Observations on the Lowell High Debate

Observations on the Lowell High Debate

By Fred Faust

Dick Howe expressed the view that Lowell’s social and economic life lies in the values of being a city and not trying to be a suburban wannabe. The city versus the suburbs was a frequent debate point in last evening’s debate, which witnessed about six hours of public testimony – some quite pointed.  Other contrasts were expressed between diverse students and the more vanilla Cawley crowd.

On Monday, I happened to be downtown when the high school let out.  As demonstrated by the picture here, the faces were diverse. As described during the discussion, Lowell High is a majority minority school, and this absolutely needs to be understood.  Students were walking home, to the library, grabbing a bite at the sub shop – or just being social.  This was and is Lowell – a city of immigrants.  I do not believe that the Cawley supporters truly understand what this means or appreciate the challenges of immigrant families and stressors.  A building owner that I was with commented that in the 20 years she’d had a nearby business, she had never witnessed an act of vandalism or a problem with loitering or petty crime.

The school advisory panel this morning deadlocked 9-9 on a recommendation, however, a majority of the educators supported the downtown location.  You can also add Congresswoman Tsongas, State Senator Donoghue, and Chancellor Meehan as supporters of the downtown option.  These are very informed individuals and groups whose counsel in this process would have been useful.  On the other hand, the support for Cawley was all about being new and how we would work out problems like bussing, transportation costs, street widenings and a site lacking infrastructure.

Illustrating these conflicts and decision making in general was well illustrated by Councilor Elliot’s comment that when he thought about what was best for his kids and relatives, Cawley was the better choice.  The lost point with the Councilor and many of the Cawley supporters is that everyone in Lowell does not look like Rodney’s kids and immediate family.  This opinion was, in fact, expressed by no less than a dozen student speakers who pledged to become more politically active and hold councilors responsible for their anti-downtown sentiment.  The students lamented the nature of being removed from the downtown and their support institutions.  Some described the feeling that they were being exiled to Tewksbury and an area that simply didn’t offer a support system.  There is resonance here as to the federal discrimination suit against Lowell, which seeks more of a district representation system.  You cannot help to wonder, what would be the tenor and outcome of the high school debate with several “minority” office holders taking part in the debate.

For downtown supporters, this debate has been depressing.  Over decades I have argued for the values of an active and inclusive downtown, thematically and economically.  I somehow thought we would outlive the supporters of suburban values and belittlers of the downtown.  But it is the lack of appreciation for what the high school could contribute to the downtown – with proper and imaginative plans – and the loss of that opportunity for future generations, this is what is most unfortunate.  I had the privilege of working Pat Mogan.  I understand the meaning and value of an “educative city.”

Other concerns experienced in this debate involve the initial lack of public participation and the tinges of racism and classism that have surfaced.  Disparaging comments have been made about ‘those kids that are on food stamps’ and ‘how can they contribute economically to the downtown?’  And then there is the “magical thinking,” as one speaker called it, in describing with confidence that the 600,000 square foot high school buildings could soon be inhabited by Faneuil Hall type retail and half million dollar condos.

I am glad I attended this marathon session.  Certainly, not because of the immediate outcome.  In fact, I remain a strong supporter of the wisdom of developing a state-of-the-art downtown high school.  But I was heartened by the level of student participation, the truth telling, and support for the values of urban life and its fortuitous adjacencies.  Generationally, Lowell will be aided by values now seen in urban life, social equality, walkability and life-long education.  Lowell’s next generation checked in tonight.  In more ways than one, Lowell may never be the same.

Fred Faust, the author of this post, is a frequent contributor to this website.

8 Responses to Observations on the Lowell High Debate

  1. Mary Ann Regan Coffin says:

    Having all four of my children attend Lowell High downtown over 20 years ago and being one of the poor people of Belvidere, I strongly believe that the best location for the new high school is it’s down town location. It is a central location with rich resources And available to all students. Thank you.

  2. Joe Boyle says:

    The white kids who spoke out got this stuff just as much as the students of color. I find that heartening.

    Who was that kid that stood up like a man when Rita tried to bully him? A kid like that, in a full City Council chamber, on a night like that, in front of his city, not backing down…standing there with his voice starting to quaver then making it steady, looking her in the eye and telling the truth. I think I have a new hero.

  3. Joe White says:

    Great, another “vanilla” resident speaking for the other communities. But I’m sure the writer is more knowledgeable than the other “vanilla” citizens.

  4. LHSGuy says:

    It’s too bad that inequality hits Lowell. If you look at the complaints from downtown supporters, minorities, and the poor is that they want a school downtown for equality for all. All the resources is in downtown and easy and fair access for all.

    Most Cawley supporters speak nothing about equality for all. They just want a school near them that is shiny and new. And the politics they played is so sad. They complain about disruption..did you see UMassLowell students complain of disruption? They complain about imminent domain in downtown..but ignore imminent domain at Cawley. They complain that downtown can’t be fixed…this is America..anything can be fixed/replaced…if you don’t want to fix it..you can’t!

    It’s too bad. Minorities and poor, and the majority of Lowellians were ignored. This is what inequality feels like!

  5. Szifra says:

    Just heard a piece on WBUR yesterday about the top 20% really not understanding the bottom 80. Seems apt in this situation… Richard Reeves’ new book, “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else In The Dust, Why That Is A Problem, And What To Do About It.”

  6. Suzfrec says:

    Driving back to my office on Middlesex Street today, I saw 20 to 30 students walking up the ramp towards The lower Highlands. Some are probably going home, some to the boys and girls club, some to socialize or eat out in the neighborhood . They may not have any other way but walking to get to school. It it’s great to see that kind of activity around the downtown area.

  7. jay says:

    While its encouraging to see the entire city engaged in political process; it seems the HS debate has overshadowed some other important issues. HDC has lost its 2nd Master developer because certain councilors want a “Commercial ONLY” development. I hope residents can appreciate the level of incompetence necessary for that to unfold the way it did. Very little coverage or interest on this. That’s troubling

  8. Renee Aste says:

    Yes the tinge of classism is present, isn’t it.

    I know several of the pro-Cawley families very well, and they’re very active in youth sports. They put in endless hours of their own time volunteering in the city, so there can be youth sports for all in our community. We are always short on volunteers in terms of sports. How long has Councilor Elliot been president of the Lowell Soccer Association? Like forever.

    I happen to be in favor of Downtown, but am I sympathetic to these sports families. I really am.

    But then again these families had the resources to take the whole day for traveling for their children’s activities.

    Personally, as a family we do not travel for activities. We live in a world of hyper parenting, heavily invested child-centered parenting mostly seen in the suburbs. I don’t travel for soccer or dance, even though I have children exceptionally good. We do camp for Scouts, but the planning and meetings are local. I was actually happy when my son stopped playing Chess, I get one of our Sundays back from monthly tournaments.

    I pay only 60 some odd dollars a season for my son to play soccer in the rec league here in Lowell, a steal.