UML freshmen ask questions about Lowell

Earlier this week I led 19 UMass Lowell students on a walking tour of downtown Lowell. The students comprised a section of the Honors Seminar which is required for all freshmen in the honors program. The focus of the seminar is Lowell, which is a great way to introduce the students to the city that lies beyond the boundaries of the UML campus. I’ve led similar groups in previous semesters and have been uniformly impressed with the caliber of the students. Those in my group this time were mostly from Massachusetts, although not many were from Greater Lowell. At the conclusion of the tour, the instructor had the students each write a question that was either motivated by or left unanswered by the tour. I suggested I post the questions and answers here so that the students could all see them but also so our readers might get a sense of what types of things are of interest to some of the city’s newest residents. Here’s the first batch of Q & A:

What was the most common form of transportation in Lowell between 1800 and 1900?

Transportation in 19th century Lowell took many forms. Walking was very important. Most of the jobs were in downtown in the mills, so much of the housing that sprung up in places like the Acre, Centralville and the Highlands was densely packed to allow many people to live close to work. Horses were also important for transportation, both to be ridden but primarily to pull carriages. There were many livery stables in the city and most larger homes had adjoining carriage houses which were like super-sized, detached garages. In the early decades of the century, boats were important for intercity transportation. The most efficient way to get from Lowell to Boston was by canal boat on the Middlesex Canal. Once railroads came into existence in the 1830, the train became the primary means of travel for long distances. Within the city, street railways, which were coaches pulled by horses on track laid in the streets became heavily used and allowed for the expansion of housing further from the downtown.

What are Lowell’s plans for the future development of transforming mills like Appleton?

Earlier this year the city of Lowell adopted a comprehensive master plan called Sustainable Lowell 2025 which is a blueprint for city development through the first quarter of the 21st century. While Sustainable Lowell sets innovative, forward-thinking objectives for the entire city including mill buildings, how those structures are used is largely driven by economic circumstances beyond the city’s control. In some cases, mills have been converted to residential uses; in other cases, they now house modern industry. To make the former mills more attractive for any type of use, the city of Lowell is promoting the arts and cultural activities on the theory that those types of uses make a place such as Lowell more attractive to the potential employees of modern industries. If employees want to work in a place like Lowell, the companies that employ them will be more likely to locate here.

Is Teen Block having an impact on the drug culture in Lowell?

I know that Teen Block is a program sponsored by the Lowell Community Health Center that tries to empower teens and insist them in avoiding risky behaviors but I don’t know enough about it to assess its impact. I do know that there is an epidemic of opioid abuse in Lowell and that it has cost many young people their lives. While the community as a whole acknowledges this situation, there is probably much more that could be done to combat this devastating situation.

How many canals are in Lowell?

The Lowell canal system consists of the following canals: Pawtucket, Merrimack, Hamilton, Eastern, Western and Northern. The Middlesex Canal, the transportation canal that ran from the Merrimack River to the Charles River, was partly in Lowell but it no longer exists.

What’s some of the history about the tavern industry?

Taverns were an important part of early Lowell (and of this region before it became Lowell in 1826). Traveling took much longer in the early 19th century than it does today, so taverns were important way stations for travelers, offering food and lodging in addition to beverages. Although their prominence diminished during Prohibition, taverns have also been important community gathering places.

Are the mills still in use today or are they just for historical purposes?

None of Lowell’s textile mills still manufacture textiles. Many of the original mills were torn down; others have found new uses for different industries or have been converted to apartments or condominiums. A few are used by the Lowell National Historical Park and a few others remain standing but await some type of reuse.

Are there any Brazilian restaurants in Lowell?

Beira Rio’s Brazilian Steak House is at 26 Andover St; the Oasis Grill is at 912 Gorham St; and Delicia’s Bakery is at 11 Kearney Square.

Is the real estate industry in Lowell on the rise?

Like most other urban communities in America, Lowell was hit hard by the collapse of the housing market and had many foreclosures. These properties often remained unoccupied for long stretches of time and dragged down the value of many surrounding houses. Many of these previously foreclosed properties are now being sold to third parties so this is less of a problem now. Another factor slowing the recovery of the housing market in Lowell is that many people who bought homes between 2003 and 2007 when the market was at its peak, now owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth (this is called “being underwater”). Homeowners in this situation are usually unable to sell even if they wanted to.

How has the real estate industry in Lowell evolved in the past 50 years?

Fifty years ago there were no condominiums. They emerged in the 1980s and have been a substantial portion of the city’s housing ever since. Another big change is in the downtown. Fifty years ago, it was filled with retail and professional offices like doctors and lawyers. As they all left for the suburbs, many downtown buildings were transformed to residential uses. This helps keep people in the downtown all the time, but it has also created conflicts between residents and those who frequent downtown bars and restaurants that have been difficult to resolve.

What specific things did they make at the mills?

Almost all of the mills in Lowell made cotton cloth. In the 1820s and 1830s when Lowell was the major textile manufacturing center in the United States, the cloth produced was of the highest quality. Later, as mills opened in other parts of the country where operations were less expensive, the Lowell mills switched to lower quality, lower priced products. Some mills also transitioned to manufacturing wool cloth and some to making shoes.

One Response to UML freshmen ask questions about Lowell

  1. Shanna Rose Thompson says:

    Thank you so much for taking us around the city. We learned so much from you. I also appreciate you taking the time to answer our lingering questions. Forever Grateful!