Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

dsc_0200crop

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

dsc_0276-c

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

dsc_0275

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!

dsc_0194

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

dsc_0292

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

Advertisements
Route 38, with trees in strip

The Happiness Cost of Widening Nesmith Street?

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

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

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

How did we get here?

Black and white picture of 1981 Kittredge Park

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

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

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

1953 state taking layout

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

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

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

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

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

So, the trees should go?

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

Kittredge Park in 2013 from Life from the Roots blog

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

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

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

Route 38, with trees in strip

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

So what is the solution?

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

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

nesmithdetail

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

DSC_0055b

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.

007

010
021

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.

What’s It Like to be a Refugee in Lowell?

This is the second in a series of posts exploring immigrants and refugees in Lowell.

As Chris and I have been exploring, Lowell’s decision to be open to refugee resettlement raises tough questions. Do the financial benefits outweigh the costs of social services? Does it benefit or stress Lowell to have these waves of new folks with different cultural backgrounds and heavy emotional baggage join our communities? Chris did an amazing post analyzing the research that’s been done on these tough questions. But let’s look at maybe the most important perspective of all: what is it like to come to Lowell as a refugee, and how might they answer the questions some raise?

We spoke with Farouk Ali and his daughter Rafal, who came to Lowell in 2010 from Iraq. Farouk and Rafal are warm, joyful people, and we felt fortunate to be able to speak with them and learn their story. They, along with the rest of their nuclear family, fled Iraq for Syria after getting death threats and losing family members in the war. How many family members? 23. That is not a typo. Twenty-three. They were in Syria for four years applying for refugee status and waiting to hear what country might accept them.

The family originally hoped that they would be able to relocate to Lichtenstein, where Farouk could use his fluent German. But after more than a year of waiting, they decided to consider another option: Lowell. This part of their story makes me angry on their behalf. Image being fluent in German, and the frustration of learning that no German-speaking country was open to you. That instead of even that small head start on a new life, you’d have to learn another language.

We asked Farouk and Rafal what they knew about Lowell before coming here. “When they proposed Lowell, Massachusetts, we checked on the Wikipedia.” They saw that Massachusetts was a prosperous state, and they hoped that meant it might be easy to find a job. The reality wasn’t so simple, of course. Adjustment was a process, and arriving in 2010, in the midst of that economic downturn, was a stroke of bad luck. In Iraq, Farouk had college level degrees in Mathematics and German, and worked building databases in the Ministry of Oil. Here, it took time to find something that was a good fit, but he now works helping several nonprofit organizations to do outreach and translation for Iraqi families.

The family had to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new life. We asked them what helped them get adjusted. Farouk had a quick response: “The main help was the International Institute of Lowell. Without them, it would have been very difficult or impossible to adapt to our new surroundings. They provide us with a house, furniture, other necessary items, for free.”

The International Institute helped in other ways too: there’s a lot of paperwork new arrivals have to do, and you can imagine how difficult that might be with a language and cultural learning curve. Slowly, they got adjusted to their new lives. Rafal started school at Lowell High. Farouk remembered, “When everything was finished, and I said, ‘Okay I am going, to leave,’ she cried. She said ‘How can I communicate with the other students?'”

Rafal continued the story, “I was crying, I was like, ‘Just let me stay home, I will cook for you, I will clean the house!’ I just wanted for him to let me stay home because it was like a difficult feeling, you know? You don’t know the school, you don’t know the people. They just put you in the school, and then here you go! That’s your school, and then you have to learn and all that, and it was kind of difficult for me. Especially like the first few months.”

Farouk: “I said, ‘Are you speaking in English with them?’ And she said just one word, ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi! Hi! Hi!'”

Rafal: “Yeah, like I didn’t have friends, I was just like, ‘Hi!’ and then they’d ‘hi’ back. That’s all!”

It’s hard to imagine being a young teenager and having to deal with so many things at once, but Rafal must have found a way, because the young woman we met was confident and seemed ready to take on the world. She just graduated from Lowell High, and now she’s on to college, first to Middlesex and then transferring onward. She’s considering double majoring in Dental Hygiene and Business Administration. She won a statewide competition for high schoolers presenting business plans, and October, she went on to nationals in California. She even works at that most Massachusetts of institutions, Dunkin’ Donuts.

I asked if Lowell felt like home, if they thought they would continue to live here. Rafal thinks she will stay in Lowell. Farouk agrees: “For me, it’s a perfect place to live. A fantastic place. ”

Chris and I wondered what they expected when they came to America, and whether they found Americans friendly and welcoming.

Farouk: “We had the wrong image about American society. We were thinking that Americans are chain-smokers, reckless drivers, violent. But we found, no. The American people are quite lovely and helpful, and they provide us with whatever we needed, actually. A peaceful people as well…

“We find that American Society people are more aggressive to get in touch with you. Our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and so on. So they try to approach us, to make friends with us, and so on. So we didn’t find any problem. We use the bus, I found that Americans are all talking without knowing another one.”

I was really happy to hear that they had found Lowell to be a welcoming place. I wondered how they would respond to the question at the heart of this series of posts Chris and I are doing: Why should Lowell take in refugees?

Farouk responded, “…I feel like all the Americans society are immigrants. It’s something different from Iraq. We have a civilization or history that goes back to 7,000, 9,000 years, but the history here in America is not more than 300. So I consider that all the society is from immigrants, but the difference is that you came 10 or 20 years before me. All of us are immigrants, so we don’t feel like we are strangers here… There is admirable harmony in dealing between society, between the immigrants. No conflict whatsoever, which is good.”

What a lovely vision of Lowell, and of America. I felt energized just speaking with them about their story. To me, abstract questions about the economics of immigrants and refugees disappear in an instant when you hear a story like theirs.

Does Lowell have a moral obligation to take in refugees? I would say not only does it have the obligation, it has the privilege. Refugees may require extra help as they start over, but they have so much to offer our community. Besides, becoming a home for new Americans is one of Lowell’s defining characteristics and most important traditions. What would Lowell be without the generations of immigrants and refugees that literally built the city and dug the canals? East Chelmsford. And pretty boring, I would imagine. No offense, Chelmsford!

In the next post in our series on refugees in the community, we visit the International Institute, and learn more about how they help welcome new Lowellians like Farouk and Rafal.

Dick Howe leading tour of Lowell Cemetery

Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

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

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

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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