I’m more convinced than ever that the artists complex called Western Avenue Studios (WAS), with its base of nearly 300 resident artists, should have an easily accessible route to and from downtown and the city’s historic district. I was there yesterday with my UMass Lowell faculty colleague Adam Baacke and our combined classes of 36 students from the special first-year seminar of the Honors College, essentially “Introduction to Lowell.” (About 550 students are enrolled in this semester-long immersion in Lowell, an innovative course that was highlighted in a WBZ-Radio report last week.) I know City officials and the City Council are studying how to address the WAS access challenge.
Artist Maxine Farkas hosted our visit. She’s been involved at WAS since 2005, and now lives in one of the spacious lofts that are part of the five-acre complex between the Pawtucket Canal and railroad track whose main entry is off School Street. Three other artists helped guide the students around in small groups.
There’s no quick and safe way to reach this hive of creative and business activity from downtown, even though you can see it from Thorndike Street near the Dunkin’ Donuts. Local risk-takers are known to scamper over the railroad tracks to reach the Dunkin’s parking lot as a path to downtown. It’s a matter of being yards away but a half-mile apart by regular streets.
The students, ninety percent of them from outside of Lowell, were blown away by the scope and scale of the art complex, which is described as the largest concentration of artist studios in the northeast of the country. Largest. In Lowell. Is it popular among artists? There are waiting lists for the studio and loft portions of the project. Student reactions ranged from “I had no idea something like this existed in the city” to “I want to live there.” We met painters, sculptors, book-binders, jewelers, card-makers, letter-press printers, glass-blowers, stained-glass artisans, graphic designers, potters and ceramicists, fabric artists, writers, and more.
The former manufacturing center (producing seat coverings for furniture and vehicles for most of its business life) doesn’t have a flashy exterior, but once inside you feel like you are walking through a kaleidoscope. Every wall surface, corner, and corridor is visually active. From fine art to craft items to more commercial products, the array of sales items is remarkable. WAS contains more than 200 small businesses, compact production centers whose owners are selling on site, bringing dollars to Lowell, and exporting their products, bringing more dollars to Lowell. We met an artist who was on her way to a gift shop in Concord, Mass., that carries her hand-made stuffed animals. Another artist talked to us about how effective social media has been for her as a sales outlet: Facebook and Instagram. There is nothing in the “3M District,” Merrimack-Middle-Market streets, that matches the depth and breadth of WAS for gift shopping.
In lieu of a shorter driving or walking route from downtown, would WAS benefit from a satellite shop on Merrimack Street combined with a colorful shuttle van to run people back and forth on a loop like rental-car operations at airports?
Transportation planners, traffic engineers, and public officials will have to come together to find a way to bridge the gap between downtown and WAS. The city is missing opportunities every day, whether in the sense of quality of life experience through people’s exposure to this arts hub or simple economic development. Is it overland by the train tracks, on the water via canal like the national park boats, in the air with a distinctive pedestrian bridge? People with more experience in these matters than me are needed. All I am saying is, “Give WAS a (better) chance.”