Lowell in the Early 1970s: Recollections of Fred Faust
Following is an excerpt from an interview with Fred Faust, who has worn a lot of hats and coats in Lowell since he came to town as a radio reporter at WCAP. In 2003, historian Mehmed Ali, then on the staff of Lowell National Historical Park, sat down with Fred to talk about the origin of the national park and the city’s redevelopment. The full transcript of the interview is available—one of many oral histories in transcribed or audio form at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History, which has an outstanding collection of witnesses to Lowell history. Note that I edited out extra “you knows” to smooth out the statements and deleted Ali’s brief questions and prompts between Fred’s responses. These days, Fred has his own business, The Edge Group, a real estate consulting and brokerage firm. He is one of the first Fellows named to the Gateway Cities Institute of Massachusetts, “which envisions vibrant mid-sized cities driving regional economies.” The excerpt below picks up after Fred explains that he was born in the New York City area and then went to college in 1968 to study communications at Emerson College in Boston. After graduation, he got a job in Lowell.—PM
“I came up to …Lowell…and worked in news at WCAP. I was somebody who grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and then spent time in Boston in college for four years. So Lowell was very different for me. On the bad side, obviously, it had a huge chip on its shoulder in terms of the economic status of the area. And people seeing the whole history of the mills, and the deterioration of the economy, and the loss of textile industry—they took that in a very personal way. When you would ask people about Lowell and what the serious issues were, the first thing in everybody’s mind was unemployment. And the area I had been from, in New Rochelle, there were certainly affluent sections; it was working class, too, but not to the extent of what was in Lowell. So I’d never really been in a real working-class city before, and one that considered itself a little bit down and out. When I was working at the radio station one of the stories I was assigned to cover one night was a meeting at the Smith Baker Center with Pat Mogan, and a professor from the University of Pittsburgh, and Brad Morse who was the Congressman at the time. And that was the first time I heard about the National Park concept. I hadn’t known anything about Lowell’s history. Didn’t know what these big red brick buildings were, or why there were canals running along and perpendicular to the streets. And all of a sudden everything made sense to me. And as somebody who was interested in planning and urban ideas, it just really made some connections, and I thought it was a very neat idea.
“I started as a reporter. I had just graduated from college. In 1972, the Rialto was a bowling alley. Again, I was interested in history and politics, and urban areas. I quickly had to find my bearings in a very complex political climate like Lowell, which you’re forced to do right away, because everybody is calling you on the phone, the city councilors, the school committee people, wanting to make sure they get the best kind of coverage. So one of the things you had to do is sort out the players and the interest groups. I remember being completely amazed going to the city council meetings, and the school committee, because so much a part of the meeting was rhetoric. It seemed like somebody could speak for an hour and a half on a pothole. And everything was politics, but for somebody who was reporting it was a fascinating kind of learning experience. I think I was a reasonably fast study and saw the lay of the land, and met a lot of interesting people and started to become familiar, more familiar with the community.
“A lot of [the political alliances] generated from the mayoral races. Who was in and who was out. I remember when I was around, at that point Ellen Sampson was the mayor. There weren’t too many women mayors. She was a character, or maybe a caricature in and of herself. There were in Lowell at that time the young, newer, reform types: the Paul Tsongases, the Dick Howes at that point. They had just come off replacing Charlie Gallagher as the City Manager. Paul Tsongas would be leaving the council shortly thereafter to run for Middlesex County Commission on a reform slate. And then there were the Sam Pollards, the Ray Rourkes, the more traditional politicians whose work was sort of based more on old alliances and constituent services and so forth. And at the same time there were starting to be, thanks to Pat Mogan and the Model Cities folks, very different kind of ideas for redeveloping Lowell and for focusing pride on the history of the city, which again at that time was just about completely covered up. So there was the old group and the new group. The old group also consisted of a lot of downtown business people who had hung around, weren’t really making much money, were basically complaining about everything. You couldn’t get anybody to agree on anything at all. There were a substantial number of buildings in tax title in those days. I believe Paul Sheehy at that time was the City Manager. And it was just hard to get any momentum going or to overcome the psychology of failure.
“There were different ideas of how to bring Lowell back. There was everything from monorails to urban cultural parks, to taking down the downtown, putting up new buildings. And Lowell wasn’t very demanding when it came to development, which was scary because of some of the existing buildings that were here, and the potential loss of integrity. I came in just after Merrimack Manufacturing was taken down, and the boarding houses on Dutton Street were taken down. And that clearly evoked some concern in the community. I remember walking by and watching for a while as they took the flat iron building down where the Central Bank is today [Central and Prescott streets], and thinking, what a shame, that’s such an attractive building. And certainly at that point I was not into historic preservation, but it was an attractive building, and it seemed a waste to be doing that.
“There didn’t seem to be particularly coherent plan. The urban renewal at that point was urban renewal. It was handled by the Development Authority, which again had a lot of older established industrially oriented members. And one of the things that started to happen in Lowell, and I believe under Paul Sheehy, was that Frank Keefe was hired as the Director of Planning and Development. I remember asking Frank, ‘What’s a planner do?’ And he said, ‘A planner is a clear thinker.’ And Frank well defined that. He had great grasp of all kinds of ideas, projects, complex projects, and he, Pat Mogan, Brad Morse succeeded by Paul Cronin [as the congressman], and certainly Paul Tsongas defined the new ambitions for the community. Each played a role in a very different way of trying to get the community to a critical mass to accept some new ideas and grasp what the real potential of an Urban Cultural Park, and then a State Heritage Park, and a National Park were all about, and get past this terrible image that everybody had in the back of their minds that Lowell was a ghost town, a mill town, with the highest unemployment rate in the state, etc. etc.” . . .