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.

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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.

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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.

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.
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!

The Art of History, the History of Art: Visiting the Whistler House

James M Whistler Statue in Lowell MA

James McNeil Whistler denied he was from Lowell later in his life. Maybe he just didn’t like the snow.

We got an email recently from one of our favorite active Lowellians, Jack Moynihan, wondering: had we ever written about the Whistler House Museum? With the exception of an early post about a Parker Lecture, somehow no, we haven’t!

So, thanks to Jack, we paid a special visit to the Whistler House with our blogging goggles on. It was an especially good refresher for me, because I haven’t visited since I started working for the National Park, and visitors often want to know what you can see at the Whistler House. Short answer: art with a local connection. The collection focuses on art representational art, and it is strongest in the 1800s and early 1900s. Almost the entire collection has a Lowell or New England connection: the art could be by a local artist, or depicting local scenes and people, or collected by local people. Jack led us on a tour of the house, talking about the works and their history.

The Art

We believe art is both individual and communal: pieces speak differently to different people, but talking about art allows us to understand the artist, the subject, and each other better. In that spirit, we’re sharing both of our reactions, and would love to hear yours in the comments:

Aurora: My personal favorites are the pieces that connect to Lowell’s history. I’ve often enjoyed looking at the reproduction of this almost bucolic scene of Lowell in its early factory days at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, so its fun to see the real thing. There are several paintings that interpret Lowell and the surrounding countryside.

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

Chris: A true-to-scale reproduction of Whistler’s most famous painting in the “Francis Room” of the house feels heavy and dark like the portraits of “important men” throughout the museum. However, Jack revealed that the original painting wasn’t so dark. In 1906, when Whistler’s cousin made the copy, the original had deteriorated. A small photo of the original next to the copy shows how the original had since been restored to its intended, brighter look. The copy remains an artifact showing how millions of people saw the painting and moved me to reflect on the ephemeral and perceptional nature of what we consider “great.”

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of famous artwork, the Whistler House can provide. The detail of Whistler’s expressive etchings on display on the second floor dazzled us, and John Singer Sargent’s sketch showed his process for the stunning Boston Public Library mural.

The History

There’s always some overlap between an art museum and a history museum, but at Whistler House the Venn Diagram is almost just a circle. Once again, different elements spoke to us differently:

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Aurora: Of course the house is the birthplace of James McNeil Whistler, an innovative artist most popularly famous for painting a dour portrait of his mother. But art history is bound up tightly with our city’s history, because Whistler the artist was the son of Whistler the engineer, an important figure in his own right. A master engineer of his historical moment, George Washington Whistler designed railroads, canals, and aqueducts, and trains. That’s not the end of the history connection, either. The building actually was home to several generations of notable engineers, including inventor Paul Moody and “Chief of Police of the Water” James B. Francis.

Chris: It’s notable that the house has been the home of the Lowell Art Association since 1908. The permanent collection represents what the art association found interesting, what it was given, what it strove to collect over the years since its start in 1878. Walking through the halls of the museum is like walking through the historic tastes of art enthusiasts and experts of generations of Lowellians.

The building itself has been restored and maintained by the Art Association and is beautiful in its own right.

Making Art and History

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Dave Drinon in the Artist-in-Residence stuio

One especially neat thing the Whistler House does is feature an artist-in-residence. If you’ve spent any time at all in Lowell’s galleries, you’ve probably seen Dave Drinon’s work. He paints New England landscapes and cityscapes, and his work is often at the Brush Gallery, and he’s a Western Ave artist as well. I realized when I got home why his work looked so familiar: we have a magnet with one of his Lowell scenes on our fridge. He is helping organize a group of artists who will paint on the streets during the next Folk Festival.

Their changing exhibits are often worthwhile and interesting, and I especially recommend the current one. “Pursuing Justice Through Art: 2015” is the second annual exhibition dealing with genocide, culminating in a symposium happening Saturday the 18th starting at 1pm. If you haven’t been to the Whistler House before (or lately) this would be an excellent time to visit.  The exhibit is moving and thought-provoking, with some works that are disturbing, others deeply sad, and some that suggest healing and peace. It reminded me of the expression that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.

The Whistler House is also a participating in Downtown’s “First Thursdays” initiative, a collaboration of museums and businesses for special events, discounts, and later hours designed to grow the downtown scene. Chris and I have enjoyed this series, and the Whistler has been an active participant, hosting lectures and music.

We imagine a number of our readers have never ventured to the Whistler House, but there really does seem to be something for everyone! A visitor from another blog put it well: “After all, where else could you see Whistler’s father?” It’s open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm, on Worthen Street in Lowell.

The number of Lowell institutions we’ve never written a post about should in theory be getting shorter, but there always seem to be new things to write about, and our stack of “we should write a post about this” ideas just seems to get longer.  If we’ve never written about your favorite Lowell stuff and you’re wondering why, the answer is that probably nobody has given us a gentle shove in that direction yet. Let us know!

Images from “Pursuing Justice through Art: 2015”

The works are from both local and out-of-town artists.

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Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.

Happy Anniversary, Learning Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

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