Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

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City of Lights in front of the 1826 Store

It’s been three years since we last wrote about Lowell’s annual post-Thanksgiving Parade, City of Lights. The highlight (in our humble opinion) of City of Lights is the annual hot chocolate competition. Businesses across downtown offer tiny cups of cocoa for 25 cents each, all for a shot at the coveted hot chocolate competition award. We chose Café Pastiche’s Brazilian cocoa, which sadly didn’t place… and Café Pastiche was closed a year later.

The other competitors that year were Rosie’s Café, Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus, Sweet Lydia’s, and Time Out Café. Coincidentally, those four businesses all competed this year, along with veteran Cobblestones and newcomers Hypertext Bookstore, Coffee and Cotton, Gallery Z, and UnchARTed.

That same year, the Lowell Small Business Center did a huge push for Small Business Saturday, and we talked about other cities’ small business campaigns. In that spirit, we want to talk about each of the businesses that competed, and even reached out to them to get their thoughts on the festival, Lowell’s business scene, and what people can do to support small businesses.

Rosie’s Café

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Rosie Suprenant

Rosie’s has been holding down the JAM District since before the City started calling it the JAM district. Rosemarie Surprenant launched her café twenty years ago on 10 Hurd Street, between what is now Element Care and UTEC. Her supplier was Peak Coffee, a Billerica business launched in 2006 by Peter Kagunye, a Kenyan immigrant. Back then, it was Batian Peak Coffee, named after the highest mountain in Kenya. When Mr. Kagunye decided to move on in 2012, Rosie’s bought Peak Coffee, and began roasting coffee and distributing tea themselves. In 2014, she moved to her current location next between Jackson and Middlesex, near Mill No. 5 and Garcia Brogan’s.

So what about the hot chocolate? She’s been doing the contest for six years, and this year she made an amazing, subtle caramel hot cocoa. I say amazing, because Rosie’s was our last stop, Aurora and I had a gallon of chocolate each at that point, and we still loved Rosie’s. Rosie loves the festival, too. She reported that business was good, and we aren’t surprised—her coffee is great and a bag of fresh-ground coffee makes a great (fair-trade) gift.

I like seeing the families, happy and stopping by with their baggies of quarters. -Rosie Suprenant

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Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus

If Rosie’s is the anchor of the JAM district, Brew’d Awakening is the anchor of Market Street. I’d hazard a guess that Andy Jacobson has won the hot chocolate contest more times than any other business, and has been competing since the contest started eight years ago. This year, it was a French Toast hot chocolate with a tiny piece of French toast in every cup. The special extras always put their cocoa over the top.

Baristas working at Brewd Awakening Coffehaus

Brew’d Awakening crew doing what they do best, with Andy Jacobson (right)

Andy opened Brew’d Awakening in 2005, leaving the world of finance to create a unique gathering place and choosing Lowell’s downtown to reflect that uniqueness. I admit, I end up at Brew’d just to listen to the music, Freeverse Open Mic Night every first and third Tuesdays, see friendly faces, and get another mark down toward a free coffee. (Seven coffees, and then you can get any type of coffee for free!) Andy says that there have been a lot of recent changes for the good in DTL, including going from one to two-way, MCC and UMass Lowell’s growth, and a lot of new residents. City of Lights brings a spike of new customers as well—as long as the weather is good.

I have seen a lot of changes for the good. The fact that MCC and UML has more of a profile downtown has helped. Plus, the growing residents and two way traffic. So overall I have seen increases from the previous year. -Andy Jacobson

Sweet Lydia’s

If Brew’d isn’t the hot chocolate champion, then Sweet Lydia’s is. “Sweet” Lydia Blanchard ran a Kickstarter campaign to help open up her downtown shop in 2012 after three years of candy catering out of an incubator kitchen and years before that making candy as a hobby. I’m pretty sure she’s entered the hot chocolate competition with a different recipe and a signature marshmallow each time. This year, she had a dark chocolate, which is my favorite kind of chocolate.

Customers at Sweet Lydias Candy Shop

Sweet Lydia’s is another Lowell success story, as she’s branched from the shop with a stall at the new Boston Public Market. The newest, coolest project was a pop-up shop last spring in Newton.

Time Out Café

Customers at Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out Café is perhaps the least well-known out of this list to some, but a new Lowell institution to others, especially our Hispanic population. I know I stop here for Empanadas often. The small storefront at 72 Merrimack Street has a wide variety of Dominican, Afro-Puerto Rican, Spanish, and American fare, along with breakfast, great coffee, and (at least during the competition) really great Hot Chocolate. Their Mexican-style cocoa with cinnamon was a clear frontrunner in my mind. They’ve been doing this since we moved here—for three years!

Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out opened in 2010, and Yvette Anil has seen her business grow over the last six years:

We are family business, is not easy, is a lot of work, but every year is better than the last one, and we hope still for many years more. -Yvette Anil

Check out a great review of the restaurant on Life as a Maven.

Cobblestones

We admit it. We didn’t make it to Cobblestones in time. We didn’t try their hot chocolate, but I’m sure it was as delicious as their Truffle Fries. That’s right—you can get amazing fries flavored with truffle oil at Cobblestones, along with all sorts of other fine dishes. The restaurant opened in 1994 in the Yorick Club building, which was built as a home for mill managers in the 1850s but spent most of its life as a young gentleman’s club. The restaurant retains its upper-class Victorian charm, and each year submits an equally classy cocoa selection. The owners, who also operate Moonstones, generously contribute to a number of Lowell causes and the restaurant is highly-regarded in the Merrimack Valley.

UnchARTed

Lindsey Parker of UnchARTed Gallery in Lowell MA

Lindsey prepares the special Almond Joy Hot Cocoa

Depending on your perspective, UnchARTed is either brand new or a Lowell institution. Mike Dailey and Lindsey Parker have been running gallery/studio space under the name for more than 5 years, but the impressive Market Street location—and the bar and pizza—have been a great new addition to the downtown this year. If you have not tried their pizza, sold by the slice or whole, you are missing out on one of the best things to happen to downtown this year. The music and their striking gallery shows are matched only by their awesome community spirit: Mike and Lindsey are happy to work with folks running a fundraiser or putting on a Skill Share (not that we haven’t done both!)

This year for the cocoa challenge they had vegan almond joy cocoa, which is a good peek at their playful and progressive spirit. They said they doubled their dinner business the night of City of Lights. We asked what folks can do to help downtown business, and Lindsey said:

Spread the word ya heard?! If you love us, shout it from the rooftops! Also, defend Lowell when you are talking to someone from “outside” who is spewing garbage about it. Lowell is a cool place to be and on the up and up and not in a pretentious way either. -Lindsey Parker

Coffee and Cotton

Mill No. 5 is a constantly evolving source of Lowell cool and excitement. We last wrote about Mill No. 5 about two-and-a-half years ago, and it’s added a yoga studio, a market, a toy store, a vintage bookstore, the “Hi-Hat” stage near the elevator, and most famously, the Luna Theater in the meantime. Coffee and Cotton opened there in September, 2014, and it might have the most youthful crowd of any of the coffee shops, a haven for college students.

Young women serving hot chocolate at Mill No 5

The Coffee and Cotton crew serving up a keg of cocoa

For their very first cocoa contest this year, they offered matte cocoa with meringue, and that’s the kind of unique specials they often feature. In addition to coffee, they serve gourmet grilled cheese, breakfast sandwiches, Kombucha tea, and a variety of other drinks and danishes. Strangely enough, they do not serve cotton. We asked about how we can support them, and they had an interesting answer:

Besides shopping/eating locally, a great way to support local businesses is to provide valuable feedback to the owner/general manager. Our guests are our most valuable resource when it comes to making decisions about what direction we’d like to take our business. -Addie, manager

Hypertext

Books at Hypertext with hot cocoa

Monkey Jungle Cocoa!

We’ve had a special place in our hearts for Hypertext ever since they moved in and we got to help them decorate their window for last year’s City of Lights with DIY Lowell. They missed City of Lights, but opened just in time for 2016 Winterfest. Sam and Sheila, the sisters that run it, are extremely fun and added a much-needed missing element to the downtown. Their jungle cocoa came with a tiny plastic monkey! Because the recipe had bananas.

The sisters opened the bookstore/café combining their passions of coffee and fiction—and their desire to get away from a 9-to-5 job with a commute to Boston. Although they’ve reported that running an independent business is truly demanding, they’ve made it their own with poetry readings, book clubs, and even a funky (literally) underground movie showing during Halloween.

Hypertext Bookstore in Lowell MA

Gallery Z

Baristas at Gallery Z

Putting the finishing touches on Bailey’s Hot Cocoa at Gallery Z

The only reason Gallery Z should be last in any list is alphabetically. The former Zeitgeist Gallery, under new ownership, has downtown’s newest café in the back. Zeitgeist’s owners “felt they had taken it as far as they could,” according to new owner Patty DiStefano in a Howl interview, and she wanted to take it to a new step with performances and a cozy, quiet 1960s-style coffehouse. We hadn’t made it there yet, so the cocoa contest managed to introduce even us seasoned downtown residents to something new. They offered a Bailey’s inspired cocoa that was very tasty indeed; we’ll have to go back again soon and check out their other options.

Tables and chairs at Gallery Z in Lowell MA

1960s-inspired cafe space at Gallery Z

Local Business in Lowell

As always, the holiday season is an amazing time to support local business, but we asked each of the cocoa competitors what Lowell boosters can do besides shop locally.

Spreading the word online and in person came up from every single person who answered—downtown Lowell’s still fighting a bad reputation. It’s hard to believe, since the only Lowell we know has been clean, low on crime, and filled with innovative businesses. Yet the business owners said a negative perception is still there.

An interesting point was brought up that local businesses have to pay credit card fees, so save the credit card for Target and use cash at local businesses when possible. Don’t be afraid to use a card if you have it, though—every business we visited accepted both cash and cards.

Each also reported that business had only been getting better year-over-year, and that festivals like City of Lights didn’t just boost business that day, but exposed new customers they had never met to their cafés. As we talk about what we can do to keep Lowell an active place seven days a week, let’s not lose track of showing our best side whenever we throw a party.

Finally, one thing that was especially notable—many of the business owners talked about their high school crowds in their emails or in newspaper interviews, from kids getting mystery-flavor coffee at Rosie’s to Brew’d Awakening talking about their teen crowd just being themselves. It’s notable that Lowell’s young people make such an impact on the downtown in a lot of great ways.

A follow-up post may explore the best way to spur economic development with festivals—perhaps just in time for Winterfest. Until then, leave a message about your favorite hot chocolate or local eatery!

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Lowell Makes shop

Hot Cocoa

You can even take Sweet Lydia’s Hot Chocolate home!

Emanuel Boutique in downtown Lowell MA

Emanuel Boutique dressed up for the holiday

Zen Foodist in downtown Lowell MA presenting hot dog

The Zen Foodist braves the weather for his signature hot dogs

Decoration at Persona Lowell MA

Holiday Rocket (?) at Persona Goods

Angela Ales and Roneld Lores in their duo exhibit " A Cuban and a Colombian walk into a Bar"

Lady at UnchARTed clearly uninterested in hot cocoa

Lamps were fire extinguishers now they light up the place

Awesome upcycled lamps at Gallery Z

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Singing at the holiday marketplace on Merrimack

Gingerbread House

New meaning to “small” business owner!

Float in front of City Hall

MCC’s float shows off Lowell’s diversity, while Old City Hall shows off its history

Big crowd listening to Santa's wise wods

City officials reported the crowd was one of the best of recent years

Post-Election Lowell

Aurora and I haven’t written here in a while, partly because we were engrossed in the election as much of the nation was. In fact, one of the last essays we added was a report about a Trump rally several months ago. Now that there’s time to reflect, I wanted to talk about Lowell, the election, and what’s next.

Photo of group at HypertextLast night, Aurora and I attended a LGBTQ+ Mixer at Hypertext Bookstore. The event was hosted by Lowell’s  LGBTQ+ Action Group and supported by Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant and Hypertext. That night, more than 45 people filled the bookstore and had coffee, talked about their feelings and reactions to the election, and their plans for the future. It was an electric vibe, filled with young people just out of (or still in) high school, a couple who just moved to Lowell, more than a few activists, and some familiar faces.

It was a bright spot in what for many has been an increasingly tense-feeling time. Last Monday, Attorney General Maury Healey’s office launched a hotline to report harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. She reported an increase in reports of such incidents to her office since election day.

Some incidents have risen to prominence. Earlier this year, in May, two brothers beat a homeless man because he was Latino. More recently, three 15-year old girls allegedly punched and beat a woman on the Red Line for being an immigrant after mocking her accent. This issue doesn’t appear only in Boston. Just a few days ago, a Natick man reported receiving threatening letters filled with racial slurs. This would follow national trends: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Anti-Defamation League all reported a spike in reports of harassment and vandalism since the election.

There is a great debate that is being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and social media about how and if these incidents are related to the election. Many argue that anyone who voted for Donald Trump, because he used racially-charged and sexist language, are either bigots or, at best, bigot-enablers. Others argue that there are many reasons to have preferred Mr. Trump’s outsider status or policy positions over Secretary Clinton’s. Still others believe that both major-party candidates were not worth voting for, leading to a fairly high “other” vote. Some of those topics might be the subject of future posts. I imagine little of that matters for people who have overcome harassment, discrimination, or isolation, and worry that the heated rhetoric signals a trend toward a return to that abuse or an indication that it never was that far away.

Lowell’s Vote

What is clear is that Lowell—and especially greater Lowell—had a sizable number of people vote for both major-party candidates. According to the unofficial tally (which doesn’t count provisional ballots, overseas absentee, and some other exceptions), 36,641 people voted in the general election in Lowell out of about 85,000 old enough to vote. That’s about 43%, less than Massachusetts’ estimated 61% or the US’s 53%, but Lowell’s high proportion of noncitizens may account for some of that lower turnout.

Of those 36,641, 23,186 voted for Clinton and 10,495 voted for Trump, a 63%/29% split, with the remaining 8% for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or blank. This was very close to Massachusetts’ overall 61%/34% split.

votesinlowellNotably, more people in Lowell voted for Democrat Niki Tsongas (76%) in her race against Ann Wofford than for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what this means, other than that people weren’t voting straight-ticket and weren’t voting solely on policy. All the towns next to Lowell except for Chelmsford voted in favor of Mr. Trump, making the “Greater Lowell” breakdown about 51% Clinton, 41% Trump, and 8% other.

Organizing for Lowell

In this moment where it feels like political frictions are high, there are a number of groups organizing a number of events with an eye toward lending support to those who may be most vulnerable. This includes a peaceful Solidarity Rally against hate and discrimination 3:00 pm tomorrow at City Hall, which will include speakers from Lowell’s diverse population and a 4:30 pm workshop at Mill No. 5 to discuss what civic and political actions participants want to take together.

15107405_1277147152349666_735794546867948049_nOn Monday night at 5:30 pm at the Senior Center, CBA is hosting a “Community U-Nite”, a post-election gathering that will include food, conversation, and resources to make sure that everyone still knows they are welcome in Lowell’s community. Their goal is to highlight that although the nation—and Lowell—may be divided politically, Lowell is still one, inclusive community.

Later, in December, Pollard Memorial Library is hosting an “American Perspectives” non-partisan, civil and constructive community conversation on the 2016 Election. Local educators, community organizers, and citizens will discuss together how to reaffirm commonalities and move forward as one community of Americans.

Finally, many are wearing safety pins on their jackets or clothes. This started in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, when immigrants were increasing targets of hate crimes. The safety pin symbolized that immigrants were “safe” with the person wearing the pin, and that people wearing them will try to actively intervene when they see someone being harassed. It’s been adopted in the wake of the American election to symbolize safety for immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, women, Muslims, and any other groups who are feeling threatened. Some critics of the pin call them a lazy crutch that gets in the way of real activism or believe they widen the gap between political parties. Supporters argue that they are a first step into activism by many who otherwise do not know how or are not as free to protest in other ways; a reminder like a string tied around a finger; and a constant signal that they’re willing to help. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but wanted to mention this symbol I’m seeing more and more around Lowell.

What’s Next?

The recent events have made Aurora and I want to turn back to Learning Lowell, to talk about the impacts we think different policies will have on the city, the arts and culture from all around the world that make Lowell unique and amazing, and the history that can teach us so much about the present day. As always, we want to know what you’re feeling either on Facebook or in the comments section here.

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.

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

Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Hi,

Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:

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Map of Doors Open Lowell

Opening Lowell’s Doors

Once a year, Lowell shows what it calls it’s “other side.” Not its dark side or its far side, but its inside.

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

The event is Doors Open Lowell, a time when buildings across the City open their doors to visitors to view architecture and furnishings. It’s going on now!

It was kicked off with the Community Excellence Awards yesterday. Last year we posted about the Call to Nominations but missed the event. This year, we somehow missed the nomination but attended the event!

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

The Community Excellence awards honor organizations and individuals who make contributions to Lowell’s historic and cultural preservation and celebration. This year’s Preservation Award honored the Whistler House Museum of Art for their preservation efforts, most recently a restoration of their kitchen. They hope to continue to transform the museum into a multiuse space, truly a “house” museum. Upper-story apartments are rented out to artists.

In addition, Patricia Fontaine won an Cultural Award for her collaboration with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to develop a student program for Hawk Valley Farm and with UMass Lowell for a Story Corps Project and Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens project. She explained that she realized that many Cambodian students were losing their heritage, as their families did not want to talk about life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the refugee camps. She started teaching Cambodian history and it evolved into a project in which students interviewed their parents. The interviews are now in the National Archives.

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

Roger Brunelle also got a Cultural Award for his work with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. One of our first posts on Learning Lowell was about one of Mr. Brunelle’s tours, and we loved it. For his part, Mr. Brunelle said something on the order of, “I don’t deserve this award, because I was having so much fun. But thanks anyway!”

Finally, perhaps the most exciting award was the Student Excellence award. Perhaps two dozen Lowell High students went on stage along with advisors to accept the award for a collaborative project between the International Institute of Lowell and the First Parish Church of Groton that let multicultural students share dance, food, art, and stories. The students spoke eloquently about how each generation strives to make things better for the next, and that they would carry on that heritage.

The main event started Friday night, with many downtown locations opening their doors. We were able to visit quite a number of places!

Gaslight building, interior

Gas Light building, interior

Architect Jay Mason explained how the current home of Gallagher and Cavanaugh started as the Gas Light Company’s offices, then became a bank, then went through many other uses including the Revolving Museum before an extensive renovation into its current form. One participant recalled going to the Revolving Museum, while another remembered the gas tanks in Lowell.

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

We were able to visit the largest of the lodge rooms in the Lowell Masonic Temple. After a light show that utilizes equipment from the 1930s to simulate a setting and rising sun, we were treated to a Q&A about the not-quite-as-secret-anymore society. It’s amazing to hear that more than a thousand Masons use the lodge, although not all of them come to every meeting.

Bowling trophy

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Even the first floor of the Masonic Temple is a treat, with a number of nooks and crannies with modern and vintage mixed and matched.

A real highlight of the evening was Chuck Parrott’s tour of the Merrimack and Hamilton Canalways. He was a font of knowledge, and not one question stumped him, as he answered questions ranging from where the granite in the canal walls came from (probably quarries near Lowell like in Chelmsford and Westford) to how the National Park preserved the massive gates that can close off canals to drain them (the first three wooden beams were replaced, the rest were original to the nineteenth century) to what will be built in the Hamilton Canal District (apartments with some commercial buildings mostly to the scale of the Saco-Lowell Machine shops and Appleton Mills that once stood on the spots) to why some of the Appleton Mill’s walls look so drab (they replaced crumbled mill walls, and they did not want the new construction to overshadow the remaining mill architecture).

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck’s tour was so informative and engaging, I hope he won’t mind if I steal a few tidbits for my trains and trolleys tour in September, part of Lowell Walks. For example, do you know that the only canal wall the National Park System owns is the Dutton Street side of Merrimack Canal, because the Boston and Maine Railroad bought it to reinforce it to support nearby trains, then NPS bought the railway for the trolleys?

Chuck Parrott leading Lowell tour

The tour went well on into the evening

We just made it in time to see the interior of two condos: Trio and the Birke building. Although we didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the apartments, they were amazing. Each was beautiful in its own way, and we enjoyed chatting with the hosts quite a bit. We did manage to take a photo of the Trio condo’s roof patio. We briefly considered kicking the owner out of his home and living there ourselves, but figured we would be caught! Besides, he was a charming host.

Lowell, MA at night

A nice end to the evening

Doors Open Lowell continues for one more day. See http://www.doorsopenlowell.org/ for more information!

In addition, the Mill City Skill Share is occurring at locations throughout downtown and the Acre, and Made in Lowell Marketplace is happening at Mill No. 5. You can’t deny that a lot happens in Lowell!

Doing DIY Lowell

You may have noticed that we haven’t posted too many articles lately. Part of the reason is that we’re involved in few community initiatives, including “DIY Lowell.” Now that the DIY Lowell website is up and running, we wanted to share our story.

D.I.Y. LowellDIY Lowell is an initiative to try to capture all the ideas for projects and events people have and help them make those ideas a reality. For example, someone may have an idea for a temporary art exhibit, share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. We want to help connect that person with an artist, with someone who knows how to get the permits, and with some funding.

We’re doing this by inviting everyone to share ideas on a forum and in dropboxes around town until June 15. On June 20 until the end of June, the ideas will be up for a vote by anyone who registers for a summit. Our goal is to narrow down the ideas to a small handful that summit attendees would be interested in working on. We have a few guidelines: ideas can’t be expected to cost more than $1,000, they should be completed by the end of the year, they have to relate to space open to the public, and they can’t be illegal.

On July 9, the summit will gather DIY Lowell participants and organizational partners to create action plans for the ideas. A number of very talented folks have volunteered to lead breakout groups about each winning idea, and many organizations have pledged to attend the summit to offer their suggestions on how to kick the ideas off. Citizen working groups formed at the summit will move the ideas forward.

What about after the summit? Well, most exciting, we’ve identified some funding, and we are moving forward with some other fundraising ideas soon. In addition, we’ll keep track of all the projects and offer a helping hand when necessary, connecting those citizen working groups with the help they need.

Why are we doing all this? It’s not just to put a few projects into action, but also to identify the common barriers our working groups face. We’re interested in bringing more voices into the community conversation and encouraging folks who might not have time for a huge commitment to take on a small piece of a small project.

The DIY Lowell Story

The genesis of DIY Lowell was actually in Buffalo, during the Congress for New Urbanism Annual Meeting. One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening.

This inspired Aurora and I to come up with a few ideas of our own for Lowell. We thought some chalking or painting of the concrete jersey barriers across from our apartment would spruce up Bridge Street. We talked about a trail that would lead from the National Park Visitor Center to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum just like a small version of the Boston Freedom Trail. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there could be something bigger than just a project or two.

People talking at Mill no 5 during Transform Mill City

Transform Mill City drew a variety of folks to Mill No. 5 before Coffee and Cotton was in business

We were really impressed with the number of Lowell folks who came and participated in the “Transform Mill City” initiative. This series of meetings hosted by a student from UMass Lowell allowed more than forty participants to each meeting to share ideas on giant sticky notes on walls or tables with questions such as “What events would you like to see in Lowell that aren’t here already?” Some popular ideas were a “Firewater” display on the canals and a series of art events or markets.

This wasn’t the only idea-generating initiative in Lowell. The City spearheaded Neighborland a couple of years ago, and it collected ideas via an online website and stickers on an empty downtown storefront. Ideas included an independent theater, free downtown wifi, an expanded Farmer’s Market, and even bocce courts.

What if, however, we combined the two ideas? In school, I ran an organization that accepted project proposals and offered technical support to villages and towns too small to have their own planning departments. There’s a lot of expertise in Lowell already, and we could connect that expertise to these great ideas that sometimes seem to fizzle away. It could be democratic, where the most popular ideas are the ones that get the most attention.

That’s when we started meeting with a lot of people. It’s amazing how many people you can meet with when you’re trying to talk to every group that could be interested in the effort. I started with Yovani Baez, the City of Lowell Neighborhood Planner. She suggested meeting with a few more people, and those folks suggested others, and it soon snowballed. I had to make an excel spreadsheet with the people I met, the people they suggested to talk to, and the ideas on how we could execute our plan.

All in all, Aurora or I emailed or talked to nearly 70 people in the City before we finalized our pitch, including people from the City of Lowell, E for All, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Coalition for a Better Acre, Made in Lowell, COOL, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Makes, all the neighborhood groups, a few churches, and a lot of other organizations and groups. During that time, we even took a tactical urbanism tour of the Acre with ACTION.

Each interview helped us form our idea. Just to think of a small handful of examples: Marianne Gries told us to make sure our website was smartphone-compatible for those without computers; Souvanna Pouv suggested doing interviews on LTC shows to market the idea; Geoff Foster reminded us to use examples in every neighborhood in Lowell; Sean Thibodeau recommending throwing an event on a weekday, not a weekend.

DIY Lowell mock-up webpage

diylowellwebsite

We created a mock-up to get feedback from our advisory committee, and with help from the community, we made it into a real webpage

Do-it-Ourselves Lowell

Although we kicked off DIY Lowell, we could never have done any of it alone.

I have to credit Aurora with coming up with the name “Do-it-Yourself Lowell,” or DIY Lowell for short. Her idea was that the organization was all about people feeling like they could take ownership of their city through these small, achievable projects. These ideas aren’t that hard or expensive to put into practice, but most people don’t have the tools, time, or contacts to make their ideas a reality on their own. We hope DIY Lowell will really let people do-it-themselves together.

A lot of others offered invaluable help as well. We’re finding volunteers through the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, CBA is providing assistance with fund management, a local blog is hosting our website, and we may even be able to hold the DIY Lowell summit in a really cool community space for free. We’re amazingly indebted to our Steering Committee who helped us through decisions such as when to do fundraising, what guidelines to put in place for projects, and how to set up our website.

With all this time invested, you may be wondering why we personally are doing all this work. In a word, it’s fun. We’ve met so many people and we’re hoping to add to what we see happening in Lowell already: a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s a lot better than watching reruns.

1979 aerial

Lord Overpass: A 150 Year History

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting. They can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

There’s a few interesting items the City Council will discuss today, including a bond order to repair the Lower Locks and Leo Roy parking garages; a report on the Lowell Police Department’s training expenses and revenue with news that they plan to incorporate Tasers and cultural competency trainings; a motion about keeping communication between UMass Lowell, a dorm developer, and the City open; and a vote endorsing the 2013-2018 Open Space and Recreation Plan.

There’s also a public petition to address the City Council regarding firearm licenses in Lowell. I have not researched the issue, but I learned the petitioner is the Director at Large of the Gun Owner’s Action League.

However, this post will focus on the sole item the Transportation Subcommittee is covering starting at 5:30 pm: “Discussion of Lord Overpass Improvements.” Discussion of transportation improvements seems timely, as a man died last weekend from injuries he sustained after being struck by a car elsewhere in Lowell. It’s also part of an ongoing conversation; Aurora and I described the “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project” a few weeks ago. The project involves not only the overpass, but improvements to several intersections along Thorndike from the train station all the way to an extension of Jackson Street to meet Fletcher at Dutton. The improvements were called for and developed in public sessions related to the Hamilton Canal District.

We also talked about several issues we have heard brought up: as currently described, the project does not improve Dutton Street’s walkability; the project has no separated bicycle paths; the idea for a pedestrian bridge was scrapped; and in a larger sense, the project doesn’t touch upon the importance of the area as a crossroads of Lowell, where many attractions would be less than a five-minute walk away if pedestrian accommodations were in place. However, the conclusions Aurora and I reached were clear. There are no easy answers, and those answers are limited by available funding.

Today, Aurora and I thought it would be illuminating and fun to go over the history of the Overpass and the streets it connects.

1825 map with Thorndike and Dutton highlighted

1825 basemap from UML Digital Map Collection.

Between 1821 and 1825, the first large-scale mills were built in Lowell. Dutton Street was built along the new Merrimack Canal and Thorndike Street was built to connect this intersection with a west-east highway toward Chelmsford at what is now Gallagher Square, previously Davis Square. Even then, it served as an important connection between highways leading to other cities and the downtown. Its importance only grew as the Boston and Lowell railroad was constructed soon after, crossing the canals at the same point as Thorndike.

1936 atlas pages surrounding future Lord Overpass

This map was stitched together with pages from the 1936 Franklin Survey Company Atlas at UML Digital Map Collection.

By the mid-1930s, the railroad had been extended to Nashua and the roads looked largely like they would for the next hundred years. This image is from the 1936 atlas, the last atlas to be made before the Lowell Connector and Lord Overpass were built. Here’s some points of interest:

  • Thorndike, which had been designated Route 3, ran where the east ramp is now, lined with commercial buildings on its east side.
  • The area that is taken up by the Lord Overpass used to be a train station and the Hotel Merrimack.
  • North of Pawtucket Canal, Dutton Street curved westward and made a 5-way intersection with Western, Thorndike, and Fletcher.
  • Western Avenue used to continue over the railroad tracks to connect what is now Western Ave Studios with Thorndike Street.
  • Middlesex crossed the railroad tracks at-grade, but Chelmsford Street bridged over them as it does today.
  • Jackson Street never met Thorndike, but a smaller “West Jackson Street” did.
Image: richardhowe.com

Image: richardhowe.com, original source unknown. Downtown is to the left of the image, and what is now Gallagher Terminal is to the right. The leftmost north-south street is Middlesex, and the rightmost is Appleton/Chelmsford.

This photo from the 1930s[1] shows how steep the section of Thorndike between Middlesex and Appleton/Chelmsford was, one of the issues mitigated by the Lord Overpass. At the time, the Appleton/Chelmsford/Thondike intersection was called “Crotty Circle,” with a monument to World War I soldier George Crotty added to the center in 1937.

South Common

South Common Image: Steve Conant, via richardhowe.com. What is now Gallagher Terminal is across Thorndike from the South Common.

This photo was taken a little later, after many of the buildings along Thorndike, including the Hotel Merrimack, were demolished.

In the 1950s, a strategy of modernizing Lowell was adopted. Early in the 1960s, the Lord Overpass was constructed to accommodate traffic loads that were projected into the 1980s, a sister project of the larger I-495 and Lowell Connector project. The ultimate goal of city planners was to connect the Lowell Connector to Father Morissette Boulevard in a great loop around downtown, surround downtown with parking, and create a pedestrian mall in the center. Other initiatives razed old industrial or residential buildings to provide developable, accessible lots to attract electronics and plastics manufacturing.[2]

The neighborhood between Chelmsford Street and the railroad was demolished for that reason, and most of that site today is occupied by MACOM, an electronics manufacturer.

1979 aerial

1979 image: Lowell National Historic Park, via Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth. Downtown is to the left of image, and Gallagher Terminal is in upper-right corner.

This 1979 image shows the overpass mostly as it is today, with one difference: the Sampson Connector had not yet been built. Planned in the 1970s and built in the 80s, the Sampson Connector fused together Thorndike and Dutton to ease traffic going toward downtown, making what was a practically five-way intersection into a “T” where the majority of traffic would not need to stop and turn. I am told the Sampson Connector project also removed Dutton Street’s parking lanes to create a four-lane thoroughfare. I also believe this project terminated Western Avenue at the railroad tracks, creating a lot that would become Dunkin’ Donuts.

For better or for worse, all of these projects were to ease automobile traffic and promote economic development that required automobile access. A lot could be—and has been—written about what these projects achieved and where they fell short. I feel that they tried to compete with suburbs on their terms and had only mixed success promoting development because there’s always more space for roads and cheap land in suburbs than in the city. In addition, making it easier to drive into the center of Lowell also made it easier to drive right through Lowell, facilitating suburban auto-oriented development. It’s easy to forget, however, that it might have felt as if these projects were more successful when Wang Laboratories was in town.

I’m not sure how the history of the roads and infrastructure projects could help us think about the Lord Overpass today. Missing in this examination are the traffic counts and stated goals for each of the projects. Additionally, an analysis may include the economic and property tax impact of losing prime parcels compared to improved economic performance elsewhere. Regardless, it does show that major infrastructure projects are “sticky.” Roads remained the same way for a hundred years, and we still drive on projects designed sixty years ago. Smaller projects such as road diets, one-way conversions, and bike lanes are easier to reverse if they don’t work out, but large projects stay with us a very long time.

Notes

[1] The photo is undated, but must be from before 1937, because it contains the monument, but from after the early 1930s when trolley lines were removed from Middlesex and Appleton Streets.

[2] I haven’t read Mehmed Ali’s University of Connecticut Dissertation yet, but I found several sources that cite it when recreating the urban renewal timeline.