would shut off and reduce visibility on one end of the alley.
The ultimate plan developed with the community is to transform the alley into a cobblestone walkway lined with benches, poetry pedestals, and artwork. ACTION plans to dedicate one area to veterans, which would engage yet another piece of the community. Another area would showcase artwork from local schools. An area behind Cote’s Market would become a spot for picnicking. The path could be used by students and residents alike.
The path—and the tour—ended at St. Jeanne Baptiste church, a place so interesting it deserves its own post.
As we talked about what made the projects successful, Mr. Ouellette expressed his belief that more important than finding funding is making sure projects are a volunteer effort. He has seen several projects falter because they were built using a grant, but then had little to no community involvement in maintenance. If the community itself builds the project, they own it, and they take care of it. Trash used to be a problem at both the amphitheater and Lavasseur Park, but now community members take care of the area.
He also stressed that anyone can be involved. Children helped pull weeds, young adults built structures, and older neighbors served drinks. The diversity of volunteers and partner organizations is inspiring. Once again, this all works toward ensuring mutual ownership of the projects.
Finally, the projects must be useful, providing many functions for different audiences. The garden is a place to grow food and to relax. The amphitheater can be used for plays, movie screenings, and festivals (and hopscotch courts have been stenciled on to keep it useful between events). The more people using the project, the more people around to help keep it clean and safe.
Ultimately, each project is individually useful and addresses a need, but as a group, they are transformative. As I understand it, many small actions over years revived the amphitheater, created the community garden, and will create the Decatur Alley path. In turn, each of these is a relatively small project compared to a new University building. However, these small steps when put together—along with constant engagement—are majorly enhancing Acre residents’ quality of life.
 I am a lead coordinator of DIY Lowell and plan to write a detailed post about my experience putting together the initiative soon. ↩