Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doors Open Lowell 2011

I, of course, made it to Doors Open Lowell last weekend. It was fairly overcast all weekend, but the weather generally held, which was nice.

There were quite a few new buildings this year, and a few that were not new that I haven't seen the inside of before. I didn't get to all the buildings I would've liked to have seen, nor did I ask all the questions I would've liked to were this a longer event, but I did pick up some interesting stories. Sometimes, you need to put down the camera, take out a notepad, and talk to people. I hope to do a better job next year...

Photos after the jump

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tyngsboro(ugh) builds riverfront park; vows to keep out outsiders

I'm about to vent, but I'm going somewhere with this, promise.

Growing up in the fair metropolis of Tyngsboro, I learned early on what it meant to be part of a regional economy. If you want to go shopping, you can't do that in town because there's very little land zoned for it. If you want a job, you need to leave town because they won't zone for it. The school system is decent but is by no means excellent, so I never went to it (although Notre Dame was in town, and I did go there). If we wanted to go to the library, we left to either Westford or occasionally Lowell where they had more than two rooms worth of books. If we wanted public recreation, well... T-Burro didn't really believe in that, either. Once or twice we went to the beach at Lake Mascuppic, I be fair. However, I certainly went sledding at Shedd Park more often than that, or down to Wyman's Beach in Westford to swim or skate.

In other words, people tend to move to Tyngsboro because it's a nice, safe, conveniently located, cheaper place to throw up a home and populate it with beds, not because it has what you would call the amenities on which a community is built. It's not a bad town for kids. I had fun in youth soccer and Boy Scouts was one of the most valuable experiences of my life - which I spent with kids who are now current and former selectmen as well as others who have remained active in the town. However, I never caught the Tyngsboro bug, and now, I'm even less likely to ever do so (I'm getting there!)

Enter the 21st century, and those of us who recall when Tyngsboro Center had a town hall, a library, a small grocer, a church, and a school are now laughing hysterically at the Master Plan, which claims to want Tyngsboro to have a center. Too bad they spent the last 25 years demolishing the one they had! It's almost like they realized people are drawn to towns like Westford or Groton over Tyngsboro because they have character! Tyngsboro, on the other hand, had two strip clubs and a dirt road townies lovingly call "bum road". Today's Tyngsboro Center has enough abandoned buildings clustered along both banks of the river such that any superiority complex they might hold over the Mill City should be long gone. They are chanting the bike lane mantra without realizing that the entire western half of the town has the same number of neighborhood stores as it has sidewalks: zero. There is no safe place to walk, and nowhere to bike to. I swear, it's safer to walk through the worst parts of Lowell at midnight with a $100 bill hanging out of your cap than it would be to try to walk down a street in Tyngsboro at the same time. In the former, you're likely to get mugged. In the latter, you're guaranteed to get run over. In the former, it's likely there is somewhere for you to go, in the latter, it'll be miles before you hit something other than another house. Lowell has street lights, Tyngsboro decided that if people wanted them, they'd have to "adopt" them because a town with so little billable property per length of street frontage finds it hard to afford infrastructure.

So, what am I on about? Tyngsboro, a few years ago, decided to attempt to upclass the "bad" or "Dracut" side of the river by replacing a trailer park - where people were living - with a passive recreation park with access to the Merrimack River. Hundreds of thousands of CPA dollars later, they have what I bet is a nice park along a nice little bend in the river. Recently, it opened. However, as the link says, the town is threatening to tow or fine out-of-towners for visiting.

Excuse me. I spent 20 years in town. My family paid very high taxes for not a whole lot of services that whole time. I was in town Scouts and helped with the Eagle project to clean up the area around Wannalancit's Rock...a newer cleanup of which just hit the paper last week. I am an upstanding, active citizen. And because my driver's license says that oh-so-unwelcome city of Lowell on it, I'm not allowed? As I said, most things you would consider "public" goods, Tyngsboro fails to provide. It is one of the biggest reasons I decided to make Lowell my adopted home: it's actually a place. This decision on Tyngsborough's part clearly angered many people who replied to The Sun article as well on the same grounds. Tyngsboro is not nearly special enough to have a Resident's Only access point to the river. This doesn't call for Civil Disobedience, but it does call for anger...and pity.

It just continues to enforce that they just don't get it up there. They don't get what it means to be a community, what it means to be a proud municipality. That is part of why they will continue to be one of the least respected towns in the region, and why they'll never catch up to (pinkies out) Westford and Groton on the prestige scale.

Ok, done! Thank you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

WPI's alternative commencement speech focuses on Peak Oil

I know, I know...I still have to get the Doors Open stuff up. The pictures are up on my Picasa, but they need to be captioned, tagged, etc. I just haven't had the energy.

When I graduated from RPI, our commencement speaker was then-Senator Hillary Clinton. That caused enough problems, especially being a college with what seems like an unusually large right-leaning student body, and an election year for her. We were warned that anyone who disrupted her speech would not be allowed to graduate. Only one kid dared. I don't know if he got in trouble or not, but abruptly standing up in an area full of Secret Service didn't seem too bright to me either way.

Anyway, a little closer to home, WPI's commencement speaker this year was ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. A small group of students refused to listen to his speech (with university approval!) and instead brought along Richard Heinberg, who I am familiar with from his appearance in the documentary End of Suburbia. The contents of the speech are here:

"A chance to change the world", huh? ... RPI's slogan is "Why not change the world?" I wonder how much they're talking about this stuff out at the 'Tute these days...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lowell's Emergent Generation

I've had a busy weekend with Doors Open Lowell and related activities, and I plan to post photos on that in the near future. However, an interesting survey was done recently, and as low-hanging fruit, I figured I'd tackle that first.

A few months back, I learned (I believe via Young Professionals of Greater Lowell) of a working session over dinner targeting "Lowell's Emergent Generation" - That is, those of us who are post-college and under 35. Being a little shy regarding this type of thing, by the time I decided I in fact did want to participate, it was filled. However, an online survey was available, and I completed that.

The survey, which was conducted by UMass Lowell master's student Derek Mitchell with help from John Wooding, has been compiled and the results are available here:

All in all, I don't think any of the results should be surprising. Us "emergent" Lowellians feel that our city has a rough reputation it doesn't totally deserve. The most common word we used to describe the perception of Lowell is "Dangerous." The word we most frequently use to describe how we like to see it is "Diverse" (yet the majority of responders were white). Beyond that, we question the quality of the school system (a concern seen in urban areas with sizable young populations everywhere - Cambridge anyone?), cleanliness (broken windows theory...) and the big concerns on our list include public safety, walkability, affordability, and the availability of jobs. Changes we'd like to see range from the crunchy (there is a lot in here about local, organic food) to the intensely practical (safe places for children to play). We spend a lot of time downtown, and we'd be willing to support a lot more down here. To that end, we'd be very interested in doing something I've been babbling about for years: we need to sell the city to our age group, outside of the city. We are also looking for better, stronger connections between various organizations, and better ways to spread ideas.

To that point, it's interesting to note that only 120 people answered the online survey. Considering the population of the city that falls within the target age group, that should be a cause for alarm. Either we are an extremely indifferent generation, or we are proving to be very hard to engage. I'm honestly not sure which one I think it is - perhaps a bad combination of both.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Devastating Technologies

Yesterday and today, Blogger went down for hours. This is a reminder to us all that you get what you pay for. In the case of free cloud-based services, that is sometimes exactly... nothing. Don't forget, you are not Google's customer: their advertisers are. Ditto Facebook. Ditto Twitter. How often is Twitter over capacity? How often does Facebook leak your personal data? They owe you nothing. I've talked about issues with digital data before. However, while the amateur historian, computing professional, and worrywart in me concerns myself with the problem of losing data that is either not in your control, is in proprietary formats, or is simply on easily ruined media, everything else in me loves the ability to just post my thoughts to the world, and to access massive amounts of knowledge and thought from my desk, and in just the past few years, my smartphone.

In many ways, aside from its flaws, the Information Revolution has been one of the most exciting things humanity has ever seen. However, as I explored in one of those earlier links, it also has created generations of people who can't live without new technologies, and perhaps worse, can't live with them. Mankind has a history of technological changes that have completely upset the way the world works and often take ages to adjust to. This is just the latest of many, and contrary to what people seem to think, I'm optimistic we'll adjust.

Take the crossbow: the Medieval knight and his expensive custom armor and extensive training all of a sudden could be taken out by a peasant with a simple, easy to produce weapon. The Pope was asked to ban the thing to keep the status quo. It didn't happen, and the world adjusted. Not long afterwards, gunpowder revolutionized warfare, making walled cities obsolete and finally making traditional armor obsolete. Entire battle tactics that had been used since the Classical Era became obsolete. After centuries of being a bastion of civilization, Constantinople fell to Turkish cannon and guns helped end feudalism, and the world was never the same...and we adjusted for the better.

The printing press was a great communication tool, often considered one of the most important inventions of all time, but it was blamed for many things, including the death of many traditional memory techniques and travelling storytellers. The Industrial Revolution changed a rural world into an urbanized one. It took years of poor working and living conditions for that to settle down, and it left the world far wealthier and educated than ever before. In some countries, this process continues into today. Mechanized warfare in World War I turned the fields of Europe into disease-filled trenches as defensive weaponry grossly outpaced offensive weaponry, and continuing a disastrous trend first seen in the American Civil War, injuries and sanitation issues outpaced medicine. Finally, further advances in mechanization lead to the battle tank, the stalemates ended, and the very injuries lead to much improved medicine, and the world improved.

More recently, the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane allowed ordinary people to travel great distances with ease. It was truly a great democratiser, but it was not without downsides. After years of urban shakeup caused as a side-effect of mass motoring, we are learning to live with the car and not for the car. The Age of Speed is winding down. My parents' generation often got from A to B faster than I can. I've never seen anybody go to the moon, and without a renewed interest in space, soon we may never see humans leave Earth's gravity. But, they couldn't talk to people on the other side of the world for virtually nothing like I can.

And now, the Information Age. Cell phones have empowered people in the Third World in ways that Americans can't fully appreciate. We have the whole world's knowledge at our fingertips. Despots struggle to control ideas in a connected world. Conversely, these changes have allowed Americans to be rude, unfocused, self-important, and has taken away our ability to plan. Much about the computer age has taken away our ability to be patient and enjoy simple things. As Arcade Fire put it, "I used to sleep at night, before the flashing light settled deep in my brain ... we used to wait for letters to arrive. Though stranger still, how something so small can keep you alive". We all know exactly what they're talking about.

So, point being...give it another 20 years or so. This shakeup will all come to pass. Changes in information technology will slow, and some other "can't live with it, can't live without it" technology will take its place. What will it be? Androids? Virtual immortality? Virtual reality? Whatever it will, most likely, it won't destroy us, but enrich us...once it redefines normalcy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How fast news travels!

Many bloggers wrote about bin Laden and I didn't, so I've decided to join the club. I found out he died after writing a blog post and returning to iGoogle, where I have a news ticker. I went to post the news on Facebook, and saw I had already been beaten by at least two friends. A few minutes later, there were scores of people reporting the news. There were a huge number of people who got the news via Twitter, etc instead of cable news. Just think - it wasn't that long ago that people might not find out about major events until the morning paper showed up. The pace today is a matter of minutes. It's no surprise it's hard to satiate people's appetites for headlines with the printed word today.

Case in point, I thought this was amusing. On April 30, the Osama bin Laden article had been very slow to update.

Suddenly, at 21:37 on May 1, somebody had seen that bin Laden was dead. Within 10 minutes, there were over 10 edits. Over the next handful of minutes, the editing pace hit a fever pitch - the wiki-admins and diligent regular editors trying to keep up. By May 2nd, thousands of changes had been made. A screenshot of a mere 20 minutes of edits:

Reading and responding to a post on All About Cities, I searched through the author's links and found a Boston-based blog about urbanism, sustainable development, and technology (amongst other things): Dave Writes. Labelled as "about technology, life and an imperative to create something better," he has many interesting, informed posts about the issues that face us today - from our built environment through unemployment and raising a family. Check it out.

As for the post on All About Cities, the topic was that the urban/suburban dichotomy is no longer sufficient. I wondered aloud, what kind of place is Lowell? By her definitions, it's too small and close to Boston to be a satellite city, which is what I've always considered it. It's also too small to be a region into itself - which I think is impossible to disagree with - but, is it really Urban/Suburban? This label, by her definition and by reality, seems the most fair, but yet the word "suburban" being associated with a city as old and proud as Lowell seems completely wrong...thoughts?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pawtucket Falls

This weekend, I went over to the presentation at the new Spalding House Park on Pawtucket Street. The Sun wrote an article about it here. Of course, while the topic was supposed to be about the new park behind the Spalding House and the planned overlook/connection to the Esplanade on the opposite bank, much attention was paid to the announcement that came down shortly before that FERC had sided with Enel, the owner of the Boott Hydroelectric plant, in arguing that the proposed bladder dam would not alter the historic integrity of the current flashboard dam. Their argument essentially boiled down to things like:

  • After the fish ladder and elevator were installed on the north end of the dam in the 1980s, its character was already compromised.
  • The dam, although in a Historic District, was not individually listed
  • The dam's historical significance is as a piece of engineering, not as an architectural landmark.
I've found myself conflicted on this issue since it first surfaced. There are certainly downsides and benefits to keeping the existing dam or replacing it. While I feel it's often critical, especially in a city like Lowell, to maintain historical integrity, we cannot completely reverse course after the mistakes we've made in the past and ban all progress just for the sake of banning it. In an age of escalating energy prices, if Enel is right and their changes will not further endanger houses in Pawtucketville (an argument many residents feel is completely ludicrous, and their points are worthy of very serious consideration), increasing the amount of renewable energy we produce is a noble goal and worthy of consideration. Also, Enel has every right to turn as much of a profit as they can - of course, without stepping on the toes of the little people of Lowell, thousands of miles away from Corporate Headquarters.

However, while listening to impassioned park representatives and regular Lowellians talk about the history of the dam and the way it has worked for over 150 years, the whole time fighting to be heard over the spring flow rate of the Merrimack (currently about 20,000 cubic feet per second [cfs]), my mind was made up - Lowell is right, the foreign-owned energy company is wrong. The trivial amount of extra energy this will generate does not translate into giving up a major part of our heritage. After all, as was pointed out, these falls are why Lowell was built in the first place, and the archaic pin-and-flashboard setup is our heritage.

So, after the presentation, I went over to the Pawtucket Gatehouse, then I got started home. I had walked, and running late as usual, I only had a chance to take pictures on the way back. One of my favorite things about travelling on foot: the more you want to be on time, the faster you can go. There's no traffic to make you later and later. I made what Google considers a 22 minute walk in 15 minutes!

I went down Pawtucket Street to Merrimack Street, having taken Market/Salem on my way there to save a minute or two.

Photos after the jump

Appleton Mill, Jan-May 2011

I took some pictures of the (re)construction of the Appleton Mill buildings in February, and then again this afternoon. Construction is nearing completion, and a tour will be granted in a few weeks (May 12-14) for Doors Open Lowell. A direct link to the Doors Open description for this building is here.

Most of the final finishings are on

Including this new overhang over a door

Appleton Mill, Jan-May 2011