Sunday, August 29, 2010

"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.
It's been well documented that around the time of The Great Depression that textile manufacturing began fleeing Lowell, leaving empty, obsolete buildings in a city with the highest unemployment rate in the state.  Founded only 100 years before, Lowell was accused of largely putting its eggs all in one basket, growing too rapidly (from nearly zero to the second largest city in New England in a few decades, and having 120,000 residents by 1920), and paid the price for that dearly - and, just as quickly.  Technology was advancing at a frightening rate, and Lowell was being left in the dust.  By the 1930s, Lowell had begun "slum clearance," demolishing buildings that must've been 70 years old or more, and likely were originally built without indoor plumbing, and at the time were still likely cold-water flats.  Something else changed after the Depression and World War II ended - mass proliferation of the automobile.  Lowellians today know how dire the parking situation is in our downtown and our inner neighborhoods, especially when compared to outlying suburbs.  Before the preservation movement hit Lowell, the solution to the lack of room for the automobile and districts of aged buildings was clear:  Demolition.  Much like one cuts off a diseased limb to save a patient, by clearing out substandard neighborhoods and factory buildings, perhaps Lowell could make the leap into the post-war world.

This map of the proposed extension of the Lowell Connector shows an even longer pathway than I had seen on other drawings.  Note the Gorham Street exit for 495 (wouldn't that be nice for getting over the Concord River without going all the way to Lawrence Street?), the small roundabouts along Dutton Street, particular at Fletcher Street (which was re-engineered in the early 1980s), and the connection via Lawrence Street to the North Canal Road (Fr. Morissette Blvd.)

However, these projects seemingly never paid off.  The Connector was never completed, leaving the underused stub highway we have today, and projects like Hale-Howard (1970s) and the North Canal project (1960s) seemingly never hit their full potential:

The North Canal Project, which leveled Little Canada, shows plans for far more buildings, including multiple university high-rises, a trade school next to City Hall, and new office buildings where the Merrimack Company stood.  The Civic Center, which was built, is not loved much in Lowell today, neither for its functionality nor aesthetics.

These plans were never evil, nor entirely misguided.  In fact, even today, they seem quite logical:  As people and jobs are moving closer to highways near modern office parks and clamoring for more, modern, living space, making Lowell meet that ideal was a noble goal.  In the 1970s, even MITs computer simulations argued for more, better highway access to Lowell and demolishing millyards for new industrial plants.  The argument was that Lowell should remain an industrial city, providing blue-collar jobs to its blue-collar workforce.  This, again, is perfectly sensible if one wants to lower unemployment.  Attached to that was another, slightly more interesting, goal:  Stop building more housing.  Even though Lowell's population had fallen to barely 90,000 by the mid-1970s, forcing a building moratorium would elevate housing prices in the city and lower congestion:  payout?  Fewer poor people, if I had to guess.

However, manufacturing in the Northeast was clearly still dying.  Some did argue that improved highway access would attract new white-collar computer jobs of the sort that were taking over the economy of the 495 region at the time, helping the citizens of places like Chelmsford, but not Lowell, at least not in the long run.  I guess this is where the idea of preventing further construction to bring in more white-collar workers comes in.  This is an unsolved problem in my book:  How do we make a better Lowell for the people that do already live here?  How do we reduce their dependence on the car and long commutes, while building a larger, healthier, commercial/industrial tax base?  Today's Lowell, with its dependency on state and federal funding for solvency, while, in my opinion, operating as a regional dumping ground for a whole region's issues, is worrisome, especially with governmental budgets being so tight.  This only leads to more politiking, and our fate not being firmly in our own hands.  That said, I do realize that in the day of the automobile and a digitally-connected business world, the regional economy over the city-wide economy is a real and important consideration.  It's worrisome, but I'm a realist.

As the 1970s wore on, things seemingly started to change.  While there were crazed ideas with ludicrous claims like this one:

Which reminds me of this one:

Suddenly, Lowell being stuck in the past had become an asset.  While the MIT report had previously compared Lowell negatively to Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and Lawrence for its lack of highway access and the resulting lack of new jobs in glistening international-style towers, or at least re-use of existing mill buildings, now Lowell and its surprisingly intact or repairable Victorian feel became the perfect place for the National Historical Park, and a preservation-minded community.  Today, Lawrence is facing receivership and Springfield was ranked by Forbes as one of the fastest dying cities in America  The old models for saving industrial cities by destroying and rebuilding them is now looked at as a failure.  It's always cheaper to build on greenfields in the suburbs than it is to destroy a neighborhood and rebuild.  It's much easier to widen a boulevard through an office park than it would be to widen overtaxed Dutton Street to six lanes, just so someone from Dracut can get to Burlington faster.  Today, the MIT-lauded I-290 through Worcester is considered a China Wall that divided neighborhoods and sucked the lifeblood out of the downtown; not an economic artery.  Lowell had seen these failures fairly early on, and it probably saved a lot of what makes Lowell the interesting city it is today.

A quote from the exhibit, taken from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a 1961 book I have had on my Amazon Wishlist for quite some time, is "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them."  While at the time of that book's publication, many Lowellians felt the Dutton Street Boardinghouses needed to be demolished in the name of growth, and to cover up a shameful and exploitative past.  In today's Lowell, something like that is unconscionable.  Well, almost.  And for that reason, hindsight, I think that we should ignore the advice we have received and we should restore the JFK Civic Center.  It is Lowell's best representation of a time in our past as real and as important as any other.  Modern Lowell, like Boston and like New York, has embraced its past after some serious errors, and is banking on that being an asset.  A large difference between Lowell and those world-class major American cities however still remains one of the economy:  what is Lowell's economy?  It is far too large and diverse to be a museum-like playground for the rich and tourism-based weekend trips (Northampton, Newport, and Newburyport, I'm looking at you), and far too small and poorly served by infrastructure to be the economic hub for a region.  Lowell largely is, and should be, the cultural, services, and educational hub for our little section of the Merrimack Valley.

Maybe this doesn't matter:  maybe what really matters is quality of life for residents.  Poverty is a fact of life, crime and drugs are a fact of life.  Lowell always has been and always will be a working-class city, and a gateway for immigrants fleeing far worse situations than Acre tenements.  What is best for these people?  The most direct connection I can see to today's Hamilton Canal District plan is an increase in economic activity, an increase in jobs at all levels, and an increase in taxable real-estate.  These things should lead to a more financially well-off city and local businesses, which leads to better funding for local services like schools and yet more local jobs - which is good news for everybody, but particularly the disadvantaged.  But doesn't this sound a lot like the plans from the 1960s?  Like I said, they weren't stupid or bad people - I think they just failed to realize cities aren't simply cookie-cutter economic centers (leave that to the highway "edge city"), but living entities with souls.  The preservation movement is about saving a place's soul, because without it, nothing else worthwhile follows.


  1. Okay, you have me curious now, Corey. Since I live pretty close to "the Boott" I think I will pay the exhibit a visit today.

    I have an affinity for the old buildings and their history here in Lowell. Heck, I have remarked about it many times in my blog (as recently as yesterday).

    But as for the JFK Civic Center.... I can't find the love for it... It reminds me too much of Boston's hideous City Hall. Yes, its a part of an era that needs to be remembered. But like the Freudenberg Building, it is so out of place.

  2. Thanks for passing along the link to your blog - you do fantastic work!

    As for the JFK Civic Center...I'm going to throw up a quick repost from Facebook about the topic I had done back in January.

  3. The mills of old Lowell created a situation of a "company town", where I am sure the efforts of the mill owners were directed at continual improvement in efficiency. Unfortunately, that consumes all innovative effort and leaves nothing to build on when the game grows old.

    In the book "The Wealth of Cities" John Norquist claims that the single most destructive event for cities was the signing of the interstate highway act in the 1950s. As those highways were built there were many efforts to extend them into the heart of the cities (like the Lowell Connector), and rather than bring business in, they allowed it to escape and ruin our countryside, along with robbing the cities of their wealth-generating activities.

  4. Joe, what I have read is actually even a bit worse: When it became clear that the mills at Lowell were going to ultimately lose to Southern competition, the corporations didn't just sell or close (well, in some cases they did), they often decided to suspend any and all capital improvements, milking every last penny out of their investments, and leaving already half-ruined buildings behind them.

    As for the highway thing, yeah, I've heard that. I've seen other books on that topic and that topic alone. I've added "Wealth of Cities" to my Amazon wishlist, Thanks!

  5. Those pics are amazing. Makes me want to jump in the DeLorean. For some reason I suspect the illustrated pic is depicting the park atop Fort Hill. What a great city!
    How do we attract more wealth-generating activities to the city today? AND how do we keep the wealth in the city? No easy answers.

  6. Building up the economy of a city like Lowell is no easy task. However, the basic physical attractiveness of the city is a start. And people like Corey and Jan certainly help bring out that beauty. The city government does its part when taking the initiative to recover derelict land as they are doing in the Hamilton Canal District, and they take actions to improve the efficiency of the government. Better schools, a cleaner city and less crime would also help.

    But there has to be more, additional initiative to make things in the city. Some of those things may be spin-offs of research technology coming out of UML, but others should be creative things like art, music, writing, computer applications, specialty clothes - can the Asians design and make their clothes in higher quantities, even selling them as new fashions to the outside world?

  7. Bringing in artists to Lowell is nice. But I don't think Lowell will change that much for the better. It's my understanding that artists don't make that much money. I appreciate art but hell, I don't even know any artists. I'm sheltered I guess. Lowell needs MONEY! Lowell was built on the backs of workers who made money for the mill owners, who I've read brought their money back to Boston. Even so Lowell thrived before the work went South and highways brought people to the burbs. It's amazing that Lowell was able to lure Wang here in the 70's. Unfortunatley Wang went belly up. Imagine if Wang became HP,Apple, or Microsoft. How different would things be around here? So close but now we have a baby being murdered by the 3 year old brother on Bridge Street. Likely story. Not to say those things won't happen because HP is headquarted here but you get the picture.
    We need people to say Enough is Enough!!! WHERE are the innovators!!! WHERE are the salesmen!!! Where are the artists who inspire the WORLD!!! sorry for the rant.

  8. HP, Apple, and Microsoft all have suburban headquarters. Had Wang grown any more, I'm not sure how much more room there was in Lowell for them, or if the tax structure would've helped them. Don't forget that companies like DeMoulas started in Lowell and have moved on to greener pastures like Tewksbury.

    Lowell would make a great incubator center for start-up companies - and the University talks about this a lot. My question is if ULowell has this kind of pull. It works for MIT, but Lowell is not Cambridge and ULowell is not MIT. Lowell is more like Troy, NY where I went to college (RPI) - which likewise had an incubator center that has accomplished very little for the city of Troy (from what I saw).

  9. Good points Corey. But I'm glad DeMoulas left Lowell. I'd hate to see more of those big 18 wheelers snaking through the city. Just because Apple is in the suburbs doesn't make it right. My feeling is that more companies are becoming environmentally conscientious. Who wants to drive 30 miles to work or have an hour commute to and fro work? Lowell is so dense it's perfect for walking or biking to work if you live in the city. Living closer to work should help increase productivity. ULowell should focus on the density aspect of the city to attract more start-ups that could become the next Microsoft.

  10. growth since 1826!

  11. I finally got to view the display at Boott Mill. What struck me the most (from the before/after photos) was how lucky we are that some people were able to see the beauty under the ugly skin of some of those buildings in the 1960s. Of course a lot of potential was lost, but much was preserved and it has been brought back to life.

    Although I should probably know better, I think of the French Street "extension" as always having been there, yet as recent as 1962 French Street terminated at the now defunct Dutton street. What a massive mill complex was reduced to rubble!