NEA Arts Magazine

Building on the Past

The Creative Rebirth of Lowell, Massachusetts

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Boott Cotton Mills is a historic mill that has been turned into a museum and multiple-use space in Lowell, Massachusetts. Photo by Jonathan Parker

Boott Cotton Mills is a historic mill that has been turned into a museum and multiple-use space in Lowell, Massachusetts. Photo by Jonathan Parker

Lowell, Massachusetts, has long passed its 19th-century heyday as the largest planned industrial center in the United States. Although the city once roared with 10,000 looms, the local economy collapsed once cotton manufacturing began to migrate south in the 1920s. The looms grew still, the mills were abandoned, and the following decades were marked by widespread urban decay.

In 1976, the population had dipped from six figures to 92,000, and unemployment reached 13 percent, the highest of any city in Massachusetts. Being the birthplace of Jack Kerouac and James Whistler meant little when faced with those statistics.

"If you were away in college and somebody asked where you were from, you would say 'North of Boston,'" said Rosemary Noon, a Lowell native who grew up in the 1960s and '70s. "You would never say that you were from Lowell because it had, at that point, a troubling reputation and nothing optimistic about it." Noon went on to dedicate her career to revamping this reputation. In 1988, she became Lowell's first director of cultural affairs, and is today the assistant director of Lowell Plan, Inc., a not-for-profit that facilitates local development by fostering public-private partnerships.

Noon points to the creation of the Lowell National Historical Park as a pivotal moment in the city's story. Rather than follow the conventional raze-and-rebuild notion of urban renewal, the park would celebrate and preserve Lowell's history as an industrial powerhouse. Among the earliest funding for this nascent project was a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1974. This seed money helped spark a multi-decade effort to restore the 5.6-mile canal system that once powered the city's mills. Four years later, Patrick Mogan, then the city's superintendent of schools, successfully completed the campaign to secure an additional $40 million in federal funding to create one of the nation's first urban national parks. It was Mogan, along with U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas, a Lowell native, whom Noon remembers as the first to consider Lowell's history an asset rather than a source of embarrassment.

The Worcester Kiltie Pipe Band performs during the annual Lowell Folk Festival. Photo courtesy of Lowell Folk Festival/Higgins & Ross

The Worcester Kiltie Pipe Band performs during the annual Lowell Folk Festival. Photo courtesy of Lowell Folk Festival/Higgins & Ross

The Worcester Kiltie Pipe Band performs during the annual Lowell Folk Festival. Photo courtesy of Lowell Folk Festival/Higgins & Ross

Paul Marion, who is married to Noon, is another Lowellian who has dedicated his life to championing his hometown. Today the executive director of Community and Cultural Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Marion began his service to the city in 1981 when he joined the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. His role was to help implement cultural programming in the new national park. "It was a terrific opportunity to spark a kind of cultural renaissance in the city," Marion said. The Park and Preservation District became a focal point for performances and cultural entities, many of which the commission supported. One of the earliest projects was to convert a historic mill complex into artist studios, inspired by the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Worker, a part of the Lowell Public Art Collection, which commissions contemporary artists to honor the city's history as a mill town. Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park/Higgins & Ross

The Worker, a part of the Lowell Public Art Collection, which commissions contemporary artists to honor the city's history as a mill town. Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park/Higgins & Ross

The Worker, a part of the Lowell Public Art Collection, which commissions contemporary artists to honor the city's history as a mill town. Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park/Higgins & Ross

Marion said that the success of these early projects in turn helped catalyze additional investment resources for the city. By the late '80s, "The city was starting to look very different and taking on a much more dynamic, energetic personality," Marion said. "People saw that there was a foundation for going even further." The Merrimack Repertory Theatre—a frequent NEA grant recipient—opened in 1979, and historic buildings continued to be rehabbed. The New England Quilt Museum opened in 1987; the Department of Cultural Affairs was founded in 1988; and in 1989, an 1844 boardinghouse, once home to female mill workers, was converted into the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center.

"It's a heritage of innovation," said Marion, explaining the city's predisposition to reinvention. "Lowell was famous in the 1820s because it was the place where something happened first. It's that attitude that needs to drive the city forward. And that's why creative economy is such a good fit, because it's about invention, imagination, innovation."

Although Lowell was beginning to gain recognition as a regional wunderkind, it was the National Folk Festival that transformed Lowell into a national destination overnight. After a concerted effort by local leaders, the itinerant National Folk Festival—which partners with communities across the country for three-year stints as festival host—chose Lowell as its host from 1987 to 1989. The event was such a success that once the city's hosting period ended, the Lowell Folk Festival was launched in 1990, with Marion serving as one of its founders. Today, the annual three-day festival is the largest free celebration of its kind, and attracts roughly 250,000 people every year. It has received continued support from the Arts Endowment since its inception.

Marion said the city's NEA grants, and the National Folk Festival in general, "were a kind of outside validation that what was going on here was significant and had national status. Those decisions made a difference in terms of the community psychology."

Community psychology, however, was dealt another major blow in the 1990s when computer company Wang Laboratories, then headquartered in Lowell, closed its doors, sparking another wave of unemployment and economic hardship. Once again, the arts helped the city recalibrate itself, and the idea of "creative economy" began to find a larger audience.

"When I was the first cultural affairs director, the emphasis was on culture as an amenity—an important one, and a very serious one—but definitely an amenity," Noon said. "It was never discussed as an economic engine."

Today, of course, that viewpoint has shifted entirely, and Lowell has redeveloped itself as a regional cultural capital. Nearly 80 percent of the historic mills have been rehabilitated, many of them into live/work spaces for artists. The one million dollar Lowell Public Art Collection, partially funded with NEA grants, uses contemporary artistry to honor the city's history as a mill town. Those formerly underutilized and underappreciated canals now form the picturesque Canalway and Riverwalk system, popular spots for boat rides, bike rides, and afternoon strolls. There are year-round festivals, and no lack of art galleries or museums. The city's diverse ethnic communities flavor Lowell with artistic multiculturalism, with organizations such as the Angkor Dance Troupe, the African Festival, and the Khmer Cultural Institute.

Artists themselves are considered entrepreneurs, and the city has created an infrastructure to support the hundreds of artists who now reside in Lowell. There are networking events for creative professionals, community panels tailored to expanding creative businesses, and business and funding assistance for cultural entrepreneurs. In 2007, the Lowell Plan commissioned a report on creative economy called On the Cultural Road, which outlines strategies that will help Lowell continue to evolve as a dynamic cultural destination.

And evolve Lowell has—many new projects are underway. The Hamilton Canal District initiative will revamp 15 acres of Lowell, and there is a new effort to incorporate the historic trolley line into the city's mass transit system. But it remains to be seen who will be the next James Whistler or Jack Kerouac, or who will fight as passionately for Lowell as Paul Marion and Rosemary Noon have. "The challenge is to make sure that the people who are in their 30s don't take this stuff for granted," Noon said. "You must get involved in your city. You can't just sit back."