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Lowell Politics: July 21, 2024

Another summer gap for Lowell City Council meetings so let’s revisit Lowell political history this week. Not long ago while researching Civil Rights lawsuit brought against Lowell for segregation and unequal treatment of minority students in the public schools in the mid-1980s, I was struck by how many other things were going on in Lowell at that time. So today I’ll look at some of the big political stories in Lowell politics of the 1980s, tales that will refresh the memory of longtime residents and introduce those new to the city to some events that still influence local politics today. Instead of a chronological narrative, we’ll go topic-by-topic.

Rise of Wang Laboratories – Wang Laboratories was a computer company founded in Cambridge in the 1950s by Dr. An Wang, a Chinese immigrant who earned a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard. Wang Labs moved to Tewksbury in 1963 and then to Lowell in 1976. The company was best known for its dedicated word processors, but it made many computer products. Along with Digital Equipment, Data General, Prime Computer, Lotus Development and Apollo Computer, Wang helped Massachusetts compete with Silicon Valley for dominance in the computer industry. By 1980, Wang had $3 billion in annual revenue and employed 30,000, making it the largest employer in Lowell. That same year, the company broke ground on its world headquarters on outer Chelmsford Street. Soon, three interconnected 14-story office towers with 1.2 million square feet of space loomed over the Highlands. In 1985, Wang opened its world-wide training headquarters on East Merrimack Street. Wang customers from across the world were to come to this state-of-the-art educational facility to learn of the latest Wang products. Wang continued to ride high into the 1990s, but the death of Dr. Wang, weak leadership from his successor and son, Fred Wang, and changes in the computer industry caused Wang to falter. The company’s lenders foreclosed on the Towers in 1994 with the new owner renaming it Cross Point, and the downtown training center was sold to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for use as Middlesex Community College.

Lowell Hilton Hotel – US Senator and Lowell native Paul Tsongas believed that for the city to reach its full potential, it needed a big downtown hotel. He and City Manager Joe Tully recruited Rhode Island based hotel developer Arthur Robbins to consider the project. When Robbins expressed doubt about the viability of a downtown hotel, the city offered to build a 1,000-space parking garage adjacent to the hotel and to reconfigure the road network leading from the Lowell Connector to the hotel to ease the arrival of hotel guests. However, the deal was only sealed when Tsongas and Tully got Wang Labs to agree to book 60 percent of the rooms in the hotel year-round to house Wang trainees who would be coming to Lowell for multi-week classes at the adjacent Wang Training Center which was just across the Pawtucket Canal from the proposed hotel. That sold Robbins on the project and the 351 room Lowell Hilton opened to rave reviews in 1985. However, by the end of the decade Wang’s business had collapsed as did the hotel’s occupancy rate. Hilton ultimately abandoned the franchise and successive ownership groups tried unsuccessfully to make the hotel work as a Holiday Inn and then as a Doubletree. Finally, in 2010, UMass Lowell purchased the building and renamed it the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center although recently the University reverted the building to the Commonwealth which has used it to provide refugee housing.

Arrival of Lowell National Historical Park – The leadership of the National Park Service initially opposed the creation of a park in Lowell, but a united city led by US Senator Paul Tsongas and his predecessors in Congress Brad Morse and Paul Cronin, relentlessly and successfully pushed the project. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation that created the Lowell National Historical Park. The mission of the Lowell park was twofold: to tell the story of the Industrial Revolution in America; and to tell the story of immigration. One of the concerns of NPS leadership was that many of the mill buildings and ancillary historical structures had been demolished already (mostly in ill-conceived Urban Renewal projects in earlier decades). Tsongas, however, emphasized that the centerpiece of the Lowell Park should be the canals and the stories of the people who had worked here. Consequently, the National Park service took ownership of just a handful of properties. Perhaps more importantly, the legislation also created the 15-member Lowell Historic Preservation Commission to administer the “preservation district” (which was almost all of downtown Lowell) and provide other, related services. A major mission of the LHPC was to encourage private property owners to renovate their buildings in accordance with historic preservation standards. To facilitate this, the LHPC controlled large pools of money that could be lent to building owners at favorable rates in exchange for compliance with historic standards. The success of this effort helped transform the appearance of the downtown in a way that still benefits residents today.

Paul Tsongas leaves the US Senate – On January 13, 1984, US Senator Paul Tsongas stunned the political world with his announcement that he would not seek reelection to a second term in the Senate in that year’s election. He had been diagnosed with cancer at age 43, and he would devote his energy to treating the disease and working in the private sector to help provide for the future of his three young children. Although he left the Senate, Tsongas stayed involved in Lowell politics, particularly in economic development and reforming the public schools. Still, having a US Senator with growing seniority from Lowell would have been to the city’s great benefit (Tsongas was succeeded in the Senate by John Kerry). A bone marrow transplant in 1986 led to a “clean bill of health” in 1991. This prompted Tsongas to run for President in 1992 but he lost the Democratic Primary to Bill Clinton. Tsongas returned to Lowell with unrelenting civic vigor, however, the cancer returned and he died on January 18, 1997, at age 55.

Fight over Trash-to-Energy Plant – Sometime prior to 1965, the city of Lowell constructed a trash incinerator on outer Westford Street on the grounds of the city dump. By 1973, each day the Lowell incinerator was burning 360 tons of trash from Lowell, Chelmsford, Bedford, Carlisle and from commercial trash haulers. The incinerator operated 24 hours per day with three shifts. But in 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency forced the shutdown of the incinerator which repeatedly had been cited for violating state and federal air pollution standards. The city began dumping its trash directly in the landfill which until then was the resting place of the toxic ash leftover from incinerating trash. Environmental concerns about the landfill and its limited size forced the city to pay more and more to haul its trash elsewhere.

Lowell was not alone in the need for new ways to dispose of trash. The refuse industry proposed massive “trash-to-energy” plants that would generate electricity from burning rubbish. The industry maintained that new technology made this “safe” and compliant with federal regulations (although at the time the federal government did not regulate things like arsenic, cadmium, or dioxins when it came to burning trash).

In 1986, Lowell City Manager Joe Tully struck a tentative deal with Browning Ferris Industries, a massive nationwide “waste management” firm, to build such a plant on the site of the former city incinerator on Westford Street. Although Lowell produced just 300 tons of trash per day, this plant would burn 1500 tons per day with rubbish being trucked into the facility from across the region. In exchange for siting the plant in the city, Lowell would pay no fee to dispose of its trash. The city council was giddy with excitement over this plant, passing preliminary matters in a series of 8 to 1 votes with Councilor Richard Howe as the sole council opponent. Residents of the Highlands neighborhood, however, were not as enthused and a group began organizing in opposition to the plant because of concerns over increased truck traffic and environmental safety. The city administration, BFI consultants, and Lowell Sun editorial writers were all harshly critical of the neighborhood group but the Highlands Council, as the group was called, persisted with a vigorous grassroots effort that led the city council on May 20, 1987, to unanimously REJECT the proposal in what the Lowell Sun called “one of the most remarkable political turnarounds in city history.”

“The Shadow” and the Lowell Police Department – In a front-page story in the November 2, 1987, Boston Globe titled “Police squabbles in Lowell cast pall on city’s comeback,” reporter Kevin Cullen explained that while Lowell’s recent prosperity had become the centerpiece of Governor Michael Dukakis’s “Massachusetts Miracle” narrative, the city also had some problems including widespread illegal gambling, massage parlors that were fronts for prostitution, and the city becoming the region’s major cocaine distribution point. To that Cullen added, “Against such a background, a police department beset by internal squabbling can become a public safety liability, and a destabilizing force in Lowell’s comeback.” What was Cullen referring to? You need only look at the opening paragraph of his article for the answer:

“LOWELL – The good news at the Lowell Police Department is that last week they finally settled that lawsuit against the police officer who urinated on a prisoner. The bad news is, that’s the good news. For the last two years, the goings-on at the 190-member police department have played like a racy TV miniseries. Two years ago, in the middle of heated police contract negotiations, someone posted on a station bulletin board some letters signed by “The Shadow.” The letter accused the police chief of playing favorites and of ignoring misconduct by those favorites. The letters also contained some ugly innuendo . . .”

“The Shadow” so engulfed the police department and City Hall that at times, there seemed to be more effort spent trying to identify “The Shadow” than there was on fighting crime. Eventually, the police chief retired and “The Shadow” controversy faded into the background, but for several years in the late 1980s it fractured the police department and often diverted the attention of the city manager and city council from more pressing problems facing the city.

“The Bookie Tapes” – In May 1987, a Middlesex County grand jury indicted 19 persons, including a Lowell police officer and a Middlesex County police officer, in connection with a Lowell-based gambling and loan sharking ring that was “aided and patronized by public officials.” The investigation had been conducted by State Police assigned to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. The Globe, citing sources in the State Police and the Middlesex DA’s office, reported that one of those arrested, 57-year-old Jackie McDermott, was the leader of the gambling operation and “was the chief organized crime figure in Lowell.”

Five months later as these cases worked their way through the justice system, the Boston Herald ran an explosive multi-day series of front-page stories called “The Bookie Tapes.” On October 24, 1987, the headline read, “Dirty dealings in Lowell, gamblers tied to bid for city office.” As part of the investigation, the State Police had used extensive wiretaps, including one on McDermott’s phone. The transcripts of the wiretaps, which the Herald somehow had access to, revealed a series of telephone conversations between McDermott and several city officials in which they discussed their efforts to get Michael McLaughlin of Billerica, a Middlesex County Commissioner and the head of the Lowell Housing Authority, elected as city manager back in January 1987 after the resignation of Joe Tully. Among those recorded was City Councilor Gus Coutu, who the tapes elsewhere disclosed, owed a $10,000 gambling debt to McDermott (although law enforcement officials emphasized that Coutu was a victim of loansharking and not a suspect in the investigation).

These disclosures obviously put that city manager selection in a different light. That vote had been taken on January 7, 1987. Jim Campbell, who had been the assistant city manager under Joe Tully, was elected city manager receiving votes from Mayor Robert Kennedy and Councilors Brian Martin, Armand LeMay, Richard O’Malley and Ray Rourke. McLaughlin received votes from Coutu, Brendan Fleming and Kathy Kelley. Councilor Richard Howe voted for City Clerk William Busby.

In the course of this prosecution, it was also disclosed that while running the gambling operation, McDermott had also been an informant for the FBI. Several months after that, McDermott was shot and killed by William Barnoski inside McDermott’s Carroll Parkway home. Barnoski, identified in the media as an organized crime enforcer, and his wife were later convicted of McDermott’s murder.

Federal Investigation of Political Corruption – On September 2, 1988, the Boston Globe reported that former Lowell city manager B. Joseph Tully, who had resigned in late 1986 after serving as city manager since 1979, had been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with a 1985 swap of land between the city and the company that owned the Lowell Ford car dealership. Both parcels were adjacent to the city’s land fill off Westford and Stedman Streets. The indictment ended a three year long FBI investigation of several real estate developments in Lowell, although these were the only charges that resulted. In December 1988, a Federal jury found Tully guilty of one count of attempted extortion and three counts of mail fraud.

Massachusetts Miracle – In 1975, the unemployment rate in Lowell was 13 percent, which was the highest in the nation for a city its size. Ten years later Lowell’s unemployment rate was 3 percent, and the economy was booming. So was the rest of Massachusetts, mostly riding the wave of the computer and financial services industries. At the same time, the economy in much of the rest of the country was depressed. This imbalance was a big factor in the “secondary migration” that brought thousands of Cambodian immigrants from their initial homes in the United States to Lowell. It also propelled Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis into the 1988 presidential race. After defeating Democrats Joe Biden, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, Dukakis faced incumbent vice president George H.W. Bush in November. The Bush-Quayle ticket won a landslide victory over Dukakis-Bentsen with the Republicans winning 54 percent of the nationwide popular vote and 426 electoral votes to just 111 for the Democrats. Dukakis returned to Massachusetts to finish his term as governor but that coincided with a collapse of the state’s economy at the start of the 1990s. In Lowell, the fallout included the bankruptcy of Wang, the liquidation of several century-old city banks, and home foreclosure rates 30 percent higher than in the worst years of the Great Recession of 2008.

School Desegregation Lawsuit and Settlement – As I mentioned at the start, all of the events described above were a backdrop to the struggle over desegregating the city’s schools that played out at the same time. If you haven’t already read my story about that, you can find it on my website, richardhowe.com.

Hasselblads on the Moon

David Daniel offers this story in honor of the anniversary of the July 20, 1969 Moon Landing.

Hasselblads on the Moon

By David Daniel

In a bar last night, dude I know says: You want a pristine Hasselblad camera? You can have it for free.

Okay, wise guy, I say. What’s the catch?

No catch.

No catch. A Hasselblad camera. Yeah right.

Straight up. But to get it you’ve gotta go to the moon.

He wasn’t kidding. I checked Google. During the Apollo lunar missions of 1969 to ‘72 American astronauts had to make a choice. They wanted to bring moon rocks back to Earth—a load of less than sixty pounds—but it wasn’t like the airport, where you can check an extra bag. That spacecraft was pretty cramped, and weight was an issue. So they left a dozen Hasselblad cameras, the very ones they’d used to shoot those lonely lunar landscapes we’ve all seen. Feature that. Hasselblads, just lying there like beer cans along a Granite State highway.

Couldn’t some follow-up mission have retrieved them? And what other gear, not counting Titleist golf balls (made in the Bay State), might be half-lifing away up there, just a quarter million miles out of reach? Other stuff that’d make some Earthling’s life easier.

And speaking of that, how come no one but Americans ever went to the Moon?

The Hasselblad is a very fine piece of optical machinery, made in Sweden. The 70 mm Hasselblad 500s were fitted with precision-built German Zeiss lenses (also very fine machinery—like almost everything German-made, excepting, of course, their World War II Reich-of-a-Thousand-Years meat grinder, which ultimately, thank God, proved to be shit). The Hasselblads cost $12,000 apiece x 12.

That’s a lot of cheddar to lay out in exchange for some rocks, which we’ve got an abundance of on earth already. But there the cameras sit, patient in the cratered dust, waiting for me, or someone like me, to go fetch them. Hard to believe it’s been 55 years ago this month.

I mean, hell, if I’d had one of those Hasselblads back then I might be a wedding photographer now, or a staff shooter for the Sierra Club and you’d see my images of Mt. Whitney in autumn and the Painted Desert on your datebook calendar, right next to where you write in your dentist appointment or your ex-husband’s new girlfriend’s phone number.

Though who can say? Most people keep all that stuff on their phone now. And anyway, maybe I’d have sold the camera for a couple mini moon rocks of crack and I’d be the strung-out ghost on the street lying to you each morning saying he wants a cup of coffee when, deep inside, what he really wants, like all of us, is another chance.

Living Madly: Enchanted Dawn

Photo by Melanie

Living Madly: Enchanted Dawn

By Emilie-Noelle Provost

For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself a morning person. Getting up before seven o’clock always felt like work, a sentiment that was reinforced when my daughter was a toddler. She refused to sleep later than five a.m. no matter what time she had gone to bed.

Five years ago, when my husband and I began hiking in the White Mountains on a regular basis, we started getting up before sunrise most weekend mornings—sometimes as early as three a.m. during the COVID-19 lockdown—in order to find parking at trailheads. Factoring in the two- to three-hour drive and the length of our planned hike, we usually try to be on the trail between seven and eight in the morning in order to have time to make it back to the car before dark.

Even though I don’t have to commute, getting out of bed before six o’clock has become something of a habit. I don’t use an alarm clock. This time of year, when the sun is up before five, I’m often awake at first light.

There’s something magical about being up very early in the morning. With the exception of the birds, it’s almost always quiet. I sometimes spot brown bats flying back to their nests. I’ve seen foxes drinking from our birdbaths, and, once, an opossum relaxing on top of the retaining wall behind our house. There are almost always rabbits.

In the summer, I make coffee and sit on our screen porch. Sometimes, I read or make notes. Most of the time, I do nothing. The peace and solitude are restorative, replenishing my strength so I can face whatever tasks or challenges lie ahead.

I especially enjoy getting up early on our days off. Recently, on a weekend trip to the mountains, I got up at five o’clock and sat outside. No cars were on the road; no one was out jogging or walking their dog. I watched hummingbirds and butterflies sip nectar from wildflowers. Three different kinds of dragonflies zipped and hovered above a dew-covered garden.

The peace and quiet at this time of day help me think more clearly than I usually can. Solutions to problems sometimes come to me out of nowhere, recent conundrums suddenly obvious. Some of my best ideas have materialized in the hours just after dawn.

Being up and about before everyone else sometimes reminds me of being a kid. I was often the first one awake on our summer vacations to the Maine coast. Careful not to wake my sister, I’d get dressed and go outside to look at the ocean. I’d sit there for an hour or more, watching the waves crash onto the rocks, before hearing anyone stir.

One of the things that motivates me to get out of bed so early is that the quiet is short-lived. The peace is quickly overcome by commuter traffic, school buses, lawn mowers. Our cellphones buzz with text messages. The weather report, or worse, the news, comes over the radio. Calendars and to-do lists beckon.

I’m not religious in any traditional sense. But I think heaven, if it were to exist, would be an eternal early morning, full of birdsong and swaying grass, drowsy bumble bees covered in fresh pollen, the whole world bathed in the soft light of daybreak.

The ancient Celts believed dawn was one of the “thin times,” a threshold where, if one knew where to look, a doorway between the worlds could be found. Heaven and earth, the living and the dead, past and present, day and night, were close to one another, the boundaries between them blurred.

There’s some truth to this idea. For a short time after sunrise, I can sit in one place while looking straight through into another. I think the magic I sense at this time of day, the answers and discoveries I often find, come from being in the liminal space between sleeping and waking, where logic can’t overrule vision and responsibilities don’t interfere with rest. It’s too early to make breakfast, too late to sleep, but if I close my eyes, I can still sometimes dream.

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Emilie-Noelle Provost (she/her). Author of The River Is Everywhere, a National Indie Excellence Award and American Fiction Award finalist, and The Blue Bottlea middle-grade adventure with sea monsters. Visit me at emilienoelleprovost.com.

Olympic Happy Hour Ahead!

Olympic happy hour ahead!
Seine River water for sale at 10 euros a bottle

By Louise Peloquin

     On July 9th, “The last lap” covered a major player in the upcoming Summer Olympics – La Seine, the venue to host the sure-to-be-spectacular opening ceremonies. Readers can find it on this link

Here is a follow-up on the topic.

For two hours on July 10th, artist James Colomina sold water from the River Seine on its banks to denounce the costs incurred to make it safe for swimming. The quality analyses of the Seine have been good for the last several days but not to the point of making it suitable for drinking. Even so, last Wednesday it was possible to purchase 50-centiliter bottles of Seine water for the “modest” sum of 10 euros. The water was labeled “finely polluted.” Sales lasted for two hours before the police intervened and ordered the vendor to pack up his wares.

This unauthorized street vending ended up being an artistic performance directed by James Colomina from Toulouse. (1) “I drew water from La Seine to fill fifty bottles and sell them at an exorbitant price.”

Communication agency Creapills ironically indicated on social media that this will allow “Paris City Hall to offset its 1.4 billion euro river-cleaning investment for the Paris Olympics.” By selling l’Eau de Seine, the artist especially denounces the cost of depolluting the river for the open water swimming events. Colomina believes that the investment could be “lost” and could have been used elsewhere.

The last quality analyses reveal that the water has met the safe swimming standards for ten or eleven of the last twelve days. Nevertheless, heavy rainfall could put the water retention works inaugurated before the Games to the test, possibly leading to postponing the open water swimming events or else relocating them elsewhere.

This is not James Colomina’s first denunciation of the Games. On May 17th, during the passage of the Olympic flame through Toulouse, he installed a work of art called “Le pêcheur aux anneaux” – “The fisherman of rings” – meant to denounce transforming the values of sport into a profit-making enterprise. (2) 

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  1. Settled on the banks of the Garonne River, Toulouse is the fourth-largest city in France after Paris, Marseille and Lyon with some 504,000 inhabitants. It is the capital of the Haute-Garonne department in the Occitanie region of southern France. It is famous for its food, including specialties such as cassoulet, foie gras and Toulouse sausage. Toulouse is the home to Airbus, one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers. Founded in 1229, the University of Toulouse is one of the oldest in Europe.
  2. News source – “Le Parisien,” July 12, 2024. Translating by Louise Peloquin.
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