Julie Mofford reviews “Mill Power” by Paul Marion

Julie Mofford, a former staffer at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, who currently lives in midcoast Maine where she writes and works as a museum and historical society consultant, recently posted on Amazon.com her review of Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, a 2014 book by our co-blogger Paul Marion.  Julie graciously granted me permission to re-post her review here.  Anyone interested in the recent history of Lowell should read Mill Power which is available for sale at Lowell National Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street.

Here’s Julie’s review:

The author leaves no brick or cobblestone unturned in this account of the development and success of Lowell National Historical Park. No one is more qualified than Paul Marion to tell the story of Lowell’s renaissance. Currently Executive Director of Community Relations and Co-Director of the Center for Arts and Ideas at University of Massachusetts/ Lowell, Marion has been directly involved since the onset of the city’s transformation. He was on board from the founding of this urban national park and responsible for many of Lowell’s creative innovations and cultural achievements. Marion earned his degree in political science and community social psychology from the University of Massachusetts/ Lowell and studied creative writing at the University of California/Irvine. He served as Cultural Affairs Director at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, U. S. Department of the Interior and is co-founder of the Lowell Folk Festival, as well as Lowell
Heritage Partnership. He was instrumental in the Lowell Cultural Plan and on public art projects, including Jack Kerouac Commemorative Park. He is also the author of numerous poetry collections and editor of “Atop An Underwood: Early Stories by Jack Kerouac.”

Marion’s book is greatly enhanced by photographs selected from some of the 400 restored buildings showing adaptive reuse of derelict structures. Charles Parrott, an architectural historian who played an integral role in Lowell’s revitalization from the beginning, describes new uses for the old buildings in arresting Before and After images. Much of Lowell was nearly lost to the wrecking ball in the mid-1960s under the federal Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment. ‘Little Canada,’ the Acre neighborhood’s Greek settlement, along with Hale-Howard, the area called home by many Jewish families, all lost ethnic cohesiveness.

What makes “Mill Power” especially valuable is that it is not only a highly readable and well-documented institutional history but also that it provides inspiration for other communities struggling with blight and unemployment to explore avenues for positive change. Like a phoenix rising from economic ruin, federal and state agencies joined with local investors and cultural groups in a dedicated and cooperative effort to transform Lowell into a comeback city. Lowell National Historical Park became known as ‘Partnership Park,’ due to the cooperative efforts of private enterprise with city government, state, and federal agencies. Community groups like the Lowell Plan and the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation, combined forces to reach a common goal. Marion aptly explains how this was accomplished.

Ex-Senator Paul E. Tsongas, a Lowell native, understood the potential to celebrate his city’s major role in the American industrial revolution that would foster economic revival at the same time. People said it couldn’t be done and indeed, it was an uphill battle since many thought national parks were only supposed to offer natural vistas. Yet Lowell played a pivotal role in our country’s past and had history worth telling through bricks and mortar. In 1972 Congressman F. Bradford Morse filed legislation calling for Lowell to be designated a national park, and on June 5, 1978, President Carter signed Lowell National Historical Park into being.

“Mill Power” includes biographical sketches and photographs of key people involved, the shakers and movers who conceived the ideas and eventually gave birth to an ‘impossible dream.’ Chief among them was Dr. Patrick Mogan, Superintendant of Schools 1977-1983, and determined to make the run-down, red brick city, ‘a good address’ again. Mogan believed “people and the stories they had to tell” were significant and that Lowell’s ethnic diversity needed to be celebrated, along with Lowell’s place in history.

Mogan envisioned “The City As a Classroom,” and led the educational component in the Model Cities Project, the rehabilitation initiative for American cities in 1967. His Educative City was eventually brought to fruition with the establishment of the Tsongas Industrial History Center, now an educational partnership between the University of Massachusetts Lowell Graduate School of Education and the National Park Service. Thousands of students and teachers flock here during the school year for “doing history” through weaving, role-playing immigrants, joining assembly lines, becoming inventors or creating canal systems to harness water power, as well as touring Lowell’s built and natural environments.

Mogan’s legacy is also honored at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center with recreating living quarters of the mill girls who comprised the early work force in the textile factories. Special collections and archives are housed in the Center for Lowell History here and the city’s immigrant heritage is featured in ethnic exhibits, including videos of Cambodians who arrived following the Khmer Rouge Genocide and have contributed much to Lowell’s cultural and civic life. A cultural mecca, Lowell is now home to the New England Quilt Museum, the Whistler House Museum and the American Textile History Museum, along with comprehensive National Park exhibits at the Boott Mills and other sites. Visitors to the Brush Gallery enjoy a variety of contemporary exhibits and can watch painters, weavers, printmakers and other artists at work.

Lowell has become a college town with Middlesex Community College and the University Massachusetts increasing outreach programs into the community and joining the national park to sponsor professional development opportunities and scholarly programs. Besides annual events like the Folk Festival, the Southeast Asian Water Festival, and Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, the city hosts theater-goers year-round at Merrimack Repertory Theater and Lowell Memorial Auditorium. The Summer Music Series features well-known performers and draws enthusiastic crowds outside at Boarding House Park. Sports enthusiasts flock to watch the Lowell Spinners or U/Mass/Lowell’s River Hawks play baseball at the Edward A. LeLacheur Park or cheer hockey players at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena.

Author Marion leads readers on a canal boat trip and like park rangers, traces the significance of water power that made textile production possible. Along with the Sculpture Trail celebrating public art, Lowell is a museum without walls. Walkways along rivers and canals, as well as city parks and nearby forest areas are continually being improved in The Flowering City.

In 2002 the National Trust for Historic Preservation lauded Lowell for its 25 years of work through public and private partnerships. Marion demonstrates how history and culture can result in economic success when people work together to achieve common goals that turn dreams into reality to benefit all the people. The author’s depth of analysis leads readers to understand how historic preservation can be combined with economic growth. Along with relevant books, Marion’s bibliography lists magazine articles, films, websites, and unpublished journals and speeches. Poems focusing on Lowell, many published by the author’s own Loom Press, are also included.

“Mill Power” and its subject, Lowell National Historical Park, seems particularly relevant at this moment in political history as Congress considers axing the development of any future national parks.’