Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lowell's Walk Score

I finally got around to seeing The Fighter, and was impressed to see some very nice sections of town far off of the main streets I know.  Many of them appear to be in the Outer Highlands on streets you're not going to find by accident.  A conversation with my girlfriend on the way home brought up where we'd like to live someday, and I would love to stay in Lowell.  However, there is a complex cross between her desires for a little more space and greenery and my desires to have interesting places to walk to.  So, into this equation comes is a site that you can give your address to and it uses I believe Google to figure out how many different amenities are within walking distance of your house.  They have full gradient maps of some of the larger towns, and Lowell is fortunate enough to be included:

Sadly, it is clear from the map that Upper Belvidere, the Outer Highlands, and West Pawtucketville are all bright, bright red, meaning very little is available on foot.  Dowtown, Back Central, parts of the Acre, Lower Belvidere, and Lower Centralville are all the most green.  But of course, those are Lowell's only real urban sections.

What do people think?  Is this tool fair?  It doesn't take into consideration deep parking lots and wide roads that impede foot traffic like exist on Rogers Street.  The method the map uses to find businesses is actually a little too liberal as well, as it only looks for certain words.  For example, it identifies some home-based business with the word "market" in it on Lincoln Parkway as a grocery store, when clearly it is not.  Personally, I am looking for a place that is about a 10 minute walk or less, on safe sidewalks through safe neighborhoods, from a cup of coffee, a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, and an active-use park.  Where are Lowell's best options for this?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Last part of Gateway Cities series

This Sunday was the last of I believe six Boston Globe editorials on the Commonwealth's Gateway Cities - or the economically disadvantaged cities in the state that are still, decades after losing their economic reason for existing, struggling to find footing (article).

This one focuses a bit on Haverhill, a city I've come to know fairly well, and compares it to Lowell, which it says is looked at as a model city for the others in the group.

If you missed the rest of the series, I'd recommend trying to find it.  I believe "gateway cities" appears in every article in the series.  There was great information on the economic and social issues that confront our older and poorer cities, and ideas for how to take advantage of their remaining strengths.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lowell Junction

Brian asked what I thought about the Lowell Junction project over in the Gateway Cities post.  My answer is over 4096 characters, so I'll just put it up here:

I've been pretty indifferent to it.  Other than at a very high level, I actually knew very little about what it was.  I've now read this

and this

The area that is being talked about is here:

While it'd be nice to see the development in Lowell instead, I think the scale and type of businesses they're talking about here isn't really feasible for us right now.  I don't think this really negatively impacts Lowell because I can't imagine us doing any of the retrofitting for tractor trailers necessary to get a Lowell Junction company like Gillette to locate here, especially downtown.  The train system in the US is a mess, and we'd need to fix that if we ever wanted to consider bringing large-scale manufacturing back to Lowell - and that's a bigger issue than we should be tackling now, IMHO.  Besides, in a pretend world where people lived and worked in more centralized places, Lowell and Lowell junction are pretty far apart.  The name must come from the fact that the rail line that used to begin at the old train station on Central Street intersects the B&M mainline there.

So as to the project itself...

As you can see from the maps, the gap in interchanges between Dascomb Rd and Ballardvale Street is significant.  The length of Ballardvale Street is full of industries, including the Gillette plant.  All of these companies generate car traffic, and many of them freight.  Coming from the south, you get off on 125, then take Ballardvale St.  Coming from the North (as people going in the direction of morning rush-hour traffic jams are, making them less keen to drive an extra ramp south to come back north), you're going through a residential neighborhood on River St.  I can see how this would be a problem, plus there's the orphaned slice of Tewksbury on the other side of I-93 off of South Street which contains the Rocco's superfund site, the notorious stinking pig farm (for and against), and the abandoned plans for a shopping mall.

So, it's clear that there's a big hole in the road network here, just like you'd see if you look for roads that connect Middlesex Turnpike to 3A in Billerica (, or connect Middlesex Turnpike over Route 3 to Springs Rd in Bedford.  They're been working on and will continue working on tearing down a bunch of trees right now to widen Middlesex Turnpike from Exit 27 to the south, but if there was just another exit further down the road where the office parks on Manning Rd dead-end against the highway, things would be much simpler.  The land is pretty close to maxed out for zoning, so it's not as likely to encourage much more sprawl in the way that building through greenfields does.  Which, of course, is why they don't do anything about it.  It simply wouldn't open enough land up to new development or reduce commute times enough to matter.  The PDF document I posted here about "Phase III" of the widening is amusing.  Bike lanes and a bus connection to the North Billerica train station for a suburban office park 4 miles away...right.

In both of these places, Lowell Junction and Middlesex Turnpike, construction along land that's already been turned over to office park use is being underused because of the China-wall a limited access highway creates (or a purposefully disconnected street network creates, I'll get back to that).

Lowell Junction is closer to the Lowell area than 128, which, while not Lowell itself and still requires a car, is still a more attractive option than many other places.  Lowell Junction has the additional feature of being right along the Haverhill commuter rail line (although to be fair the LRTA covers Middlesex a snail's pace).  While the rail service means absolutely nothing right now (much like the Lowell line Mishawum station in Woburn probably gets very few people to work in that massive office park), it might help things later if the plan develops into an edge city - or a retrofitted office park that is now mixed use and develops along transit lines.  They're talking about building Lowell Junction in that context already (and again to be fair, the office parks down by the Burlington Mall, yet there is no rail service there), which makes me think of some reasonably interesting places in the Washington DC metro area.

However - and this is a big however - the issue still remains there is not a critical mass of mass transit for that to mean much at all.  You won't even be able to get from Lowell to Lowell junction by rail unless they introduce commuter service along either the old B&M Lowell spur or in the reverse direction along the so-called Wildcat Branch that allows the Haverhill trains to run down the Lowell line south of Wilmington.

So...I guess ultimately I'm skeptical of the plan, but not against it.  I will say I'm against towns with no commercial tax base.  I'm against widening 93 to get it done as well because I think that's simply a sprawl-inducing boon to New Hampshire.  One of the biggest reasons I'm skeptical of the project being anything other than another office park development in a region of underutilized office parks is the buzzword bingo going on in those planning documents about transit-oriented "mixed-use", "sustainable" office parks.  Office parks are not sustainable.  They are not mixed use.  At least not the way they are built today.  I'd assume they meant well and were just using the wrong terms, but when you see Tewksbury saying they don't want this development connected to South Street whatsoever - in other words, making people have to drive further to get to the place so that cars stay off residential (but public!) streets - it seems like business as usual.

This is the same issue that occurs in Billerica with the traffic on the Middlesex Turnpike.  Street network connectivity is a good thing.  If the cars are driving too fast for the neighborhood, don't cut off the street and disconnect the network lengthening commutes and endangering emergency vehicles, narrow the road.  Towns are starting to get this.  There was an article in the paper recently that the Pelham fire department was pretty close to getting that town to connect a few streets to provide alternate routes around Bridge Street.  Jeff Speck talked about narrowing lanes in Lowell to slow traffic.  Things are changing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The End of an Era - Chicago's Notorious Cabrini Greene

In all the talk today about arsenic-friendly life being announced, a smaller - but interesting - story got buried:  Cabrini-Green, the infamous failed housing project in Chicago's Near North Side, had its final residents ordered out.

In a time before I was born, in fact, when my parents were quite young (and sometimes, my grandparents!), public housing projects were going to solve the issues of housing the poor in America.  Cabrini-Green, with its plethora of problems, were the poster-child of how high-density, single-income housing just didn't work.  It lead to disinventment and crime: warehousing of the poor as one article mentioned.  We've seen these same sorts of projects, on a much smaller scale, fail here in Lowell.  While it sounds like not everyone will be successfully relocated, this is still a large step forward in undoing the damage done to America's cities in the post-war era.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gateway Cities

Thanks once again to for tipping me in on a series The Globe will be running on Sundays about Massachusetts' Gateway Cities.  The first article is up already here.

While it's nice to see the article's photo be of Lowell and to hear us mentioned as a "more successful" city, the article's point is clear:  The state's smaller cities (as in, not Boston), have been left behind by the capital and the suburbs in the new economy, and much of it was deliberate, or full of good intentions gone wrong.  Some of the more interesting points made in the article or the comments ask why these cities must take on the brunt of their regional problems via government housing and welfare programs instead of "right-sizing" themselves in relationship to their lost industrial advantages.  Others talk about NIMBYism (Not in my backyard!) and the advantages the wealthier suburbs and cities have with regard to it - not needing government carrots to stay solvent.  Others talk about the hard do-not-cross line drawn between the suburbs and the cities.

As for solutions... If I had my way?  Organizations like the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments would have some teeth.  In most of the US, government bodies much larger than New England towns have the real power.  It's not uncommon in the US or other parts of the world for cities to merge with growing suburbs (look at London!).  The fact that this practice began stopping in the United States in the late 19th century (and in Lowell around 1910), I feel has added to the issues we see today by creating an Us and Them mentality between cities and outlying areas.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Long Emergency

I'm going to take a minute on the most consumer-driven of holidays (Black Friday) to plug a book I just finished:  The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, 2005.  The book predicts a very, very bleak future for the consumerist way of life.

The subtitle of The Long Emergency is "Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century."  Essentially, this is a book about the devastation caused by the coming of Peak Oil.

Kunstler is not a scientist nor an urban planner.  He is a one-time journalist and now author living in Upstate New York.  I'm familiar with him because of his book The Geography of Nowhere, which focused on the destruction of America's cities for carbon-copy suburbia, and the social, ecological, and economic costs of doing that.  Due to his background, he brings a lot of energy to the Peak Oil topic, but does very little to source his data or present dissenting viewpoints.  That said, he makes compelling arguments.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"All About Cities"

Following some links from the Suburban Pioneer blog Richard Howe recently blogged about, I found a very active blog about urbanism:  All About Cities.  Check it out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What is a city?

This is one of my half-baked ideas from when I wrote the posts on Speck's document, expanded into a "I didn't have time to write you a short blog post, so I wrote you a long one" post.

So, what is a city?

This seemingly silly question is important because it cuts deep into a lot of the important ideas behind plans like Speck's and highlights the source of the complaints about it: Why do it?  Why have cities?  If we can't define what we're trying to have here, we can't have a constructive discussion about it.

The dictionary defines a city simply as "a place bigger than a town" whereas a town is "a place that isn't rural."  OK, that's totally useless, so here is my definition: 

"A city is a place where humans chose to live closely together.  They do so to engage in trade and for economic opportunities, for convenience, and to participate in the development, expression, and consumption of culture.  The economic basis for the city and its expression of culture -which can only occur in an economically prosperous climate- defines the settlement and contributes to the unique characteristics of a city as well as the cohesiveness of its citizenry."  

This definition held well for thousands of years, but over time, it has started to fall apart a bit as technologies have changed.  Where does it still hold, where has it lost ground, and what does that mean?  After the jump.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Albany, New York

As I mentioned previously on my old site, I spent my college years in Troy, NY.  Troy is across the river and just to the north of the state capital of Albany.  The Albany do I put this much of the Northeast, has had ... challenges? ... with urban blight over the past 30, 40 ... 50 years.  I've always felt it's a region with so much history, character and potential, but for some reason, nothing seems to be going their way out there.  But, like here in the Merrimack Valley, there is a can-do spirit out there.  Their paper, The Times Union, appears to have a blog writer who covers urban issues as part of his real estate task.

So, I was Googling around today and by chance stumbled across an interesting blog post associated with the Times Union.  The article was Poll result: Interstate 787 was a big mistake.  The brief article, and many of the comments (this paper, unlike ours, seems to be written for and by a left-leaning populace*), discuss how the riverside interstate highway, much like Boston's old Central Artery, cut the city off from its waterfront.  As someone who lived in the area for years and drove 787 plenty, it's worse than that even because it's underused.  Worst traffic jam in Troy?  Trying to head east out of the city on Route 7, where it went from four lanes to two, on its way to Troy's suburban grocery store and Wal-Mart (the closest grocery store to downtown Troy closed about 2002).  Being ex-rural soon-to-be perfect suburbia out there, there were no real alternate routes.  Back to Albany: Albany's population has fallen from 130,000 in 1950 to about 95,000 today.  While I won't claim that 787 destroyed Albany (I don't think that's fair), it also didn't help it thrive at all.

In Lowell, we might lament the JFK Civic Center.  Well, look what Albany did to itself in the 1960s (allegedly in response to redeveloping a blighted neighborhood): Empire State Plaza.  That's right: tore down an entire neighborhood (about half the size of the North End) for an underground mall, a dead plaza, and some international-style concrete high-rises.

Take a look at an areal view of downtown Albany: note all the pavement, the expressways, how they cut the downtown in half and away from the river.  Look at the Empire State Plaza mega-block, then notice all the vacant lots around downtown (this article on a site by a retired San Francisco urban planner, compares what's wrong with Albany with what's right with Portland, OR).

But, like I said, people out there, like people here, are getting it.  Notice this anti-freeway letter to the editor:  Don't Widen the Northway.

It is nice to see that, at least in some (sizable) circles, interest in re-urbanizing America.  It's nice to see things like Speck's report here in Lowell, and the sentiments of preservation and human-scale living in places in much worse shape, like the Capital District around Albany.  It's also always heartening to see how well Lowell does at this stuff in relation to other struggling cities in the United States.

* A left-leaning media source is going to favor "socialist" topics like urban planning, so why The Sun supports taxpayer-funded, subsidized things like the Hamilton Canal District and Speck's plan is beyond me to be quite honest.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan - full report

Jeff Speck's full plan is now available here.  It's over 150 pages with over 100 pages not being full of traffic count data.  I read most of it, skimming a few sections (traffic data included in skipped).  While I'd love to recommend you read it, it's pretty long, so I took care of that ;-)

My summary, a few choice excerpts and a few of my thoughts after the jump.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Latent Demand

I've made two separate attempts tonight to write a post about the Executive Summary for Jeff Speck's Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan; both went wildly off-topic and lacked focus.  So, here's a third try.  Perhaps if I focus on a very precise topic, I'll have better luck.  Expect the rest of my thoughts to be organized in the future, probably as the actual full report comes out.

Speck's plan is heavily focused, like many modern urban-design plans, on walkability and dense development oriented towards efficient use of mass-transit.  This is wildly different from the car-centric models we used throughout much of the second half of the last century.  To those familiar with the design methodologies of the past, some of Speck's ideas, like making most streets downtown two way and shrinking the width of lanes, seem totally crazy.  In addition to other complaints, the commenters on Jen Myers article often fall into this mindset (Dan Phelps, on the other hand, trusts Speck on this particular point [I'll try to get to some of the other chief complaints another time]).  In fact, many of them are supporting an extension to the Connector around downtown to get cross-town traffic off the streets and/or connection of the Rourke Bridge crossing to Route 3 as the long-discussed extension to MA-213.  After all, we had purposely made these streets wide one-way roads and eliminated on-street parking to try to eliminate the traffic issues downtown and increase businesses only 50 years ago, and people are still complaining getting into, through, or parking in downtown is too hard.  It clearly wasn't enough, so why undo it?

Because of Latent, or Induced, demand.  It's applying basic economic principles to the automobile.  The basic idea is, the more space you give to the car, the more cars will use that space.  You will never, in the long run, satisfy the car's lust for more pavement.  You will only temporarily fix the traffic problem while making the place less attractive to pedestrians.

As an example, there was a rainstorm last week that slowed the AM commute southbound on Route 3 to about 30 MPH.  My Facebook was full of people complaining about how long it took for them to get to work.  Somebody asked, "didn't we widen Route 3 to fix this!?"  Why, yes we did.  We removed all of the trees from the median and sometimes the edges, widening the highway to as many as five lanes in places from two, and what did we actually accomplish other than invading people's back yards along the right-of-way?  We helped people that were used to hour-long commutes on the old  route 3 move further away from population centers along the new route 3, where their commute will still be an hour...until more people get the same idea and slow the traffic once again.  Land usage and annual miles driven are growing far, far faster in the US than the actual population.

If we hadn't widened Route 3, what would've happened instead?  People would've made a time-is-money economic decision where they hit a tipping point: "enough is enough!".  They might've adjusted their schedules to avoid peak hours.  They might've moved closer to work.  They might've clamored for better mass-transit options along the corridor.  Their jobs might've moved closer to them.  They might've moved somewhere else entirely.  Probably all of these options encourage less gasoline use than widening the highway, and most also reduce sprawl, which is the taking of open land for automobile-oriented, low-density development.

So, pull that logic into extending the Connector into Dracut.  I personally would never live in Dracut because of the traffic situation: it's not worth the trouble, and it's only getting worse.  Adding more highway capacity to the town is going to do only one thing in the medium-term: increase development pressure on Dracut, Pawtucketville, Tyngsboro, Pelham, etc.  These towns will be more than happy to meet the demand for financial reasons.  In a few years time, we'll have added to the miles people are driving a year, while ruining the remaining rural character of the area, and helping the traffic none whatsoever.

Instead, planners like Speck suggest focusing our development efforts on compact urban areas like Lowell, and focusing on transit in particular (where mass transit can be efficient).  However, there's a mental leap here that isn't that easy to make:  While I think it's unarguable that cars have damaged Lowell, can we really say that by redesigning Lowell to not be focused on the car, that we will improve things?  What is to say that jobs will relocate to Lowell to take advantage of the now less-mobile workforce, as opposed to people and jobs just leaving the city en-masse?

I think this actually might not be that complicated of a choice when we look at all our options: either we do nothing and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for the same reasons it has for the past 50 years, or we do something and Lowell continues to suffer losses to suburban locations for accessibility reasons.  OR - the third option, we do something, this plan actually works, and Lowell is poised to grow as a re-invigorated place to work, play, and live.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Fighter trailer

While not likely to paint an entirely flattering picture of Lowell, the trailer to The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams has been released:

Featured:  Cupples Square, East Merrimack Street, and, of course, the Top Donut.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Energy efficiencies of food

Second (and last) short post for today.  I often talk about urbanism and I've probably talked about that in the context of the environment, but I had a conversation this week that I'd like to re-iterate here: Beef is an extremely energy-inefficient food.  If you're looking to lower your energy consumption, switching to eating less meat, in particularly beef, is pretty simple.  Don't forget that agricultural subsidies, such as that on a key feed crop, corn, costs us billions of dollars a year on top of that and corn itself can be an environmentally problematic feed and crop.  For this reason, I've also questioned why we use corn-based ethanol in gasoline, when the fossil fuels required to produce the corn are so costly in the first place.

Android security

One of the scary things about smartphones is what happens if you lose one.  Android devices - the Google operating system - have constant connections without password re-check for your Google, Facebook, and other accounts.  GMail alone, if compromised, would be a serious security breach for many people.  Leaving one of these things at a bar, remembering the next morning, and finding years worth of email has been gone through by an anonymous third party is a non-option.  What can be done?

Android, until for me this week, only had a finger-swipe pattern security system.  Connect four to nine dots in any order, unlock the phone.  Turns out that there are over 300,000 combinations possible, but I just never liked it.  It always seemed to me that any reasonable unlock pattern would be too easily guessed.  The times I've seen it used, people draw Z's, lines, circles, etc. There is now a pin-pad or password option available that allows for millions of patterns.  By brute force, it could now take years to crack an Android on average - certainly more than enough time to change all your passwords.  Still, many smartphones come with remote kill capabilities, something that apparently is available through the app store for Android.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"In praise of Ugly Buildings"

Jan (check her blog out, she's a really talented local photographer and throws in some of the history behind her subjects as well) commented on my last post that she can't find the love for the JFK Civic Center.  Shortly before I established this blog, I had posted an article from the Boston Globe to Facebook that gets into the topic of Brutalist architecture.  Unlike our local paper *ahem* they don't charge for archives (at least ones that are merely a year old), so I can repost the article and my comments here:
I agree. The whole Brutalist (based not on English "brutal" how we think of it, but the French term "Beton Brut" for Raw Concrete)/Modernist thing has certainly not reached romantic thought yet, but that's not to say it won't. The context that made these buildings a good idea at the time need to be understood, because we might go that way again. 
Modernism came into vogue as a backlash against the perceived excesses of the Victorian era, especially once the Depression and the World Wars hit and modern technologies changed the way we look at the world. A world focused on at first frugality and then a re-thinking based on technological innovation and forward-thinking was very happy to get rid of the Victorian/Guilded Age we romance today. 
Why focus design and thought on re-hashing ancient European architecture? Why waste money on ornamental construction? Isn't there value in Truth in Materials (if it's concrete, why make it a phony, looking like it's brick)? Isn't the ability to form that material - concrete - into all sorts of shapes interesting? Isn't using modern indoor lighting and air systems and strong structural members to create large, complex spaces with interesting artificial lighting noble? What is inherently wrong with the monumental Towers in the Park movement, over the wish to build dense and low we are returning to today, where public and private open spaces are again nearly an afterthought? Why should buildings blend into a "street as a room" instead of being monumental?
I know precisely the reasons why we don't like those concepts today, but some day, today's cheaply built prefab buildings with equally cheesy fascades, designed with the idea of romantizing the 19th century ideal of heavy and embellished construction as just one hamonizing player in a dense outdoor room will go out of style again, I'm sure. Architecture is art, and to appreciate it as an expression of the time, you need to understand why it happened.
Some day, we'll look back on these buildings as being part of the culture that brought us space-utopia things like The Jetsons and say "how quaint!"
As for Brutalism in Lowell, there are buildings on North and South campus in the style (one on Riverside just past the intersection of University comes to mind), as was typical in academia in the 60s and 70s. UMass Amherst and Dartmouth are both notorious examples of how cold and Soviet the style can feel. Lowell also had the North Canal apartments which were re-clad in "brick" fascades at some point. 
Then, of course, there's the JFK Civic Center.  JFKs fault I think is its location. It disrespects the focal point of what is supposed to be the Merrimack Street Indoor Room - The typical-of-the-genre Richardson Romanesque City Hall. It de-mapped a street and neighborhood. Like many Brutalist screw-ups, it has the theoretically useful plaza with the very moving officer statue...that nobody uses and is a decaying waste of space. 
Fox Hall on East Campus works much better with its plaza and as a focal point to the park-like assortment of dorms around it.  
There is one more I can think of: The Lowell 5 building at the head of the Merrimack Canal. Not one of my favorites, and I'd tear it down before JFK.  What used to be a spot filled with a monumental mill tower terminating the important view down the Merrimack Canal from Merrimack Street is now a nondescript concrete low-rise with an ugly parking lot. The good news is the slightly later high school addition, while destroying historic rowhouses and being pretty ugly, didn't hurt the massing in the area.

So yeah, that's my thoughts on that.  If you want an interesting book with a local focus that discusses primarily Victorian architecture, pick up Mill and Mansion by John Coolidge.  It was written in 1942 and updated fifty years later.  In addition to the nice little ego trip that a Lowellian gets from hearing a Harvard professor say he picked Lowell for his project because it is one of the best examples of 19th century industrial architecture in context in the world, he discusses why Victorian architecture should be saved - and why people didn't want to do it.  At the time of his first writing, during World War II, a generation gap was appearing around modernism, with his "younger" generation (he was born in the nineteen teens) starting to appreciate the now aging buildings, while their fathers considered most of the styles "sentimental."  Of course, I'm sure most of us agree with Coolidge that these buildings are interesting - they show concern for detail, pride of work, etc.  They don't build them like they used to, you know.

But I still agree with the Globe article:  Modernism will have its day again.

"Preservation Movement: Then and Now"

Back in May, I read on ComeToLowell that a special exhibit was running at the Boott Mill on the preservation movement, with a focus on Lowell's past successes and failures.  The second half of the exhibit was about the demolition of the Hancock house on Beacon St in Boston in the 1860s, and how that spurred interest in preservation at that time as well.  I finally made it over there today, and spent a good amount of time going over the exhibits.  From 1930s photos of the demoltion of the Saco-Lowell shops where the parking lot for the National Park Visitor's Center is today, through a model of renewal projects downtown in the 1980s, and into pictures of today's work at the Appleton Mills, there were numerous artifacts of planning projects throughout the years.

The Demolition of the Saco-Lowell shops in the 1930s.  Note that the warehouses in the center background are also now gone (two of the three last year and one years earlier, I covered this in an earlier post), the Freudenburg building on the far left has had its windows filled in (although this building is supposed to be restored in the near future), Dutton Street had not been widened yet, taking out the second set of train tracks, and in the far right background one can see the old train station and hotel where the Lord Overpass is today.

For someone like myself who was not born when a lot of the large sweeping renewal efforts from the 1930s through the 1970s happened, it was a fantastic insight into the thought processes that shaped Lowell today.  The exhibit is full of articles from The Sun and The Globe, talking about the situation in Lowell and plans for the future.  The photographs the exhibit had also include some images I had never seen, for example, this birds-eye picture of the demolition of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company ca. 1960, which gives a sense of scale for the destruction that I had never previously seen (note that the boarding houses in the lower left were gone within five years as well):

I also thought this one little photo was cute.  The Lawrence Heritage Museum has a similar one:

More after the jump.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Appleton Mill, April 2010 - August 2010. And a rant.

You know, being able to publish quickly on a blog requires not being too lazy to do it!  I have four months of photos of the construction work being done at the Appleton Mill building:

Appleton Mill, April-August 2010

As the photos show, things have been coming along nicely.  New support members are put in, many windows are in, brick is being cleaned.  In fact, a website has been launched for the project @  Interviews to live in the artist-preference building are taking place this Tuesday at Brush Art.

In addition to the coverage by the Sun the Boston Business Journal wrote about it as well, and I also found this interesting article on  It's from last year, but it talks about the various renewal projects going on in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.

By the numbers, the $60m Appleton Mill project will provide 130 live/work affordable units to qualified applicants -pending an interview- starting next April.  It will have features such as a roof deck, a community room with wifi, and a fitness area.  Applicants must show devotion to the arts and make between $15k as a single person and the mid-50s as a couple.  Rents start at about $400/mo.

Wait, what did I just say?  Sorry, I'm about to break with my normal tone here for a bit and please, feel free to correct me.  Maybe I'm totally off-base.

$400/mo?  Luxury apartments?  In a neighborhood full of people who pay a lot more for a lot less?  I'm not entirely following the financing here, but $45m came from MetLife, apparently offset by tax credits they'll receive.  Add in city, state, and federal assistance, and this building seems like it's totally immune from market forces on pricing whatsoever.  "Affordable" is one thing, and I certainly support subsidies for renewal projects that will benefit the community as a whole, but what they actually built here and what they're charging sounds like something else entirely.

All I can say is this project better hold itself to supporting the arts community, which has been a great asset to Lowell.  The tried-and-true gentrification technique of starting with artists to revitalize an area is a noble goal.  Certainly, the redevelopment of that eyesore neighborhood is good for everybody in Lowell, especially those of us downtown (who receive a disproportionate share of the city's interest and resources), and returning this property to the tax rolls would be nice.  However, if this project is mismanaged, if it turns out anybody meeting (or using deception to meet) the income qualifications can get in, or subletting is allowed, I can see it doing a number on demand for the lesser, but market rate, units in this area.  Disclosure:  I'm being selfish here as this directly relates to my current situation.

To go a little further off course, I feel that culture and leisure are the sign of a thriving society that can afford luxuries.  I don't agree that they can drive an economy the size of Lowell's, even though they can certainly stimulate it.  When things get tough, that stimulation effect wanes.  So, projects like this one worry me on some level.  The national economy is in the tank, people are out of work, people are stuck with underwater mortgages and/or unable to get loans or get out of debt - art is a luxury that I'm not sure as many people are buying right now as before.  Much like how people are cutting expenses on that other cornerstone of downtown Lowell's economy - going out to eat.

I feel that we can't lose sight of the ultimate goal of all these culture-based projects here in Lowell: economic stimulus.  Get people down here, create a more friendly and engaging place for people to live, and then hopefully work.  And I can see the Appleton Mill project, if it goes as it is supposed to, doing just that.  It looks like a great space that should attract a few hundred community-focused individuals.

Ultimately, we really need to do what we are continually unable to do at scale: attract jobs for our existing population and for the region.  Produce something that adds value to the larger economy.  Provide people with good paying jobs.  There are a few other projects in the area promising permanent jobs (if you look at my photos, there are a huge number of construction workers involved in this project, but they'll be gone soon enough) .  I hope those materialize sooner rather than later, because sometimes I feel our economy here is based almost entirely on good economic fortune that I'm not sure we'll have again for some time.

Drought, Summer 2010

With a few solid days of rain in the forecast, I decided it's time to catch up on some photos I've taken over the past month or so.

One of the most interesting things about living in a city with such strong ties to its waterways is watching the variations in water levels as the year progresses.  It's pretty cool to live in an urban area and still having that connection to the natural world.

Anyone in Greater Lowell is well aware that it has been a very hot and dry summer (even for a region that The Sun recently reported, is the hottest in the state [and this is only Lowell's fourth hottest summer on record), and the rivers are suffering for it.  The water bans seem to not have been that severe this year, I can only imagine due to reasonably healthy groundwater reserves from our very wet spring.

That said, the USGS data on the river levels for the Merrimack and Concord are showing extremely low levels of water.  At the moment, the Merrimack is running at 1,220 cubic feet per second, whereas the median is more than twice that.  We are currently at a flow rate in the 20th percentile.  The Concord is even worse:  30 cfs currently and a mean of 278 cfs.  27 cfs is the record low established in 1941, records beginning in 1936.

As for rainfall figures, has us at 0.87" of rain in August so far, and a monthly average of 3.26". For July, we got 1.74" and average 3.24"

This is a picture of the conditions this weekend under the Aiken Street bridge.  There was a huge collection of birds gathering on the recently-dry islands in the river.  I also managed to see a salmon, which was kinda neat.

Similarly, a few days before, the Concord at East Merrimack Street was the lowest I've ever seen it.

Back in 2006, this scene looked like this:

However, one good thing (I guess) has come of this:  There is an island off of the Concord River Greenway behind the Davidson St lot that in the spring looked like this:

Now looks like this:

So, I took advantage of this (hopefully rare) opportunity and went to the island, on foot, to take a few pictures.  I had wanted to get out here for a good while, but previous ideas all involved tight-roping that I-beam (I'm sure I'd fall in and drown) or using a boat (remembering my rough-water navigating skills in Oregon Trail, also not likely to end well).  Aside from extremely thick brush and evidence of parties, I think what is out there is the remnants of an old dam, which shows on maps back to 1850 or so.  This re-enforced concrete structure can't be that old, but I'd like to know how old it is, and when and why it was breached:

Rest of the pictures are here:

Drought, Summer 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What is the motivating factor for the next generation of software engineers?

As many of you know, history, urban studies, and all things Lowell are hobbies of mine.  By trade, I'm a software engineer.  Sure, it's a respected profession that pays fairly well, is creative, and is easy enough to find good jobs in  in the Greater Boston area.  But what got me into it?  Computer games.  And more importantly, wanting to write my own.  It occurred to me that the perfect storm of technological innovation and, perhaps more importantly, technological adolescence, that got me interested in that may no longer exist today.  The technology and the industry were so new yet becoming more accessible so quickly, it seemed like anyone could do it.  Without that motivation, what makes a teenager want to write software these days?

I'm going to go into my software development life story now.

I wrote my first computer program back in the mid-90s.  1995 or 1996.  The first program I had seen written by someone I knew was something my dad had to do for a class.  There was a calculator, a desktop skin, a few other things, all written in Visual Basic 3.  My dad is in high tech, but he is not an engineer, so I didn't exactly follow him.  As anybody who ever has written software knows, there is a certain mindset that is required to be able to turn ideas into software - I've always thought it was the people who liked word problems in math class and excelled in elementary physics.  Dad majored in English.

But there is more to why dad doesn't write code: he grew up in a time when computers were bulky machines that only universities and large companies had, often with teletype displays and punch-card inputs.  This obviously is a high-cost-of-entry situation with results of limited interest (at least to me).  By the time he was my age, his late 20s, the PC had been born, but it was expensive and limited in application.  The Wang PC he had when I was growing up couldn't even display extended ASCII art games like ZZT.  Still, not the interactive play-and-work environment we had 10 years later when I was a pre-teen.

However, by the time I was starting to think about what I really wanted to be when I grew up, things had changed.  The early 1990s had spawned lower-cost VGA-graphics based computers (Video Graphics Adapter...256 colors, 640x480 resolution) with a Windows operating system, hobbyist computer shows that were well-attended, and early home internet access over modems using local BBS's or the first few iterations of AOL.  Many of my friends had fathers in the computing industry, and had 286, 386, 486 machines that could take advantage of these things.  When we finally got our first IBM-compatible 33MHz 486 with a 100 MB disk drive and 4MB of ram (and later, a 2400 baud modem), the stage was set.  I had already heard about and played games like Wolfenstein 3D and King's Quest with friends, and I could finally play them.  Of course, I was already playing Nintendo and Super Nintendo, but this was different...probably because of the hobbyist community that was so active at the time.

Dad and I would go to the local shows and pick up some low-cost games (often demos called Shareware) on 3.5" floppies that held less than a megabyte and a half (double-sided, double density!) and maybe a peripheral or two.  There was no Best Buy yet or anything like that.  At home, I'd leave the phone dialed-in all night to AOL's download area pulling down some megabyte shareware demo of some new game - and it would take all night.  My mom never understood this stuff - the computer was something for work and games - it wasn't the communication mechanism that no longer tied up the phone line it became years later when she finally got hooked.  Dad, conversely, had a computer talk show on WCAP here in Lowell and had a column in a few papers, including The Sun called The Shareware Report.  There was a huge Shareware community at the time because there was something interesting about a lot of this software:  It was written by one or two people, often in their spare time, and it was usable and fun.  Even the professional games of the time, which were only a few magnitudes more complex at best, seem painfully simplistic by today's standards.  Wolfenstein 3D, which I previously mentioned, was associated with two software rock stars at id software:  John Carmack and John Romero.  King's Quest was tied to a husband and wife team at Sierra.  ZZT, also mentioned earlier, was done by just Tim Sweeney, who by the time of publication, was still only 21.  Superstar names existed at Nintendo, or in SimCity, or in Civilization, or in huge numbers of other games.  Granted, they weren't all engineers, but still, there was a seemingly single mind or small set of minds behind all the greatest games.

At the same time, software development was becoming more accessible.  Long gone were the punch cards and assembly-language coding.  Or maybe FORTRAN or COBOL if you were lucky.  While professionals were writing in C and academics were writing in Pascal, amateurs had Visual Basic...or at least QBasic, which was a form of BASIC that shipped with DOS and came with a game called Gorillas, complete with source code.  Visual Basic though, to a beginner, was the most exciting.

Visual Basic 3 had a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) editor to draw Windows applications as well as a very simple programming language syntax. Put a button and a text box on a window (a form in proper lingo), double-click the button, write what you want to happen when the button is pressed.  Probably make the text box say "Hello, world!"  One line of code.  While grade school had introduced us to coding without us even realizing it via logo on the Apple ][e, here was a language I could use to write toy programs in an hour or so.  With a little more reading up on the language (kids in school have time for such things), I was soon writing graphical games in a weekend that were like Whack-a-mole or Tic-Tac-Toe (a classic programming exercise).  From here, I went on to write more complex and time-consuming games that had music and savable state (file i/o) that looked like a complex version of Stratego.  I even wrote a trojan horse that would infect Windows 3.1 systems by copying itself to the A: drive and/or AUTOEXEC.BAT.  And many of these, save the trojan, I put up on AOLs Download Center, like hundreds and probably thousands of other programmers.  A few dozen people downloaded my games.

By this time, I was in high school and knew I was going to write software for a living.  I took every course on software my school had.  It was now the end of the 1990s and computer games - computer programs in general - were written by far larger teams.  A game like Quake, which I feel was on the cusp of a big transition in game complexity, had multiple engineers working on it, even more level designers, graphics people, musicians...and it just kept growing in complexity from there.  A modern computer game's development staff looks like that of a feature film.  The modern big-studio software days were here.  However, by this time, I had already had a few years, as a kid, tinkering with software in the golden years of the small studio.  It was a time when you could look at a program and say "with a reasonable amount of time and effort, I could do that too.  And it might not be quicker to download it / buy it"  Kids today don't have that luxury.  Look at my generation's Civilization II - coming out the same year as Quake (1996), admittedly far outside of my abilities to write, but at least there were simplistic editors to add your own unit types, etc - and compare that to Civilization IV, which was only ten years later as I was graduating college and my career path was set.  Writing tile-based games seems easy - writing true 3D games is hard.

It didn't matter - by this time I realized I liked writing programs, not just games.  I was ready to stop tinkering and start working full-time on software with a large team.  But games and tinkering with software in my bedroom got me interested in programming.

So, I went off to college in 2001 and we were a massive group of future engineers.  Around the same time the .com bubble burst and 9/11 contributed to an economic tailspin.  The years of graduates after mine were much smaller due to these factors, making it easy to find lower-level engineering jobs, just in time for me to graduate.  However, I wonder if what I've been babbling about here matters at all:  It's now been five years since I graduated college.  Some guy five years younger than me was too young in the early-to-mid 90s to have seen a rapidly maturing software industry.  They grew up playing games you could never conceive of designing, and many applications are prohibitively complex...and the easy ones are already done for you.

You know what though?  And this is largely why I wrote this to make myself think.  Something else has changed that hadn't entirely occurred to me: In the late 90s, people still were in the last few years of dialup.  The World Wide Web was still in its infancy.  I had a stupid little hand-coded webpage, but actually being a web developer never really was on my radar.  I took a few courses on static HTML and JavaScript in high school, some courses on ASP.NET in college.  There is still a lot of interesting and not prohibitively complex work to be done there, especially with how easy it is to use a modern language like Java to communicate with the internet.  It was way harder in my day.

As a matter of fact, Mark Zukerberg of Facebook is my age.  Actually, he's younger.  And actually, while I write back-end systems, our content has a web-based front-end.  But like I said, I'm not a web developer - I'm here because it's where the industry has gone, not because it's what I originally had in mind.

Another brave new world of software design is the mobile platforms.  I bought a book on how to program Android, but life, my job, and introspective blog postings like this one suck away my time.  Somewhere out there, kids are learning to write Hello, World! on an Android phone, and will be complaining in ten years that that field has matured beyond the point of easy entry for the future's children as well.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A box of old documents

Believe it or not, I'm not dead or given up...just haven't had much to say as of late.  I'm now a member of the Lowell Historical Society, and if you're on Facebook, we have a new fanpage @

Also, yes, it's Folk Festival weekend, it's a nice day, and I'm hiding out at home.  Been busy with various non-Lowell-related things lately and am using today to catch up.

Anyhow, my dad recently caught up on my blog and read the post on Claypit Brook Cemetery.  It reminded him of a box of old documents he had, some from Moses Colburn, who is buried at Claypit.  The documents had been found by his father in the rafters of their two-family home on Ralph St (by Armory Park in the Highlands).  The story is that the documents - and some Victorian readers found with them - belonged to the previous occupant, a schoolteacher named Hortense Lamere.  They were placed in a box that had been handmade by a relative of my grandmother's for her, and have remained there ever since.

I haven't really gone over all of them carefully since they are so old and fragile, but they are mostly legal documents, particularly real-estate, dating from the 1760s to the 1910s.  More than anything, they appear to be a collection of documents belonging to Gertrude's father, Anson, who was active in Lowell in the decades framing the Civil War.  Some documents are from personal loans he gave, or property bought and sold (one where he buys a horse and a harness, one where he buys supplies for a candy store), some are for bonds - that could not be paid back - in still poor Pulaski County, Illinois.  The store deeds appear to be for a shop on Merrimack Street in Kearney Square.  According to the city directory, he was located here during the Civil War.  Shortly before, he had been in legal trouble for selling beer there.

Many of these documents were from real-estate transactions he made, and I was able to scan a few in.  This one is a plan of the intersection of Stevens St and Princeton Blvd, where he had apparently bought and sold an entire city block.  Included was the 1850s handwritten deed for the transaction (back side).  As for where he actually lived, it appears that they owned at least one home on Walnut St in Back Central.  And he may have still been alive in the 1890s when his name is found on a city map (courtesy of Center for Lowell History) here.  His name, perhaps more importantly, in these documents is attached to a house in Centralville.  Listed here off of 12th St as belonging to his Estate.

What's interesting about the Centralville home is the Colburn connection.  There is a deed [back side] (I think it's actually a mortgage discharge?) from 1761 granting land in future Centralville (so it would seem based on being on the east bank of Beaver Brook) from Moses to Jacob Colburn.  According to a town vital records document I found, this wasn't a father-to-son transaction, but perhaps between different branches of the family?  My guess is Mr. Lamere had these as a paper trail of ownership for his property?  Interestingly, it looks like it took years for the document to be notarized, and even longer for it to be recorded at Cambridge.  Apparently things moved a little slower 250 years ago.  There was only one other pre-revolution document in the batch, and it is a 1773 land purchase by Jacob Colburn of some land in "Allcock's Neck" which is somewhere in Dracut.  The descriptions of where that is in relationship to barns, etc is long-useless.  These documents are still interesting because they are older than the Declaration of Independence.

As a final note, when I was scanning these, the woman who helped me remarked that children are starting to not even be taught cursive anymore.  As a Catholic school student, this idea is absurd to me - I almost never print (but then again, how often do I freehand write anything anymore?).  Of course, there is the question of "who will be able to read these documents?" in the future.  This isn't entirely unprecedented, as documents in English more than a few hundred years old (early 15th c. Canterbury Tales manuscript) are largely illegible to us - and it isn't just the changes in language and spelling (which aren't likely to stop happening).  Roman handwriting looks like nothing more than scribbles, even if the capitals on their monuments are entirely legible to us today.

What perhaps worries me more is that while I am writing this in an electronic format, it's being read electronically, and is heavily based on electronic resources I found, largely through Google and all for free - who is going to preserve electronic media for future generations?  Somebody will be smart enough to figure out the various binary encodings in the future if that knowledge is lost...I'm not worried about that.  I'm worried about what is the life-expectancy of digital media, and who is going to determine what, of all the media we have due to the data explosion of the Information Age, should be archived for future generations?  Even the best-kept 200 year old hard drive found in an attic is likely to be unusable at that time, and I'd hazard it might not even still contain data.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Claypit Cemetery

I helped clean up a cemetery hidden off Pawtucket Boulevard this weekend with Kim Zunino from the city Historic Board and a class from Lakeview Jr High in Dracut.  Why is Dracut cleaning a cemetery in Lowell?  Well, Pawtucketville wasn't annexed to Lowell until 1874, and the last burial at Claypit Cemetery was a decade before that.  Made for a confusing situation regarding which community actually owns the place apparently, especially as it was a private burial ground in the first place and no deeds have been transferred.  As for the first burial, it was before the Revolution - at least one person who served in the Revolution is buried here (Moses Coburn), and an honor guard from Tewksbury did a brief ceremony while I was there. 

Google brings up a few scattered news articles and other factoids on this site.  For example: leads to
Ms. Duda was the teacher who brought her class to the site when I was there yesterday.  This article points to: which is a very comprehensive website containing a lot of great information on the cemetery that Ms. Duda has compiled.  Go here.

Since I don't really have anything of value to ad, here's the pictures I took.  We had just unearthed Aaron Colburn's gravemarker that day.  Some of the articles off of say that this stone was visible in a 4' hole (a grave-robbing attempt) in the early 1990s.  My understanding is these were purposefully buried to protect them, after decades of vandalism and said attempted grave-robbings (no, nothing will be left of the bodies of people that died that long ago and were put in wood boxes unembalmed...).

Claypit Cemetery

Great Stone Dam, Lawrence

I have visited and talked about Lawrence before.  This time, my trip was specifically related to the Essex, or Great Stone Dam. 

Little background (or read a better writeup here courtesy of Enel, N.A.): The Essex Company, which was the driving force behind Lawrence, using a design attributed to Charles Storrow, began construction of the dam in 1845 and completed it by 1848.  The 900-foot-long dam was needed to turn a 5' drop in elevation into a 30' drop in elevation to provide a Lowell-like source of hydropower to the new city.  In fact, the new dam created a millpond going all the way upriver to Lowell.  For chronological comparison, this is the same time period in which Lowell was building the Northern Canal and Moody Street Feeder - and Lawrence was just getting started.  The dam, due to its height and row-after-row of granite blocks, was considered an engineering marvel of its day.  Although becoming less useful as the mills it powered shuttered, the strongly-built dam survived.

In the late 1970s, a hydroelectric plant generating nearly 17 MW (smaller than Lowell's 24 MW installation) was constructed on the south side of the dam - the company was still the Essex Company.    Enel bought the Essex Company a few years later and took control of the plant (like they did at Lowell).  In the last few years, the old pin-and-5' wooden flashboard system Lawrence, like us, had used for well over a century, was replaced with a bladder dam similar to the one proposed for Lowell.  The flow rate is currently fairly low and water is not going over the dam, so it's a good time to see what it really looks like.  I'll let the pictures speak.

Great Stone Dam

P.S.  Something Lawrence has that I thought was pretty cool that was also part of this trip: The Antiques Mall over on Canal Street.  Why does a city so interested in history like Lowell is not have much of an antique industry?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Doors Open Lowell 2010 - Pictures

While I was too busy this weekend to get too many pictures, I was able to make it to three sites for Doors Open this year: all three are new.

The first was the Appleton Mill renovation.  I didn't take any new photos (the work has been progressing, but not in such a way new photos are warranted).  They are saying the project should have its first residents in by April 2011.  The rooms are supposed to be fairly open floor-planned, and about 1000 sq ft or so it sounds.  They will have deck space as well - the development will be targeted at affordable live/work space for artists.

The second was the Tremont Mill / JDCU building.  Over the past few years, the burnt remnants of the Tremont Mill power building have been cut down to basement level, and a new office tower has been built in its place.

Photos and more after the jump.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New Layout

While I fully intended to put up my pics from Doors Open today, I ended up playing with my blog layout instead.  This one allows for much wider display, which is great for lots of rambling text ;-)

Meanwhile, Marianne took some great photos at Doors Open (and remembered to go to the Pawtucket Gatehouse, whilst I had a total brain fart and forgot), so go check out her post instead.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Presentation this afternoon

Thanks to everyone who came out to see my presentation @ the Historical Society meeting today.  While there is nothing nearly as fancy as a video of it, I did put my notes up to share if you'd like them, or if you wanted any of the pictures I included: - The PowerPoint - Text, if you don't want to download a 5 MB powerpoint.

Well, thanks again everyone for sitting through that - I almost opened it up with a take on Mark Twain's quote "I didn't have time to write you a short presentation, so I wrote you a long one."  It was nice to meet so many new people today, and get to meet in person people that I have previously only known online.  I look forward to seeing all of you in the future, and hopefully at some point tomorrow I'll get up some of the pictures I took at Doors Open today.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

XKCD causes spat on Wikipedia

One of my favorite webcomics, XKCD, had a joke today about how certain words are overused on Wikipedia (for example, Portmanteau and Neologism).  I'm glad that XKCD, in its usual fashion, states the obvious for those of us who just chuckle to ourselves over some of the more ridiculous things about geekdom - in this case, some of the quirks of the overall-wonderful Wikipedia.  Normally, I just get to smile and nod and move on with my day knowing I'm not the only one out there who notices these things.  However, the Wikipedia talk page (this is a link to the revision as of right now) for the article that was invented and made fun of in the XKCD comic, is pure genius.  One editor, Lisa, chimed in that the talk page is meta.  She's 100% right - the fights on the talk page, trying to use proper Wikipedia bureaucratic processes to handle the flood of edits that completely unserious XKCD has caused, is precisely the reason why XKCD makes fun of Wikipedia.

City ups meals tax

The Sun is reporting that Lowell's meals tax is 7% as of July 1.  There are now over 90 of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns who have taken advantage of the ability to levy a local tax on meals.  While I certainly understand the reasoning behind the raise and agree that it isn't going to affect my dining out habits, how do laws like this work at the local level?  Is this from now until it is repealed, or does it need to be approved annually?  As a rule, I think that all tax increases that are tied to 'recessions' or any other temporary explanation should have sunset clauses.  I have a feeling we'll neither get rid of the 'temporary' income tax increase we've had for years, nor the 'temporary' sales tax increase to 6.25%.  I bought a car recently - you do feel that extra percent and a quarter there!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Massachusetts Route 213

This is one of those times when I really wish The Sun offered their archives online for free.  Many, much larger, papers do.  MA-213, as we all know, is the Loop Connector running north of Lawrence and running through Methuen, connecting I-93 to 495.  It was planned at one point to continue through Dracut, crossing the Merrimack, usually discussed where the Rourke Bridge was built in the 1980s, and connecting to US Route 3.  Other than the fact it never happened and is still talked about to some extent with regards to the overtaxed Rourke Bridge (how did people in Pawtucketville and Dracut survive before this was built!?), I know very little and don't have too many accessible resources to figure out more.  Wikipedia is full of road geeks, and even the article there is very little help.

The reason I'm on this topic is that the fact that it was never built seriously delayed a trip of mine to Salem, NH - again.  Going to Bishop Guertin in Nashua in high school, I had a lot of friends in Windham.  Living in Tyngsboro, there was no good way to get there from here (to paraphrase the classic New England saying).  You either drive all the way south to 495 and back up, drive all the way up to 111 (while a high-speed road, the roads leading to it in Hudson, crossing the Merrimack somewhere, are not), or take slow-going 113 through Dracut.  This time, I was heading up from Bedford, MA, had a brain fart, missed 495, and refusing to turn around during Rush Hour, decided I'd blaze a trail to the bridge while "avoiding traffic (i.e. any bridge in Lowell)."  My incomplete mental map of Dracut, Pelham, and yes...Pawtucketville, caused me to take the most idiotic route imaginable, including traffic-choked and completely-out-of-the-way Lakeview Ave, and all in all, the trip took 90 minutes (should've been 30).

Can I advocate for the demolition of Dracut for a new expressway?  No.  While it would be wonderful for today's Lowell area residents, the construction of or widening of interstates leads to what is called "latent demand," which is when people start making longer trips as they become easier, quickly bringing traffic counts up to where they were before construction.  Couple that with a new ease-of-access to previously hard-to-reach areas, and you have a perfect formula for growing suburban sprawl.  Case-in-point: The Rourke Bridge.  Life carried on in Lowell before it was there, it was built to alleviate congestion, now it's one of the most congested places in the city.  What did Lowell gain from it?  A more populated Dracut and Pawtucketville.  At least P-ville generates tax revenue for Lowell, Dracut doesn't.  I often wonder, as many urban theorists do, if these new roads often continue the economic destruction of our cities.  Is the wall of interstates around Lawrence, and the lack of interstate access to Lowell, one of the reasons why our city is in better shape today?  Some would argue precisely that.  I think it very well might be a contributing factor.

September 27, 1975: Explosion

A friend on Facebook was growing up in Centralville when a middle-of-the-night explosion demolished a cafe at First and Bridge Streets (I'm guessing Dunks was built in its place).  I'm in a productive mood today and made it to the library and printed the article out.  Occurring before I was born but not before I'm sure many of my readers' time, like the fire articles, any additional information would be great.

Violent Downtown Blast Levels Cafe; Rocks City

The Evening Edition of The Sun on Sept 27, 1975's front page was almost entirely taken up by, and the back page was entirely devoted to, an article about an explosion that occurred in Centralville at 3:20 in the AM.  During a severe storm that night, an explosion, the cause of which had yet to be determined, completely demolished Jake's Cafe.  Trucks nearby were flipped over, sidewalks buckled, ceilings collapsed, light posts were bent.  Damage was done to 68 businesses, and 23 people were injured (amazingly nobody seriously), one woman was admitted for cuts and later released.  Twenty cruisers got flat tires on the debris and multiple fire trucks.  Some of the damage was to obvious buildings like Russo Music across the street, but broken windows or other damage was seen in places as unlikely as Woolworth's, on Merrimack Street, facing away from Centralville.  The "heaviest damage" area map The Sun printed, aside from being a little out of date and showing the downtown configuration before Arcand Drive had been built, draws a box around Bridge and First from 10th Street in the north, to French Street in the south, to Coburn Street in the west, and the Hunts Falls Bridge on the east.

As the other 70s disaster articles I posted also said, purposeful destruction was a real possibility.  The apartments above the cafe were somewhat recently vacant (thankfully as whoever had been in them would have been vaporized - a woman was interviewed who had moved shortly before to elsewhere in the neighborhood), and the cafe had been shut down for three weeks following a fire in which gasoline drums were found in the cellar.  A gas pipe was found uncapped, and Fire Chief Beauregard said that that would allow gas to just flow into the building, ignitable by anything as simple as a light switch, a pilot light, or a refrigeration unit.  Another official at the scene pointed out the missing plug needed to be screwed off, as the threading had not been damaged by the explosion.  Fortunately, had this explosion happened during the day with people on the street and cars on the sidewalks, it is likely that fatalities would have occurred.

Lowell Cemetery Tour

I joined Richard Howe and fifteen other brave souls this morning to tour the Lowell Cemetery - Dick was the guide.  I took some pictures there in 2006 but have learnt more about it since then.  Today's tour was informative: Saw the graves of Augustin Thompson, inventor of Moxie, and Charles Herbert Allen, first civilian governor of Puerto Rico and US Congressman.  Although I knew Tsongas was buried here, I had never seen his stone before.  The location is fantastic: on a bluff overlooking the Concord River Greenway above the sounds of the water rushing over the little dam at the tail of Centennial Island (what is the dam called?) - which it was my full intention to go visit afterwards.  However, an electrical storm cut the tour a little short, and not feeling like getting struck by lightening, I went home.  I took no pictures, because Marianne did such a great job on yesterday's tour already

I updated the Wikipedia articles above with a few wikilinks (internal links to other pages) that were missing, and added these two people to the list of people buried at Lowell Cemetery, which could use some serious work.  Dick told us there are seven US Congressmen buried here, and the Wikipedia article gets no further than three.  There has been some great (and often anonymous) updates to Wikipedia articles by Lowellians as of late, and I want to thank the community for doing this work.  Wikipedia, while not a great formal resource, is a great resource nevertheless, especially for my interests, and the work is much appreciated.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The National Historical Park: Lowell, Troy, and Paterson New Jersey

Back in 2006, I opened up my website with a typical-of-me remembered-and-uncited anecdote about Troy, NY (where I went to college), and Patterson, NJ (which I most likely will never find myself in) being in the running for the National Historical Park.  I was doing some research tonight and stumbled across what I must've read:  Three articles from a Paterson-area newspaper from 2000.  It's interesting to read about Paterson's view of what happened in Lowell, and how they missed out, and how bad it hurt them:  find the three articles towards the bottom titled "From the Same Cloth, Paterson Frays as Lowell Amends."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Presentation - May 15

I will be giving a presentation sponsored by the Lowell Historical Society on May 15th:
The Lowell Historical Society will have its spring meeting and public program on Saturday, May 15, 2010. The annual business meeting including election of officers and board members will begin at 2:00pm followed by the program at 2:30pm.  
The program “New Discoveries in Lowell” will be presented by Corey Scuito. The Lowell Sun recently called Corey Sciuto - “The unofficial Ambassador of Lowell.” Corey is a young, Lowell-based blogger and software engineer who has photographed and written about Lowell – the past and the present - over the last several years. Corey will discuss his interest and approaches to documenting Lowell’s historic places, influences on his work and how he uses the Web to showcase the city’s historical and cultural landscapes.
The meeting and presentation will take place in the Community Room on the lower level of the Pollard Memorial Library. There is parking available on the street and in the library patrons’ parking lot. Refreshments will be served.
For more information contact the LHS Clerk at or call the Society at 978-970-5180.
For more general information about the Lowell Historical Society look on the website at: 
As public speaking is not something I'd consider a strong point of mine, I'm looking for any topics people would be interested in me discussing.  I'll be running 30-45 minutes with the rest of the hour filled with a Q&A session.