Leftovers: December 21, 2015

Each week on Sunday morning I post a “week in review” article. Sometimes there are some items that don’t fit, either for space or thematic reasons. This article, called “leftovers,” is a random collection of observations from the weekend and the prior week.

MBTA Commuter Rail

Friday morning I had an appointment in Boston. My preferred method of transportation from Lowell to that city is MBTA Commuter Rail from Gallagher Terminal. Although it is nowhere near as pricey as parking in Boston, the train is getting expensive. The roundtrip from Lowell is $18.50 and parking at the Gallagher Terminal was recently increased from $5 to $7. With hourly service through the day and extra trains during the morning and evening rush, the train is a great way to get to Boston, especially if your destination is within walking distance of North Station.

Commuter rail gets even more attractive when the weather turns bad. Unfortunately, the trains’ performance last winter was poor. It wasn’t just the snow that caused problems; many of the outages and delays were due to the cold which makes it unacceptable. This is New England. It gets cold in the winter. Trains should be built and maintained to operate in the cold.

Early this week the MBTA released its new schedule. It includes a reduction in service during “severe weather” which I guess is up to the T to define. Once it does declare severe weather, two midday trains from Lowell to Boston and two coming in the opposite direction will be cancelled. Hopefully nature will give us a mild, make-up winter to balance the historic snowfall we endured last January and February.

The Internet and the Internet of Things

I had two good experiences with technology last week. A postcard had invited me to call USI Services, a contractor hired by the city of Lowell to replace water meters. I called and scheduled an appointment. The technician showed up on time and spent about 40 minutes replacing the two meters I have in my basement (the second was added when a lawn irrigation system was installed a few years ago). These new meters were needed for the new high tech meter reading devices the technician also installed outside the house. These devices emit a wireless signal each day that helps the city track exactly how much water I’m using. If these new devices are installed city-wide, they should help avoid a repeat of the problems the city had in the past with billing people accurately and in a timely manner for the water they use. My experience with USI Services was painless in all respects.

I had a similar positive experience with Comcast which provides me with television, internet and telephone service. My cable modem and the wireless router I had attached to it seemed to be working OK, so I had ignored the frequent notices from Comcast that it was time to upgrade the modem. Finally I went to the Comcast website and saw a button that said “upgrade your modem.” I clicked it, expecting to be directed to a page describing the process. Instead, I got a popup that said “your new modem is on the way.” That was Wednesday and Friday a big box from Comcast was waiting on my front porch. Unboxing the modem, I found the instructions to be concise and clear. I plugged in a few things, waited about 30 minutes for all the lights to stop blinking, and then I was in business. Internet, telephone, and TV were all fully operational without any further human intervention from Comcast. Given the amount charged by Comcast, it was nice to have something work this well.

USPS and Amazon

That’s “United States Postal Service” which is the primary deliverer of packages from Amazon. It’s been that way for a while, I guess, but I hadn’t really noticed until I was driving down Westford Street on Saturday and passed a stopped mail truck. Its rear door was up. All I could see was a solid wall of brown cardboard boxes with “Amazon” stamped on each of them. We make a lot of purchases online. Yesterday, Sunday, I had mail carriers come to my house twice with packages. This is not a complaint; just and observation. With this increase in package delivery volume, I hope the Post Office turns a profit this year and stays in business for many years to come.

At the Movies

I was lukewarm about the new Star Wars movie until I read a review by Manohla Dargis in Wednesday’s New York Times who assures readers that this movie has captured the magic of the original. I probably would have seen the movie anyway, but now I’m looking forward to it.

Another movie I’m looking forward to seeing this holiday season is The Big Short which comes out on Wednesday. Based on a book by Michael Lewis by the same name, The Big Short is about the U.S. housing bubble and its bursting. If you wonder why there were so many mortgage foreclosures in Lowell from 2007 to 2010, go see this movie. It has a great cast (including Christian Bale and Melissa Leo who both won Oscars for their roles in The Fighter), so seeing it should not be a hardship. Here’s a link to its trailer.

UMass Lowell East Campus

With the sale of the Notini property to UMass Lowell pending, on Saturday I went to that part of the city to take some pictures. There wasn’t another car in sight but I still paid my 50 cents at the parking kiosk. (I don’t want to become one of those whiners who park illegally, get a ticket, and then take to Facebook to denounce the city for enforcing the law).

University Suites

After getting my photos of the Notini building, I wandered around the area, impressed by the many attractive buildings, most of them belonging to the University. The most colorful building, University Suites, has a coffee shop in its lobby called The Hawks Nest which has a big sign that says “public welcome.” I had been there previously and found it to be a nice place to meet. Consider putting it on your coffee shop rotation.

Hawk’s Nest

This area once was a densely packed residential neighborhood called Little Canada but it was bulldozed in the mid-1960s in the name of Urban Renewal. The goal was to replace dilapidated housing with “modern industry” but that didn’t work very well and that area has sat mostly vacant and underutilized for more than 40 years. The construction of LeLacheur Field in the mid-1990s served as a catalyst for the areas redevelopment and UMass Lowell embraced the opportunity for expansion.

We’ll get the chance to hear more about Urban Renewal this spring. The Lawrence History Center will host a symposium on Urban Renewal at the Everett Mills in Lawrence on May 7, 2016. UMass Lowell history professor Bob Forrant is one of the prime movers of that event which will include presentations about Urban Renewal in Lowell but will also bring related programming (like a Lowell Walk) to Lowell this spring.


My Saturday exploration also brought me to the Riverwalk, one of Lowell’s most underutilized assets. This walkway along the southern bank of the Merrimack River begins at the Boott Cotton Mills near Bridge Street and extends almost to the Howe Bridge and upper Merrimack Street. The views of the river on one side and the mill buildings on the other are spectacular. Unfortunately, I was alone in appreciating the view because the Riverwalk was deserted but for two joggers who quickly passed by.


Several years ago a woman was brutally attacked on the Riverwalk while on a morning run. That one incident may have been enough to brand the walkway as a dangerous place. It’s easy to get the feeling when you are there by yourself because you are by yourself. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With more people and activities, the Riverwalk could become a vibrant, exciting place.

There are countless examples around the world of cities using waterways as enhancements to recreation and general urban living. If we didn’t have waterways in Lowell, we’d be saying “if only we had a river or some canals. . .” Well we do have a river and canals and plenty of already-built places alongside them for all kinds of activities. We – the city and all of us – should make a concerted effort in 2016 to better integrate these waterways into the daily life of the city.

Winter Arrives

The calendar tells us that winter officially arrives at 11:48 this evening.