I drove downtown about 30 minutes ago and stopped near City Hall. In my side mirror, the mid-section of Merrimack Street behind me sparkled. People sometimes say Lowell is a “little big city”—and that’s what it looked like at 5 p.m. with the going-home traffic filling the intersections and the Christmas lights making a “white way” from the electrified City Hall edifice to Kearney Square. Growing up in the area, I spent many Christmas season evenings downtown in the stores on Merrimack and Central streets. While I was in college I worked a couple of years as an elevator operator in Cherry & Webb women’s clothing store, where my mother was a salesperson for more than 20 years. Christmas shopping was a big deal downtown in the mid-1970s. Bon Marche’/Jordan’s next to Cherry’s brimmed with merchandise and customers. There were a few more years of the traditional shopping culture before the old downtown gave way to the malls like Burlington. We’ve got a different mix of shops and restaurants now, each striving to make more than a break-even go of it. Everything gets a lift in the added light at this time of year.
Maybe we need more light all the time, more illuminated architecture and streets. Enlist the lighting artists at Merrimack Rep Theatre to design lighting for Lowell’s distinctive bridges. Take a cue from the owners of Wannalancit Mills and make something of the other smokestacks around the historic district. I heard them described as “Lowell’s redwoods”—at night they’d be something else entirely. Providence, R.I, has “Water-fire” on its inner city waterway, with bonfires mid-stream and an ethereal recorded soundtrack. We’ve got a canalside sculpture collection and miles of canals and rivers with finished walkways—there’s another opportunity for “light-ways.” Yes, changes like this cost money and require maintenance. We’ve done big things before. We’re good at doing big things. If you have not walked the new bridge and pathway linking the Appleton Mills area with the four-way canal junction at Swamp Locks near Dutton Street, make time to check it out. It’s a fresh view of the canal system, a local scenic vista. And there’s light.