“Legends of Little Canada” book review

Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey’s Bookland, and My Captain Jack

Book by Charlie Gargiulo

Review by Richard Howe

I first encountered Charlie Gargiulo nearly 40 years ago, not in person but by reputation. Back then, Joe Tully was the Lowell City Manager and the City Council allowed him to run Lowell with an iron fist. Most of his proposals sailed through on 8 to 1 votes with my dad, Richard Howe Sr., being the lone voice of opposition on the Council.

Very few stood up to Tully. One who did was Charlie Gargiulo. He was heavily involved in the recently formed Coalition for a Better Acre and he was vocal and effective in blocking some of the city’s plans to displace low-income residents from housing in the vicinity of City Hall. I don’t believe Charlie and my dad could be called allies, but there was a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” respect for Charlie and the fights he waged against City Hall.

Fast forward to 2016, I found myself sharing the stage with Charlie, who I never had met in person, at a UMass Lowell sponsored housing conference at the Inn & Conference Center which drew housing advocates and suppliers from across the Commonwealth. My task was a brief presentation on the history of Lowell; Charlie’s was to talk about his 1980s housing equity fight against City Hall. I found his presentation to be fascinating and I was intrigued by the way he planted his activist roots in the decades-earlier demolition of the Little Canada neighborhood.

Little Canada was a densely populated residential neighborhood that lay between Merrimack Street and the mills of the Lawrence Manufacturing Company on the south bank of the Merrimack River, extending from City Hall to Pawtucket Street. Filled with tightly packed triple deckers with ancillary businesses scattered about, Little Canada was home to working class immigrants from Quebec and their descendants.

In the 1960s, the city forced all the residents to move elsewhere and then demolished nearly the entire neighborhood as part of a federal Urban Renewal project. The intent of the program was to “clear slums” and make way for “new industry” but history shows that for the most part, the primary outcome of the program was to deprive poor people of housing. At least that was the evolving opinion of Urban Renewal in the early 21st century. However, it is a period of Lowell’s history that has been woefully neglected.

For that reason, I was thrilled to learn that Charlie Gargiulo was writing a memoir about growing up in Little Canada and being displaced from the neighborhood. I felt that a first-person account would help fill a cavernous gap in Lowell’s historiography.

In that regard, Charlie’s “Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey’s Bookland, and My Captain Jack” succeeds wonderfully. Filled with local color and forgotten details, the book captures the camaraderie of the residents who despite their poverty lived fulfilling though challenging lives. It also describes in a visceral way the tangible and intangible injuries inflicted on those residents when they were forced to scatter to new neighborhoods and cities in the face of the Urban Renewal wrecking ball. The account is particularly poignant when one considers what replaced this neighborhood which was a public housing project (mostly good) and a bunch of scattered businesses and vacant lots that never achieved any kind of communal synergy (mostly bad).

While “Legends of Little Canada” does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the neighborhood and the consequences of its demise, the book is much, much more. Charlie bares his soul, opening the book with his father’s sudden abandonment of the family which forced 10-year-old Charlie and his mom to move from their home in Dracut to the tenement in Little Canada in which Charlie’s mom had grown up. Like most children in such circumstances, Charlie blamed himself for his father’s departure and its consequences, which led to waves of psychological distress.

As the story progresses, we are confronted with the stigma of welfare, the inhumanity of supposed humane institutions and people, and the terror of bullies. But we also see the kindness of neighbors, the power of friendship, and the security that comes from community, regardless of the quantitative wealth or lack of wealth of those making up that community.

By weaving accounts of everyday life, Charlie paints a rich portrait of life in America in the early 1960s, a transformational moment in America. Charlie also demonstrates how the incidents and challenges of his youth made him the social activist and fighter for equity that he became as an adult.

“Legends of Little Canada” is an instant classic. It provides a vital account of the impact of Urban Renewal on the people of one neighborhood in Lowell, but it is also the best coming of age story set in Lowell since Kerouac’s “Dr. Sax” and “Maggie Cassidy.”

“Legends” is available online from Loom Press.

10 Responses to “Legends of Little Canada” book review

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    Nice review. I really enjoyed the book. It’s a great tribute to that neighborhood and the people who lived there. Sorry, Charlie, that those Irish kids gave you a hard time in the Acre!

  2. Louise Peloquin says:

    Perspicacious and sensitive review of a book which calls for many more like it! Thank you Charlie and thank you Richard.

  3. Tom Garfield says:

    I love this book! Beautifully written in the voice of young Charlie desperately trying to make sense of, and adapt to, the powerful outside forces destroying the lives of his family, friends and community. The stories are full of humor, warmth and righteous anger. Should be required reading for politicians and policy makers.

  4. Michael Jacoby Brown says:

    Legends of Little Canada is a great book. It is so well written that I could not put it down. It not only tells the story of one boy and his coming of age, it also shows what happens to real people, like Charlie, like his aunt Rose, and so many others, when “urban renewal” comes to town. Rather than preaching against the evils of such “public policy” and the plans of people far away from the people who are affected by the plans of bankers and developers, this book gives the reader a kid’s eye view of real life and the impact of “urban renewal.”

    If people would read this book they will come away with a realization that “politics” and “public policy” affects real people, espeically children, who are not able to understand the distant powers that intimately affect their lives.

  5. Susan April says:

    As a little girl who, holding her father’s hand–also named Charlie–watched the wrecking ball swing on to the side of a Little Canada home, I am so glad Loom Press has brought out Charlie Gargiulo’s poignant and at times hilarious, “Legends of Little Canada.” And grateful for Lowell’s Richard Howe for reviewing, and placing the work at the intersecion of a coming of age story and the 1960s urban renewal politics of Lowell. To both Charlies: thank you for bearing witness.

  6. Charles Gargiulo says:

    Thank you so much Dick for your kind review of Legends of Little Canada. Coming from you feels extra special since I have so much respect for how you have dedicated yourself to preserving Lowell’s history with a commitment to the objective truth and how you keep people informed about current events with the same integrity.

    I also appreciate your reflections about your dad and I. As I told you before, although we didn’t always agree politically, I ALWAYS respected your dad because I trusted his honesty and motives. When we disagreed he never made it personal and neither did I. He was a good man who had the courage to stand up to demagogues when it would have been easier politically to side with those who sought cheap political points by fueling divisiveness.

    I am also extremely humbled by what you and those who have offered such kind comments have said. It does my heart good to know that the people and community I loved in Little Canada has touched you.

  7. Paulette Renault-Caragianes says:

    Charlie’s gift of storytelling through the eyes of a coming of age kid makes this book a great read. As a “blowellian”(36 years+) the raising of Little Canada had till now been conceptual

    The depth of the sense of community Charlie recalls woven with the dynamics of the impact of what it takes to eke out a life made it hard to put the book down.

    I was transported by this book on so many levels and see it as a must read for folks looking at what makes Lowell such a dynamic place to live

  8. Brian says:

    Great book! Lowell has always been a city of characters and Little Canada was brimming with them. It’s amazing how close the ethnic groups lived but each neighborhood was distinct. Urban renewal was a crime. We could use that housing today.