The following is an excerpt from Charlie Gargiulo’s memoir about growing up in Lowell’s Little Canada neighborhood in the 1960s during the time when political leaders had targeted the area for wholesale destruction in service of an economic redevelopment policy fueled by government money. The process was called Urban Renewal, and the policy of razing blocks and blocks of residences and business properties was eventually abandoned because of the collateral social, cultural, and economic damage that was caused. Motivated by what he had seen happen in Little Canada, Charlie was instrumental in saving parts of the Acre neighborhood from being demolished and helped lead efforts by the Coalition for a Better Acre to improve the quality of life where they lived.—PM
Farewell, Little Canada: An Excerpt
By Charles Gargiulo © 2017
. . .
Within a couple of weeks of school starting another bombshell hit. City officials announced a whole bunch of new buildings were going to be torn down in Little Canada, including all the apartments on our side of Ford Street. This included the building that Al and Henry lived in on the corner of Ford and Austin Street. So, it was goodbye Henry. When his family moved to Lawrence, he was gone for good. Fortunately, Al and his family got a place on the other side of the North Common, about a half a mile away. Although he wasn’t going to be around every day, he was at least close enough that we could still get to see each other occasionally. But this news was the worst blow yet. Only a miracle could save the rest of Little Canada from the wrecking ball. I kept wondering who these “urban renewal” people were and how they could get away with this and why, WHY wasn’t anybody stopping them?
They had already started destroying things on the other side of the canal and farther down Moody Street, near Downtown, and now the number of buildings being abandoned or being readied for demolition was increasing like plague victims. People remaining in Little Canada must have felt like people in the Middle Ages when the Black Death hit, watching their neighbors dropping like flies and wondering when they and their loved ones were going to get it. We had no idea what was behind it or how to stop it.
I was afraid to visit my Aunt Rose because I didn’t know what to say to comfort her. She wasn’t stupid, so I knew she must have figured out our backs were against the wall. “Urban renewal” was almost on our doorstep. I’m not proud to say I avoided visiting her for about a week after the Ford Street families were thrown out. I was so depressed about everything that I was afraid she would see how upset I was and it would make her feel even worse.
More people were leaving all the time. It seemed like every week when I did my tonic bottle collection route there would be more empty apartments where families moved out. Very few new families took those vacant places. It was not only sad, it started to feel creepy. Not only were we surrounded by abandoned and boarded-up buildings, the properties that had people living in them seemed to be slowly dying. Tenements once filled with tons of families bustling up and down the stairs greeting each other in the hallways and streets now had a trickle of people living in them. Empty apartments were inhabited by the memories of friendly neighbors. People who greeted each other on the streets and talked about all kinds of things now just barely said hello. If they stopped at all it was to tell the other person that they had received their notice to move or to share stories about who they knew in the neighborhood who were gone or going.
Businesses started moving out. Ouellette’s Diner closed, which meant Harvey must have been looking for another place where he could buy meal tickets for Captain Jack. The stupid tiny gas station closed, which meant Mr. Berra had to find some other place to terrorize kids. And then the Holiday Diner shut down. That was my favorite place to eat and where I got to see Al’s Mom while she was working.
One place that was busy though, was the stupid “Urban Renewal” office. Families who were being thrown out had to go there after they got their notice so these creeps could “help” them relocate. The worst part of that damn place was that it was on the corner of Austin and Moody streets, in direct eyeshot of my Aunt Rose when she sat looking out the second-floor window in her Austin Street apartment. She could see all the people being forced out of Little Canada marching into and out of that place to get sent on their way. They might as well have put up a big neon sign flashing in her face saying, “We’re Coming to Get You Rose, and your little Doggie too!”
I finally got the nerve to visit her and, sure enough, when I got there she was sitting in her chair by the window, clutching her rosary beads, with her eyes fixed on the Urban Renewal office. Even though it was only a little over a week since I saw her, she looked like she was a lot older. I’m sure you think I must be imagining it, but I’m telling you she had aged years in just that time. There were dark circles under her eyes, her hair had more silver streaks, and her face was sagging so much it looked like she was melting.
But when I heard her voice, it really broke my heart. I could barely hear her speak when she told me Uncle Clarence and Daisy were out shopping. She sounded as weak as somebody who had been pushing a boulder up a mountain and had no strength or energy left. She asked me how my broken arm was and how school was going, so I lied and told her they both were going very well. I also didn’t tell her anything about Al or Henry being kicked out.
She told me she had missed watching me playing outside on Austin Street since I broke my arm. I told her not to worry and that I would be out there again doing things as soon as it healed. I felt so bad because I knew that the main reason I wasn’t out there as often was because so many of my friends were gone. In fact, I only had Richie, Paul, Billy, and Dave left. The day I visited her I learned that Donna, Frenchie, and Bum were all moving. They’d be gone in two weeks. Bum’s father would still be running Benny the Jips, but they were moving to Centralville across the river. Donna’s family was moving to Shaughnessey Terrace, the same tough housing project where Dicky relocated. Unlike Dicky, however, Donna could take care of herself. Frenchie and his family decided to move back to Quebec. I still hadn’t taken this all in when I was visiting my Aunt Rose. I was miserable about losing so many friends. We had the best gang in history, and it was being blown apart by this lousy Urban Renewal. But as bad as that made me feel, it was nothing compared to the pain and fear I felt about them taking our building and forcing my Aunt Rose out. This was killing her. I could see it.
I asked her if the priest was still coming to see her, and she said she was very upset with him. She said that when she asked him if they were finally going to stop throwing people out, he told her that it was up to God. I saw her face get red, and for a moment she got angry and snapped, “Up to God! The nerve! I told him that was blasphemous. I told him God had nothing to do with it. PEOPLE were doing this, and the church didn’t care and was letting them do it and hiding behind God. They knew what was happening, and they lied to us when we kept asking them if our homes were in danger of being taken. I told him to get out and never come back and that God would judge them someday.” Then she started crying.
Just as I started to hug her, Uncle Clarence and Daisy opened the door to the apartment. They both rushed over. Uncle Clarence already knew what was wrong as he patted my head and kissed Aunt Rose’s cheek and told her that somebody downtown told him that certain buildings would not be touched, and we needed to pray that our building would be spared. He heard that the Club Passé Temps and the row houses on Cabot were not going down, and since they were close to us maybe we’d be okay. He was told that was definite.
This seemed to calm Aunt Rose a tiny bit, and then he said, “I just bought some food, and I’m going to bake my special apple pie that you love. I got one of Daisy’s favorite soup bones at the market, so hang around Charlie and we’ll have a special dessert together.” Daisy slowly nuzzled up to Aunt Rose like she always did. After Aunt Rose petted her she came to me so I could pet her, but I noticed she didn’t bound over like she usually did because she seemed sad. After I petted her she went right back to Aunt Rose and stayed by her side every second, instead of hanging out with Uncle Clarence in the kitchen while he was making dinner as she usually would do.
When I went home that night I felt like my whole world was falling apart. It was a real live nightmare, and I felt helpless. I started praying myself, begging God to help us and spare my Aunt Rose, protect my Mom and give me the strength to not lose my temper at school or with my friends. I tried to focus on the one important bit of good news I heard from Uncle Clarence. He said that the row houses on Cabot Street were not coming down, which meant my best friend Richie was safe because that’s where he lived.