Following is an excerpt from my manuscript for the book “Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story,” which I wrote for the National Park Service in 2011-12. The book covers the years 1966 to 2012, documenting the origin and impact of the national park in Lowell in the context of the city’s renaissance. We expect to have a publisher this summer, which means the book should be released in early 2014, if all goes as planned. The section that follows begins with a scene from an event about a year ago, a summit on “creative placemaking.”—PM
In the spring of 2012 Lowell hosted an invitation-only gathering of leaders and activists from 24 communities identified by the state as Gateway Communities, most of them being the same as or similar to the small to mid-sized post-industrial cities that formed the network of Heritage State Parks in the 1970s. These are entry-level places with old bones of built environments and churning populations continually refreshed by newcomers. Among the new arrivers in Lowell are Iraqis, Burmese, Bhutanese, Nigerians, and Brazilians. But some fundamental challenges remain—more well-paying jobs, consistently excellent schools, and a broadly healthy community. As an alternative to the conventional manufacturing plants that once charged these cities’ economic batteries, many of these communities are looking to the creative industries as a supplemental economic energy source. Lowell has led the way into a creative economy, going back to the establishment of state and national parks in the 1970s and publication in 1987 of the state’s first comprehensive cultural development plan for a city, The Lowell Cultural Plan. But Lowell has continued to be intentional with this approach, completing in 2008 a development strategy explicitly for the creative economy: On the Cultural Road: City of World Culture. In 1987, the predominant thinking about the cultural sector was that it was characterized by nonprofit organization activity and heavily dependent on philanthropy. By 2008, the conversation was a more balanced discussion about a cultural industry, earned income, sustainable operations, and entrepreneurship—and a much wider view of the cultural and creative, encompassing tech start-ups, artisanal bakeries, and the like. This more businesslike vocabulary is a better fit for community development policy, which explains in part why more than 200 people would convene at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center to share ideas about “creative placemaking” and learn from the best-practice examples put forth on PowerPoint presentations.
Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch welcomed the audience and introduced Lt. Governor Tim Murray. The sponsors were MassINC, a progressive think tank; the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state agency promoting the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences; and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, whose cabinet secretary chairs the Governor’s Creative Economy Council. Before the Lt. Governor spoke, Lynch laid out the rationale and results when it comes to the creative economy in Lowell:
“We’re convinced that employers are drawn to locations with a base of talented, creative individuals who are in the current workforce or available for an expanding workforce. These employers want to be in places that are vibrant, diverse, and authentic, and which possess the amenities and walking-friendly environments that complement creative lifestyles—hence, our city marketing slogan: ‘Alive. Unique. Inspiring.’ We work every day to make Lowell a distinctive destination with a genuine sense of place.
“Since 2000, when the City adopted a creative economy strategy for downtown revitalization, we have seen 1,454 new housing units built or renovated and occupied, 94 units are under construction, 749 more units have been granted permits. Another 157 residential units are being reviewed for permits at this time. Developers have renovated about 2.6 million square feet in dozens of vacant buildings. Under construction or under permit now are projects totaling 750,000 square feet of property. We also are seeing new construction—700,000 square feet of office, commercial, and research and development space either already under permit or in the process. That’s the evidence of people and businesses on the ground. The quality-of-life activity that we believe accounts in large measure for this strong real estate interest has equally impressive statistics.”
What are some of the creative industry metrics? There are 440 artist studios, 190 of which are live-work housing units. The city has 10 theater and performing arts spaces; 16 museums, galleries, and cultural centers; and five rehearsal and recording studios. The Lowell Folk Festival attendance each July is nearly 250,000, the Lowell Summer Music Series draws about 30,000 people each year, Lowell Memorial Auditorium puts tens of thousands of people in seats, and the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell sold more than 70,000 tickets in 2011-12. There are dozens of creative-economy businesses, such as film-industry prop-makers Ymittos Candles on Dutton Street downtown, whose products were featured in The Pirates of the Caribbean and Lincoln movies. The city’s ethnic cuisine spans the world, from American diner food and Irish pub grub to Indian and Brazilian delights.
Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell in 2012 chaired the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. The former City Councilor and Mayor of Lowell champions the creative economy. Tourism is a $15 billion industry in Massachusetts, the third largest economic cluster in the state.
Lowell National Historical Park itself in 2010 generated a $35 million impact on Lowell and the surrounding region by attracting more than 540,000 visitors to its sites and events. The economic activity accounts for 467 jobs, according to an analysis done by Michigan State University economists for the National Park Service countrywide.
On a morning panel at the Summit, Donoghue talked about a “pigeon roost” downtown. She described how the city in the early 2000s took a derelict building in its possession due to failure of the owner to pay property taxes and issued a call for proposals for developers to convert the structure to loft-style residences. These would be homes and production studios for people who could prove they were creative economy workers of some type. The sale price for the Market Street building was one dollar. The City offered small incentive grants to assist with set-up costs in the lightly finished spaces. “The idea was to attract artists downtown,” said Donoghue. “We didn’t know if it would work but we were hearing from artists in and outside the city that they wanted places where they could live and work. They couldn’t afford two rents.” Providence, Rhode Island, had had some success developing an artists’ quarter downtown. The mayor there joked about artists being “the Marines of the city,” for their willingness to establish a beachhead in rundown urban districts.
Renamed Ayer Lofts, the artist live-work space venture opened with full occupancy. The success made believers of other housing developers who were curious about the potential of a downtown which by then had been the center point of a national park for more than 20 years. Lowell was still figuring out what it meant to live in the middle of a national park with rangers leading tours and replica trolleys tooting whistles at the intersections. The Ayer Lofts project made it look like something more was possible in making Lowell an arts destination.
Going back to 1981, the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission had stimulated the development of an artist studio project on the ground floor of the Market Mills complex, across from the Park Visitor Center, the previously mentioned Brush Art Gallery and Studios. The project was modeled on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, which Fred Faust had visited while working on Sen. Paul Tsongas’s staff in Washington, D.C. The Torpedo Factory development twist is that resident artists are required to work in view of the public for a certain number of hours each week in exchange for a more affordable rent cost. The Brush was a fraction of the Torpedo Factory size when it opened in 1982, housing about a dozen artists in windowed studios arranged on either side of a corridor featuring the same hardwood floor as in the 3,000-foot common gallery at the front of the complex. In exchange for modest rent paid to the Preservation Commission, the original Brush artists agreed to keep their studio doors open for a certain number of hours per week. The arrangement was not a fit for every artist, but there were enough willing to try the formula. For the Commission and Park, the project provided a much-needed additional visitor draw in the early years, before museum displays opened at the Boott Mills Boarding House (Mogan Cultural Center) and Boott Cotton Mills. Under the current cooperative agreement, the resident artists pay reasonably low rent to the umbrella nonprofit organization that promotes the gallery and artist activities.
Part of the Brush Art Gallery root system stretches back to an earlier organization, Art Alive!, a cooperative of more than 50 artists who had been allowed to use a former clothing store that the Park Service had bought with the intention of removing it because the modern building did not conform to the historic streetscape in the middle of Merrimack Street. From 1979 until the mid-1980s, Art Alive! was an important space for local artists to meet and display their work.
The Brush Art Gallery celebrated its 30th anniversary in June 2012, proudly stating that it has operated continuously through the years, a remarkable achievement for any arts project. The pioneering efforts of the artists at Art Alive!, The Brush, and Ayer Lofts showed a way forward that had led to Lowell now being a magnet for painters, musicians, dancers, writers, and other creative artists. The nearly 500 working artists in the city have given a new meaning to the city motto, Art Is the Handmaid of Human Good. Once a statement of belief in the social value of artisanship and a tribute to the industrial arts as exemplified in high-end manufacturing, the City seal has assumed a fine-arts shine.
At the Creative Placemaking Summit, Sen. Donoghue said community leaders should assess carefully their own strengths and weaknesses. “In Lowell we realized that we have to be who we are,” she said. In Lowell’s case, there was and is a lot to work with because of the rich history, social mix, and certain advantages that come with being a place of higher education and located at a transportation crossroads. The region matters also, which is what one of her fellow panelists emphasized.
Former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith is as eloquent a spokesman for the virtues of cities and the arts as one might meet. He told the summit attendees the story of Meridian remaking itself into the intellectual and cultural hub of its region. He contends that cities must offer excellent artistic experiences to children as a way to nurture their aspirations and to business CEO’s who crave inspiring moments in their own lives. He believes that people want to live in places whose residents care about questions like “Where do we come from?” and “Who are we now?”—places that have a sense of their own identity and a coherent presentation of themselves in everyday life, not places where residents are trying to imitate a pre-fab formula from “away” or defensive about the way they think others view them. He showed a slide of a marketing poster from Mississippi with text acknowledging the prevailing view of it as a lagging state. “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.” was the headline under which were the faces of about 20 authors: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Grisham, Natasha Trethewey, and others. The words “Mississippi” and “poor” don’t have to mean poor self-image or poor prospects, he implied. And, it does not hurt to show that you have a sense of humor either.
Returning to his point about aspirations, Roberts said, “You have to remain focused on a point in the future you will not occupy. I see that point in the eyes of my grandson.” In his closing, Roberts lifted up the audience when he cited the Persian poet Sa’di on the human need for “loaves and hyacinths” to feed body and soul and quoted the Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay’s poem “On the Building of Springfield.”
We should build parks that students from afar
Would choose to starve in, rather than go home,
Fair little squares, with Phidian ornament,
Food for the spirit, milk and honeycomb.
. . .
We must have many Lincoln-hearted men.
A city is not builded in a day.
And they must do their work, and come and go
While countless generations pass away.
—Paul Marion, (c) Lowell National Historical Park, 2013