“Nobody Beats the Fizz: Lowell’s Engines of 21st Century Development” by Bob Forrant

UMass Lowell Professor Bob Forrant shared the following essay that explores the relationship between the city of Lowell, the University, and the National Park:

For thirty-seven years I’ve lived and worked in Massachusetts industrial cities and for the last twenty-five I’ve thought a lot about how cities like Springfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Lowell can move beyond their mill legacies and generate new waves of economic and social growth and vitality. One new book wrestling with these issues is Mario Polese’s The Wealth and Poverty of Regions: Why Cities Matter (U. of Chicago Press, 2011). He wants to know, as do I, why certain places prosper while others can’t seem to get out of their own way. He starts a chapter with a quote from one of the world’s preeminent urbanists, Sir Peter Hall. “[As] always in human experience since the invention of the telephone, the dissemination of electronic media may paradoxically even increase the need and the incentive for face-to-face contact…. And so, surely, this time around: the likelihood is that places with a unique buzz, a unique fizz, a special kind of energy will prove more magnetic than ever (1999).”

In an article in The Atlantic, urban studies theorist Richard Florida sought the fizz. During the economic depression at the end of the nineteenth century, he noted, “the country remade itself from an agricultural power into an industrial one.” After the 1930s Great Depression, the country once again remade itself. “It discovered a new way of living, working, and producing, which contributed to an unprecedented period of mass prosperity. At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience.” The country had the fizz. So, can the Lowell region be reconfigured? Yes, because it ‘has the fizz’, thanks to a large extent to the efforts of the UMass Lowell and the Lowell National Historical Park.

The Policy Question
Over the past twenty years policymakers have studied mid-size cities like Lowell, cities struggling with job loss, decaying infrastructure, tight budgets, and the loss of a good deal of their middle-class. In 2007, MassINC, and the Brookings Institution studied the challenges such cities face in Massachusetts. They concluded that many of them feature walkable downtowns and affordable housing. And, these places have growing, entrepreneurial immigrant populations and vibrant cultural and other community organizations, including churches, youth organizations, and immigrant social clubs. All of these things are enhanced in Lowell with twin engines for long-term, thoughtful development, UMass Lowell and the National Park.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell
In response to challenges in their neighborhoods numerous urban universities recognized the common interests they shared with local residents in the creation and preservation of stable communities. In the mid-1990s, under then Chancellor William Hogan, UMass Lowell focused on the development of a regional economy predicated on the notion that a sustainable economy required a skilled and ever-replenished workforce, innovative products, environmental protection, and strong public health and public education infrastructures. Integral to its mission, the University fostered the enhancement and protection of the historical fabric of the community, supported K-12 and continuing education, and worked to strengthen the region’s social and cultural life. This work was continued under Chancellor Martin Meehan. For example, the 2009 opening of the Inn & Conference Center in the former DoubleTree Hotel marked UMass Lowell’s commitment to the downtown.

The words of Eugene Trani, president of Virginia Commonwealth University (1999-2009) are instructive here: “Twenty or even 10 years ago, universities may have pared back their community-engagement activities in periods of fiscal uncertainty on the grounds that they were valuable expressions of the university’s social commitment but not essential to teaching students and contributing to the scholarly community. But today we need to engage with our communities to meet our instructional goals, equip our students with discernment and judgment, and enable them to be productive citizens.” UMass Lowell, even as its state funding was cut, did not pare back its engagement. On the contrary, faculty, staff, students, and the administration are more engaged than ever, with co-op learning, internships, expanded study and service abroad, and the like. Engineering students take part in service-learning, and the past three years the University has made President Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

The Lowell National Historical Park’s Rich Canvass
Established in 1978, the Park holds some of the most significant restored properties in Lowell that create a platform for telling Lowell’s stories. In its thirty-year anniversary report, the Park reported the extraordinary fact that 77 percent of the 5 million square feet of the city’s historic mills have been rehabilitated. The mills become the backdrop for the industrial revolution story told to nearly 700,000 visitors annually. Sixty thousand school children and hundreds of college and university student ride the rails of historic replica trolleys and experience the noise of a working weave room and museum at the Boott Mill. Visitors can experience the canals on boat tours; some $43M has been invested to create the Canalway and Riverwalk system. Much of this work is done in partnership with UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Industrial History Center.

Frederick Coburn, in his 1920 History of Lowell and Its People observed that when the labor supply from New England’s rural towns was exhausted employers sent recruiters to places like Quebec, Greece, and for workers. “Adventurous folks from other lands,” Coburn writes, “seeking the advantages of a political democracy, are welcomed as workers. A few members of a nationality establish themselves, and these are quickly followed by others from the same foreign town or countryside.” In other words, Coburn’s immigrant story is part of our present-day one and shapes how we respond as a community to the current economic malaise.

Absorb the words of a 1977 Lowell profile prepared by Boston University’s Sociology Department. “To walk from one end of Merrimack Street to the other is to experience the mosaic and vitality of ethnicity in Lowell. In what was formerly referred to as ‘Little Canada’ the elderly on the street discuss in French the visit of a politician. Not far from there, near the court house, a Greek family still makes phylo pastry ‘like in the old country’ and others come and go handling in Greek the daily business of living. Next to the recently arrived Jordan Marsh Department Store is a small Lebanese and Syrian restaurant where the customers as well as the owners speak Arabic. At the top of the street the Puerto Rican ‘bodega’ sell[s] plantains and mangos, ripe from the Caribbean sun, to the Spanish-speaking community.” A similar description—with the names of some groups changed—could be made if we made that walk today.

In closing, I’ve often heard people in Lowell say, “the Lowell National Park is the city and the city is the Park.” I believe we are moving to the point where the metaphor should be expanded to read, “the Park, the University, and the city’s rich variety of educational and creative institutions are the city and the city is all of these.” Many of my friends living and working in other mill cities would love having a National Park or a growing research university; we have both. From this happy coincidence I offer a new slogan: ‘Lowell, the City of Knowledge, Old and New’.