Change to Comment System

Hi, all,

With some great new interest in commenting on posts, we’ve changed the moderation levels on our posts, and now your comments will appear instantly without moderation. We’d like to share our philosophy on comments:

We encourage folks to comment in whatever place—Facebook or the blog—they feel most comfortable. Facebook might inspire more quickfire conversation, while the blog “archives” the comments for future readers, something we find helpful when doing research. We’ll do our best to respond to both.

We will delete any blog comments we perceive to be attacking a person or group rather than an idea. It’s okay to say, “Betty Boop is wrong that building a theme park in downtown will lure millennials to local restaurants,” but not okay to say, “Betty Boop shows herself to be an idiot again, because building a theme park won’t help downtown.” We believe wholeheartedly in free speech, but we want to keep this particular place on the internet constructive, not destructive. So far, the comments have been totally positive, so we aren’t worried that we will ever have to moderate anything, but we wanted to give a head’s up.

Thanks!
-Aurora and Chris of Learning Lowell

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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.

Sobering Moments

I was going to finish a short piece about split tax rate, but the news of the third violent gun incident in a week in Lowell has turned my attention.

Each incident happened in a different Lowell neighborhood, and one of the incidents was fatal.

I feel it is disingenuous not to take a moment to reflect on this side of Lowell. Certainly, Aurora and I both feel safe walking and living downtown. Police do not believe the first two incidents were random (they believe perpetrator and victim knew one another), and I imagine the same is true for the third, if the pattern holds. In addition, it is good that nobody seems desensitized to these type of incidents. When something like this happens, Lowellians are angry. They’re angry that stray gunfire could injure or kill innocent bystanders. They’re angry that this casts a city with award-winning nonprofits, a thriving entrepreneurial scene, and great restaurants in a negative light. Of course, they’re angry for the victims and their families.

Even so, I am very distressed that members of the community feel so desperate or choiceless that they become involved with gangs or other high-risk activities, and it is harrowing that this leads to violence and, occasionally, death. However, violence is not a surprise to me, and I do not see it as a particularly Lowellian problem. Rather, I see it as an American problem: it distresses me that these incidents happen in good cities across the nation.

At times, it almost feels frivolous to write about restaurant experiences when such troubling events occur. However, I remind myself sharing news about local businesses, cultural events, and building community is one piece of the puzzle to eliminating the environment that produces violence. For example, Aurora recently wrote about the Merrimack Valley Time Bank. The childcare that a time bank member might offer to a mother or father might have an immeasurable impact on that child and parent’s life. Not only the service is important, but also the support network that comes along with that service.

Restaurants as meeting places, the city’s efforts in economic development, the efforts of the police to increase patrols and disrupt gangs: these all may potentially impact Lowell’s health as a community. It’s why we want to keep focus on them. We welcome your comments below or in facebook.

The social media landscape of Lowell: Social Media Conference Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about social media and Lowell. The first two are here and here. We aren’t covering a chronological recap of the final session of the Social Media Conference, but rather have organized thoughts by theme. Dick Howe moderated the final portion of the conference, and he opened it up with what may be its theme:

The more likely people feel connected to the place, the more likely they are to act… and I think only good things can come from that… No doubt there is crime going on. But I think because we don’t routinely talk to neighbors or people on our street, we kind of feel a sense of isolation. And that feeds on this anxiety of life in the city.

Mr. Howe argued that therefore, we should ask how social media can bring people together and build community.

The Echo Chamber of Social Media

One of the largest themes was that Lowell’s current social media scene is an “echo chamber.” Not only do new people not necessarily see information, but the plugged-in group of people see information again and again. An audience member revealed republicans and libertarians are afraid to talk in online groups filled with more progressive ideologies because they’re afraid of being attacked. I tend to agree that the Lowell social media sphere I’ve participated in is much like other online forums: quickly dismissive of alternate viewpoints and insular. But it’s also important to remember: People generally enjoy being with people of similar viewpoints, and they will form communities, whether online or “in real life.” Also, I argue there are social media commons where culture, dining, or other interest groups may be formed. (For examples, the UML reddit and Meetup.com meetups near Lowell.)

On the other hand, places for apolitical discussion won’t necessarily increase civic participation. One approach Learning Lowell takes is having broad subject matter. Although the topic remains tightly focused on Lowell, we explore many sides of Lowell: political, cultural, and historical. Hopefully, those visiting to read about one topic will have their interest piqued in a different topic. Our audience is similarly broad: We write for other newcomers who want an easy entry into the world of Lowell. We write for folks who regularly visit Lowell blogs, but might appreciate a fresh take on familiar subjects. Finally, we write for friends and family outside of Lowell who might want to know more about what this unique (and alive and inspiring) city is like. Each of those groups may come for something different, but be inspired by the other posts.

Lowell Social Media Conference audience

“Audience as Panel” was a success for the final session.

Blogs and Facebook: Competing or Cooperating Roles?

This leads into another topic: Lynne and Mimi from Left in Lowell discussed why they post less. It’s no secret blogging is time consuming, and this contributes to burnout. More intriguing was that Facebook changed the social media landscape. Where once, discussion happened in the comments section of a blog post, now it happens in Facebook. Mr. Howe even said that he prefers readers comment on Facebook so that comments are tied to commenters, not his blog. Soben Pin, publisher of Khmer Post USA [1], suggested that commenting on Facebook appeals to some because one can “think out loud” and not feel obligated to have a final, fully-baked comment. An audience member suggested that blogs may do quick recaps of Facebook threads to pull out notable comments.

Despite Facebook’s utility, Ms. Pin highlighted the important place of blogs aside it and traditional media:

I would commend those of you who write blogs. Continue to write blogs. Don’t give credit to people who would print anything to Facebook as more credible than you are. The reason why is that there is ethics of journalism that owns up to people who write blogs. You have to quote sources, you have first-hand information, and you own up to that information. There’s strong ethics in that.

She argued that Facebook is an excellent tool for engagement and sharing, but the additional research bloggers do “to find out more” is just as important a function. The mention of “blogging ethics” intrigued me. There is no one code of ethics for bloggers similar to the code journalists recognize, and I personally do not believe amateurs such as myself can take the place of professional journalists. Nevertheless, there is something about blog post’s permanence that demands a high standard of ethics. I did admittedly little research before starting blogging, but I have found an interesting post about weblog ethics compared to journalistic standards (incidentally, the first hit when one googles “blog ethics”).

Engaging a Broader Audience

Soben Pin

Soben Pin of Khmer Post USA

Ms. Pin also highlighted that the reason for Khmer Post USA’s success is relevance and convenience. [2] How can we make media convenient for those who aren’t plugged into the “blogosphere?” One audience member recalled NewsHour 6, a local cable news program in the 90s, and suggested a similar, neutral news program produced with help from LTC may create interest in local issues. A smaller step may be to encourage folks who follow sites like richardhowe.com to share weekly news updates or other items of interest with their Lowellian friends.

Fru Nkimbeng, a local Cameroonian-American activist who hosts “African Hour” on LTC, voiced an opinion that for “the mainstream bloggers, it might also be a good idea, when you’re going on a journey… to look back and hold the hands of those who are slow.” He suggested African communities are slow to follow the blog community, and that bloggers should reach out to them. I hope to talk to him about how we as a community could do this. He also reminded the audience that immigrants from Africa come from many distinct countries and form distinct communities. The African Cultural Association strives to be an umbrella organization for these distinct communities.

Moving from Social Media to “Social”

Bill Samaras, former Lowell High School headmaster and future City Councillor, stressed the importance of myriad avenues of discussion in the work he did to reach out to communities. Morning, afternoon, and night meetings, meetings at churches. Getting into the community and utilizing all devices, including social media, is integral. The audience discussed strategies to engage Lowellians and grow a feeling of connectedness. Suggestions included potlucks, welcome wagon visits or packets to new residents, and a free citizens’ civic engagement academy. One idea that generated some discussion involved a single-location platform or aggregator for announcements and information. I’ve found this oddly difficult for cities of a certain size, as arts and culture filter to magazines like Howl, official city news comes on city websites, and nonprofit announcements end up on community calendars. There’s definitely cross-posting, but never agreement on a one-stop calendar.

The event ended with an audience brainstorm of future conference topics. One was other forms of social media used by young people such as snapchat and other mobile apps (Aurora mentions 2 others: Reddit and Tumblr). Another was creating social media objectives and developing measurable metrics/quantitative indicators. Mr. Howe asked for those with thoughts to contact him, and encouraged everyone interested to continue the discussion both online and over coffee or beer.

Audience of social media conference

At a social media conference, using your smartphone is encouraged! Left: Fru Nkimbeng, Speaking: Paul Marion

My personal thoughts revolve around target audiences. Many were discussed: immigrant populations, politically disengaged, young people, and renters, to name a few. I would like to add another audience: UML and MCC students do not seem to me to engage with Lowell, and they are fairly unimpressed with the city. It isn’t necessary to cater to all students (in every college town I’ve lived in, the students haven’t liked the college town as much as “back home” in NYC/Boston/Chicago), but Lowell’s strengths may appeal to a certain subset of students. I believe we should determine what the community’s objectives are for each of those targets, what the population of each of those targets are, and how engaged that population already is. Then we can ask how those targets engage with media, and how we can showcase the strengths of Lowell that they would care about.

-Notes-

1. Soben Pin is a publisher of a free Khmer Post USA, a free Khmer-language biweekly Newspaper with a circulation of 10,000 (5,000 in Lowell). It covers topics relevant to the local and regional Cambodian community. The website has an archive of current and previous issues, and some articles are in English. I recommend folks who speak English as a first language check it out and see what a large portion of Lowell’s population reads and finds relevant.

2. I was surprised by the response from Ms. Pin to a question how many local election candidates reached out to Khmer Post USA. She revealed that while several reached out, several others Khmer Post had to reach out to. Mr. Howe noted that many candidates bought ads in the Khmer Post. Notably, Ms. Pin credited Derek Mitchell specifically for reaching out multiple times and “presenting himself very well in the editorial meeting.”