Its city center carved by canals and classical architecture form the bones of a great city. The brick factories that once made Lowell an industrial powerhouse have gradually been redeveloped into apartments, bringing more residents to the heart of the city. A bustling university sits on the edge of downtown, on the banks of the Merrimack River.
But past revivals, introduced with great fanfare, have invariably stalled. Small businesses opened periodically and then disappeared, as the region’s major transformation projects never took root.
This time around, some say things will be different for Lowell.
The long-planned Hamilton Canal District is starting to achieve critical mass. Robotics startups and maker spaces revive the city’s industrial heritage. Waves of newcomers – immigrants from Asia and artists from Boston – are building new communities in once dormant spaces. There is hope that Lowell is on the cusp of a political change that will reorient power towards the neighborhoods of long under-represented immigrants.
“We are seeing a large influx of transplants from Cambridge and Boston living in Lowell for greater accessibility,” George Chigas, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies the Cambodian diaspora. New economic and infrastructure investments “will exponentially improve” the quality of life in the city, Chigas said. “Lowell is on the cusp of a renaissance that she probably hasn’t seen since the late 1970s when downtown was transformed into Lowell National Historic Park,” he said.
This national historic park designation makes Lowell unique – it is one of the few urban parks in the country, reflecting Lowell’s history as “Spindle City,” the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Engineers tapped the Merrimack River to power vast textile factories that employed tens of thousands of people, mostly immigrants who flocked here during the 1800s.
However, by the 1920s this industry had started to fade, with spinning mills moving south, where cotton was closer and labor was cheaper. Lowell entered a gradual decline that lasted for decades. But today, the buildings that remain in the Hamilton Canal District – remnants of that once booming industry – could be the epicenter of change in the city.
A 15-acre site where four canals converge, the neighborhood has interested city planners and developers since the mid-2000s, when the city assembled a collection of wasteland and dilapidated old mills, some across a prominent estate. Progress has been slow, with the city and owner Trinity Financial going their separate ways in 2015 after successfully opening a single apartment building.
But last year a new district courthouse opened, and earlier this year a 903-space parking lot was completed. A $ 343 million high school is under construction downtown. And work is well underway on 201 Canal, a 125-unit apartment building that will be one of the biggest new projects in downtown Lowell in years. It should open next spring.
The $ 38 million Canal 201 project required a series of tax credits and other grants to make economic sense, said Larry Curtis, managing partner of WinnDevelopment, the builder. But the end result will be a mixed-income building with market rents that can work in Lowell – one-bedroom apartments start at around $ 1,500 per month – where construction costs are comparable to those in Boston, although the housing market is not.
“We’re not trying to build just luxury housing here, but affordable, workforce-oriented housing,” said Curtis, whose company has been building in Lowell for 20 years. “Housing for people with normal paychecks. “
Winn is one of many builders who have specialized in rehabilitating the massive mill complexes that line the canals, often with the help of federal historic preservation tax credits that control costs. They have become home to thousands of people who supply downtown businesses and bring life to the streets.
“The city center is our central business district. It is also a residential area, ”said Christine McCall, director of planning and development for the city. “It’s because 95% of the factory buildings have been refitted. “
Jim Lichoulas remembers what Lowell looked like before it happened. His father was a developer who owned several buildings around Hamilton’s Canal District, and as a child in the 1970s he would visit, struck by the ruins of Lowell’s industrial past.
His father clashed with city hall officials over what to do with the buildings, which Lowell ultimately took in a prominent estate. But Lichoulas held on to one, which he turned into the kind of place you could only find in an old town with so much empty space: the Mill No.5.
In a long hallway on the fourth floor of the building, Lichoulas spent seven years creating a Diagon Alley-style wonderland of salvaged storefronts that house quirky businesses – a funky record store, an apothecary full of curiosities, a old cinema and a soda saved. fountain transported from Maine. They are the sorts of places that are harder to find in Cambridge or Somerville these days. The space offers a vision of what Lowell was and part of what he could become.
“I was trying to imagine what Lowell was like in the 1880s, when the mills were booming,” he said. “I set about recreating it.”
Still, this Hall of Wonders can feel worlds different from the rest of the city, an abstract concept of a main street that doesn’t yet exist in downtown Lowell.
Not for lack of trying.
“Everything changed at Lowell and nothing changed at the same time,” said Franky Descoteaux, former small business owner and city councilor who runs the Entrepreneurship Center of Community Teamwork, a small business support group based at Lowell. She said that while the market potential is high enough for investors to buy properties in the city, the downtown area has remained roughly the same for decades.
But the are signs of change.
In recent years, a group of second-generation Asian Americans have opened downtown stores and restaurants, largely catering to students at Lowell High School and College, Descoteaux said. It has rocked the streets and is prompting other young hyper-local business owners to do the same.
“They come in and try to start their careers, they’re in their early thirties, late twenties,” said Peter Lam, owner of the AWOL sneaker store, who was part of the first wave of such showcases. to open on Merrimack. Street.
There is a growing push to extend the benefits of the city’s growth beyond the inner city and into other neighborhoods, which have been transformed in recent years by waves of newcomers from Southeast Asia. , Africa and Puerto Rico.
In 2017, Asian and Latino residents successfully filed a lawsuit to overthrow the city’s general electoral system, resulting in an overwhelming majority of white city councils and school boards in a city where more than half of residents are Asian, Latino or black. The November city council election is the first with a district-based system designed to elect councilors from across the city.
“This city is so diverse, we need our decision makers to reflect the city we represent,” said State Representative Vanna Howard, who was elected to represent the 17th District last year and is the second. Cambodian-American to hold a statewide position. Massachusetts.
It is hoped the new system will inspire the city to invest more in a wider range of neighborhoods, said Geoff Foster, a longtime community organizer from Lowell who now runs Common Cause Massachusetts.
“For so long, a very dominant neighborhood generated the overwhelming majority of elected officials,” he said. “It really is a unique moment for this city.
Of course, not everyone is happy with the changes.
Tensions have simmered in recent months between the city’s large Southeast Asian community – 20,000 to 25,000 Cambodian refugees and their descendants live in Lowell – and its predominantly white political population. leaders, some of which were forced to fight against each other. Some are skeptical that changes in the makeup of city council will make a big difference in where the city deploys its resources.
Still, there’s no question that newcomers are a big part of Lowell’s future, Chigas said.
“These second and third generation immigrants are taking on leadership roles,” he said. “They stay in Lowell and build careers and families and they believe in the city and in their place there.”
In some ways, it’s not that different from the waves of immigrants from Ireland, Quebec and various parts of Europe who flocked to fill Lowell’s factories during the 1800s, he said.
Lowell has always been a place where people come to build a life, and a city in the process. Today, they are starting again.
Learn more about Lowell and explore the full In the street series.