Lowell Week in Review: August 17, 2014
18th Middlesex Candidate debate this Tuesday
Voters in the 18th Middlesex District will have their first opportunity to see all five Democratic candidates for the office face off this coming Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 7 pm in a televised debate sponsored by the KhmerPost USA newspaper. The debate will be televised live on Lowell cable channels 8 and 99 and will also be streamed live on www.ltc.org. All five Democratic candidates – Brian Donovan, Jim Leary, Rady Mom, Dave Ouellette and Paul Ratha Yem – will participate in the 90 minute debate. The questioners will be Soben Pin and Mealea Chan of KhmerPost USA along with a reporter from the Lowell Sun. I will serve as moderator. The purpose of the debate is to help voters get to know the candidates better, especially regarding where they stand on all major political issues. Please tune in (there’s no council meeting this week).
The city council did meet this past Tuesday but I had another commitment and missed the meeting. I’ll watch the replay some night this week and post my notes. Sorry for the delay; I know many readers rely on my council meeting notes to get a sense of what took place at City Hall on Tuesday nights.
Two Way Traffic
As soon as I post this I plan to hop in my car and drive downtown. My intended route is to head down Dutton Street towards City Hall and, for the first time in my life, turn right onto Merrimack Street. I’ll follow that to Central where I’ll take another right. From there it will be another right on Market and then home after first stopping at Brewed Awakening for a coffee. Co-blogger Paul Marion drove thru downtown yesterday morning when the traffic pattern was only hours old while on his way to Boarding House Park to reserve a space with his lawn chair for Lyle Lovett’s Lowell Summer Musical Festival performance. Paul posted a brief account of his traffic observations yesterday. Hopefully he’ll add a review of the Lovett concert.
I wrote a prospective post about the coming of two-way traffic that got quite a few comments from people expressing their hopes and concerns. My question isn’t whether people will like it – they won’t at first; no one likes change. My question is how long will it take before a city councilor files a motion to undo the project. Hopefully at least six months because that’s how long it will take to give it a fair trial.
Southeast Asian Water Festival
Congratulations to the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival committee for another outstanding festival. Yesterday’s weather was about as good as you could get for outside activities and thousands of people from all across the region, the country and Canada flocked to the banks of the Merrimack River for food, entertainment, shopping and friendship. I wrote a separate post suggesting that the Southeast Asian Water Festival’s roots in Lowell stretch back beyond the 18 years of its own existence to the 1970s and the Lowell Regatta Festival.
Erik Gitschier to the Water Department
Congratulations also to Erik Gitschier on his selection by City Manager Kevin Murphy to be the new leader of Lowell’s Water Department. One of the areas of history that has long fascinated me was provision by local government back in the late 19th century of all the aspects of modern infrastructure to safely support vast concentrations of people in urban communities. Today we take things such as clean water, reliable sewerage, heat and light as givens. It was not always so, particularly with clean, safe, drinking water. Because of this historical interest of mine, any time I find myself with Erik Gitschier I start quizzing him on water. He definitely knows his stuff and his passion for the topic greatly exceeds mine. Erik began his career in Lowell’s water department but has for a number of years been the head of Lexington’s water department. Lexington’s loss is Lowell’s gain.
As summer draws to a close, many Lowell residents who visited other communities while on summer vacations scrutinize this city in light of their experiences elsewhere. I did that in this space last week when I wrote about Lowell’s potential as a “college town.” My writing there was influenced by visits this summer to Portland, Maine and Boston, Salem, Williamstown and a few other spots in Massachusetts to see historic sites and museums. My post got some attention for it’s now up to 17 comments. It also complemented a set of three posts that co-blogger Paul Marion wrote about his summertime visit to Salem (here, here and here) and its implications for tourism in Lowell.
Yesterday on the Learning Lowell blog, Aurora wrote a comprehensive analysis comparing tourism in Salem and in Lowell based on her experiences visiting both as a tourist and also working in the tourism industry in both. Here’s part of her conclusion:
I’ve visited both Lowell and Salem as a tourist, and now I’ve guided tourists in both as well. Both are fun, vivid places, with lots to see and do (and eat). Lowell is every bit as interesting as Salem as a destination, and I often chat with tourists in Lowell who’ve had a wonderful experience visiting the city and have really felt a connection to its stories. I don’t want everything that Salem has for Lowell: some of its spooky tourism crosses the line from cheesy to downright disrespectful. Chatting with Salem locals, it was clear that too much tourism can be a curse as well as a blessing, and that sometimes the city could be a weird place to actually live. But I’m confident that Lowell could handle a little more tourism without losing its strong sense of itself.
She also gives all of us an item on the “to do” list for marketing Lowell: get active on social media. Here’s what she suggests:
On a smaller scale, there’s something everybody excited about Lowell can do to help it. Good internet reviews and buzz are a big part of how people make their travel decisions. This is an area where Salem is running laps around us: for example, the Peabody Essex Museum has 135 Yelp reviews. The American Textile History Museum has eight. Each of us can help Lowell by taking to our favorite social media and making sure that people know about what there is to do in Lowell. Consider taking a minute and dropping some positive Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews of restaurants, stores, and cultural destinations you like. Follow and Like the cultural organizations you enjoy, and Share their pictures and announcements with your friends. I’m not suggesting any level of phony boosterism. But these things do matter, and it requires such a teeny amount of effort to support the organizations in Lowell you want to see do well.
She’s absolutely right. I know that when I plan a trip today, my first stop for nearly everything – hotels, restaurants, historic sites, museums – is TripAdvisor. Sure it’s a system that can be gamed, but what isn’t? By scanning through dozens of reader reviews, however, you get a better, more accurate sense of a place than you do from any other source. The key though is a critical mass of reviews. Having more than a dozen lets the prospective visitor make a more accurate assessment of the place. When I travel outside of Lowell, I routinely post reviews on TripAdvisor as an aid to future visitors of a place. It never occurred to me to do the same for my own community. That’s the kind of bottom up approach to marketing that is so critical to success in today’s social media-driven world. It’s also a strategy that proves so elusive to the type of formal planning that handcuffs more traditional organizations such as city planning departments and local visitors bureaus.
Our contribution should not stop at producing a critical mass of reviews: we should also strive to create a critical mass of people downtown. There’s a not-too-pleasant narrative that’s always been present but that is gaining more volume these days that the barrier to success in downtown Lowell is too many poor people. Yes, there are poor people downtown; that’s part of the job description of a city. But there are similar concentrations of poor people in Boston, Portland, even Salem. The difference between Lowell and those places is that there are plenty of people of all classes, colors, shapes and sizes. Everyone blends in and everyone is comfortable. Besides contributing reviews of city places on social media, we should all strive to spend more time downtown. If you work there during the week, find ways to go for a walk on your lunch hour. If you work elsewhere, go downtown after work or on weekends. Park your car and just walk around. Admire the architecture. Every visitor I’ve brought through the downtown has remarked on how stunning it is. Too many of us who live here take it for granted. We don’t need a marketing committee to fix that; we can do it ourselves.
3 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: August 17, 2014
I’ve always thought that Lowell was a perfect city for a series of murals painted onto the sides of buildings. It could have a Belfast feel to it(without the IRA propaganda…sorry mom). It would take the cooperation of a few of the building owners but imagine 7-10 different murals spaced out throughout downtown. There could be murals to our history. There could be murals dedicated to the different immigrant groups that have made Lowell home. There could be murals of almost anything. Building murals are typically in urban settings so our current struggles will have minimum impact on this ideas success. Creating more foot traffic in downtown has always been difficult so the spacing out of the murals will almost force people to park and walk to the different locations. We could commission local artists for the project and help lift their credibility. Their success will snowball into our success. Within 10 years these murals will look old and that’s a good thing. Within 50 years these murals will actually be old and by then they will have become a part of the fabric of Lowell.
Murals would be a good idea. I think they were big in Lowell in the 1970s during the early stages of the city’s cultural revival. Then in the 1980s, the public art focus shifted to sculpture. Some of the murals remain. One is on upper Merrimack Street on the side of a building; another is over near St Patrick’s Church. When I visited Philadelphia a few years ago they had specialized bus tours to view the city’s murals. There were three or four different tours, each going to a different neighborhood to view the murals in each. That’s how many there were. With all the artists in Lowell, it would seem to be a prime opportunity to revive that earlier tradition. Maybe we’ll do a blog post or two in the coming weeks about past efforts to create murals in Lowell as a way of jump starting it again.
I could be way off on the pricing of something like this so I apologize in advance if I am, but $2000 for the work and another $500 for the supplies for each mural. If we commission ten murals that would be a total price tag of about $25,000. That would be an absolute bargain for the city. I’m guessing that our artists might be willing to sacrifice a bit on the price of their artwork in return for the massive and lasting exposure they would receive. I’m enjoying picturing the unveiling ceremony as a crowd walks from mural to mural. Am I getting ahead of myself?