Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where do we go from here?

Things are not OK in the world right now.

The economy is in shambles. Governments at all levels are cutting back services. Vast numbers of people are out of work, and industries are dying. Energy prices are rising; investments and retirements are going sour. Credit is hard to come by. The income gap is widening and the population is aging rapidly. The housing market collapse is causing people to lose their homes, or preventing them from selling, and speculative development is at a near-halt. Young people are graduating college - the price of which is rising far faster than any inflation we might be seeing - with crippling loan debt and poor job prospects. There are major concerns about the environment.

And these are national or even international problems. What does a small "Gateway City" like Lowell, where many people are socioeconomically quite vulnerable, do to keep moving forward?

I've been meeting up with quite a few people over the past few months, trading ideas and identifying problems here at home. How do these huge questions affect our small corner of the world? I've been asked a few times, "what is it I think we should do"?

Well...I don't know. Too open-ended; that's not how I think. I read a book, Being Geek, about a year ago, which is subtitled "The Software Developer's Career Handbook". While it's a trove of interesting anecdotes and all-around good ideas, one section stuck with me: Engineers love puzzles and games. They'll go after a challenge when they understand the rules - that is, when they can define a space around a problem. So, before I can offer any Big Ideas on how to keep the momentum here in Lowell going, I need to understand the problem. It's been said that cities are the most complex machines man builds, and I'd tend to agree.

So, let's break it down:

Good:

  • There has been a lot of momentum with residential and retail development downtown. Even today, new places to live and new retail/restaurant establishments are opening with reasonable regularity.
  • Today's youth is more environmentally conscious and interested in urban areas than at any time in decades.
  • We have a University and a Community College looking to expand, especially in directions that seem to be part of the "New Economy".
  • We have a huge chunk of the regional cultural institutions, and quite a few people who are part of the related (but larger than just arts) "Creative Economy".
  • Lowell's classical strength in well-connected, concerned, and engaged residents is still there. Our strong neighborhoods are reasonably stable.
Bad:
  • Demographically, we're in a position where economic challenges will be strongly felt. Foreclosure, unemployment, crime, etc are bigger concerns here than in many suburban communities.
  • Our educational system has a lot of room for improvement. Again, this is a demographic-based reality. However, a major reason for people to move to a community is the quality of the school system.
  • What is the New Economy, and what will it mean in a time of prolonged economic retraction? Lowell's traditional manufacturing base is still long gone. I would argue the service and retail industries are not good bets right now. Large, private industries in Lowell are not nearly as common as they once were.
  • We lose a lot of our best and brightest to the cultural and employment magnet that is Boston, or places outside of New England that often have a much lower cost of living.
  • Even after decades of investment and re-invigoration, we still have a stigma to overcome in the eyes of many.
Well, that's ten bullets. It'd be fairly trivial to come up with quite a few more or subdivide and elaborate on these. That doesn't answer the fundamental question: what does it mean and how do we act?

5 comments:

  1. Interesting post, and something I've been thinking about for awhile. I don't actually know the answer to your question and I get pretty frustrated if I think about it too much because then I get all pessimistic and that is both not fun and makes me feel a bit hopeless. What I have decided to do is live my life as if the world were the way I wanted it.

    That means that I:
    * commute/run errands/visit friends by bike whenever I am able to instead of complaining about the fact that the bike infrastructure stinks in Lowell;
    * try to be a good neighbor (and I am using the word neighbor in a pretty broad sense), basically if there is something that I can do to make someone's life a little easier or nicer I try my best do that;
    * volunteer;
    * keep informed of local issues and participate and vote;
    * buy local, if at all possible and support to the best of my ability the establishments that I would like to see stay in Lowell/see more of their kind in Lowell, etc.

    Doing these things probably doesn't have any impact at all on anything outside of my life, but I feel like I am doing what I can with the things I can control.

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  2. Corey, This is a subject that deserves a lot of attention. In their own ways, many many people in the city are dealing with the challenges and trying to stay on the same vision-page going forward. The large entities such as City government, hospitals, business associations, higher education, major non-profit org's and some others have strategic plans or master plans that articulate goals for themselves and the community. I was involved some years ago in a discussion to create a "community congress"---almost like a city version of a representative town meeting structure. The idea was to create a standing forum for a city-wide conversation.--Paul Marion

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  3. Good post Corey. I think the BIGGEST factor in making Lowell better is improving the public schools k-12. I'm not bashing the school system but there's a perception that things have gotten worse over the years. What's ironic is that I see couples who got a good education in Lowell leave for a surrounding suburb. Lowell isn't for everyone. Maybe you're very ambitious and Lowell is too small a pond to fish and you need to be in NYC or LA. Or maybe you just would like to live in the woods or on the ocean. Maybe you just want a fresh start somewhere new. Nothing wrong with that. But to be a 3rd or 4th generation Lowellian and move to Chelmsford or Dracut because you don't want your kids to go to Lowell public schools is a shame.
    On the flip side it's very interesting that you came "back" to Lowell. I think there's a culture in Lowell that's amazing and hard to explain. I know several people who, like you grew up nearby, have parents with deep Lowell roots, and have decided to return to Lowell. That speaks volumes to what Lowell has to offer. But I don't think that story is being told.

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  4. Marianne - after your response I sent out a couple of Facebook pointers to this post, to drum up conversation. I too do my best to remain optimistic and to try to make decisions I feel are positive for the community...but yeah, what change are we affecting and in what numbers?

    Paul - your community congress idea is an excellent one. In addition to working towards identifying issues and getting stuff done, at least from my viewpoint - that is, as a citizen with a lot of interest and stake here but with an introverted personality - I feel there is significant room for personal/professional networking. Facebook can't really replace that.

    Brian - I largely agree. Stability of neighborhoods is one of the biggest things a community can do to keep itself on the right track. Schools are the largest push-pull there is. This is the sort of reason I'm asking myself these questions - as someone who did at the end of the day grow up slightly elsewhere, has no children, and went to the regional Catholic school system anyhow, citywide education is not something I think about as being as hugely important as it is. To re-iterate what I said and what you said, in general, I don't feel that city government, school committee or otherwise, is doing anything wrong. We can't expect government to fix all of our issues anyhow - and certainly not in the current political climate. What can we, as a community do?

    Some of us at my company used to use a lunch once a week to go read to a kid who needed extra help with reading, one-on-one (http://www.ewmb.org/). I felt I was able to make a difference in these kids' futures. Some I was assigned were very troubled with school (and to some extent at home), and some were just brilliant and could be doing so much more than their grade level. Asking out of complete ignorance - do any of our local companies do stuff like this? I know the University does...

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  5. I think there should be more publicity of success in the Lowell public schools. I was no Carney Medalist while at LHS but I knew it was a big deal and since graduating always look forward to reading about the recipients in the Sun. Lately, it seems, the write ups are smaller and buried in local news. This used to be front page news with full bios.
    Maybe instead of marketing "alive, unique, and inspiring" on 92.5 so empty nesters from Andover come to the Merrimack Rep or eat at Cobblestones(great places) the city should market itself to the residents of Lowell. I think sometimes there might be a crisis of confidence. I remember going to college and getting ridiculed about being from Lowell. Then I would go visit friends at other schools who had the same experience. We'd say f-them, it's a great place to grow up, they have no idea. Same thing after getting my first job in Boston after college. By the time you're ready to buy a house or get married you've heard 8-12 years of people directly or indirectly bashing where you're from. Then you start to ask yourself "maybe the grass is greener" in some suburban town.
    I think this phenomenon is especially prevalant with successful native Lowellians. These are exactly the type of people we don't want leaving the city. However I think it may be easier to keep those types here than woo those types from the burbs to Lowell. I'm just not sure how.

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