– Lowell Politics and History

Lowell Week in Review: August 30, 2015

With the eleventh installment of Lowell Walks completed yesterday, we’ve surpassed the 1000 mark – 1097 to be exact. That’s how many people have participated in these Saturday morning walking tours of downtown Lowell. Blogging colleague Paul Marion speculates that the collective good will of all these participants has influenced even the climate since we have had superb weather on all of these walks but one which has certainly helped attendance.

167 attendees at yesterday’s Lowell Walk

Here’s a quick recap of the Lowell Walks topics and attendance numbers thus far: Preservation Success Stories (81 participants); Lowell Public Art Collection (107 participants); Inside Lowell High School (86); Literary Lowell and the Pollard Memorial Library (76); The Irish and the Acre (125); Green Lowell (43); Abolitionists in Lowell (119); Hamilton Canal District (129); Natural Lowell (75); Lowell Artists, Past and Present (86); and Lowell Monuments (167).

If you’ve missed out on the Lowell Walks experience thus far, don’t despair. There are two left this summer and more to come in the fall. The two summertime walks are:

September 5, 2015 – Trains and Trolleys in Lowell with Chris Hayes
September 12, 2015 – Renewing the Acre with Dave Ouellette

Both of these walks begin at 10 am at Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center on Market Street. The walks are free, last about 90 minutes, and involve a moderate amount of walking.

UMass Lowell students taking notes during yesterday’s Lowell Walk

Among the 167 people on yesterday’s tour were two groups of college students. One group was from Germany here on an exchange program; the other was from UMass Lowell. Several in the latter group were busy taking notes throughout the tour, suggesting that their participation may have been part of an early academic assignment. Whatever their reasons for participating, it was great to see the students downtown and interested in Lowell and its history beyond the strict geographic confines of university properties. Hopefully we will see more of them and their colleagues in the coming months.

Because of the obvious interest in local history demonstrated by the participation in Lowell Walks – we’re averaging 99 people per Saturday walk – we’re expanding the program to a year-round activity. It will include unique walks and talks but will also stretch its umbrella over events organized and conducted by other organizations. This is all about promoting Lowell and fulfilling what appears to be an insatiable appetite for local history among residents and those who live in neighboring communities.

With that in mind, here are a couple of upcoming events:

Lowell Cemetery Tours – Each fall I offer a free walking tour of historic Lowell Cemetery which is located at 77 Knapp Avenue which is just off of Rogers Street and right behind Shedd Park. The tour is conducted on four different days although it’s the same tour each time (there’s an entirely different Lowell Cemetery tour in the spring). The Lowell Cemetery tours are free, require no advance registration, and there is plenty of parking inside the cemetery. The dates for this fall’s Lowell Cemetery tours are:

  • Friday, September 24, 2015 at 1 pm
  • Saturday, September 25, 2015 at 10 am
  • Friday, October 17, 2015 at 1 pm
  • Saturday, October 18, 2015 at 10 am

We also have scheduled our first (of many, hopefully) non-summer Lowell Walks neighborhood tours. This one will be held on Saturday, October 3, 2015 at 10 am. The topic will be Cambodia Town and the History of the Lower Highlands. We are still planning the tour so details about where it will start and where you should park will be forthcoming. Please save the date for now.

To promote these and other local history events, I’m creating an email list that I will use to send out periodic notices (probably one every two weeks) about Lowell history events. If you would like to be included in that list (which will be used solely by me, solely for this purpose), just send me an email at DickHoweJr[at]

Lowell Bibliophiles Rejoice

Lowell has several places that sell books but no real bookstore (at least none that I’m aware of). That’s about to change with not one, but two bookstores setting up operations in the city.

Congratulations to Serpentine Books and Collectibles which will open in Mill No. 5 next Saturday (September 5). Owned and operated by Lowell resident Ken Welch, Serpentine Books has existed as an online source of vintage and used books for some time now. On several first Saturdays of the month, Ken would bring a sampling of his inventory to Mill No. 5 and set up a sales table amongst the other vendors. That’s where I first met him, because I can’t pass by a table of books, especially older ones, without checking them out. Serpentine Books has a page on the online sales site Etsy and also a Facebook page. If you’re on Facebook yourself, please visit and like Serpentine’s page.

Here’s what Ken posted on Facebook about his decision to open an actual retail bookstore site:

I am finally able to announce the upcoming news! Serpentine Books is finally going to be an actual bookstore! While the main focus will be on vintage used books, I will also have other vintage goodies mixed in. After the dust settles, I will also feature newer books written by local authors!

Moving into Mill no 5, the soft opening will occur on September 5th at the Little Bazaar Marketplace, the Flea 2! A grand opening will occur at a later date, which will be announced here. Final hours will also be announced at a later date after more gets finalized / sorted. Share the news, Lowell is getting its independent bookstore!

Thank you all who have supported me in this, and helped me along the way. I am very excited to take this next giant step. I can now share my love of old books with you on a weekly basis! Stay tuned for more updates as they come. Hope to see you all very soon.

The second piece of Lowell bookstore news comes from a sign that just appeared in the window of the building at the corner of Merrimack and John Streets. Known as Cherry & Webb or Chantilly Place, depending on how long you’ve lived in Lowell, the sign reads “HyperText Café Books, coming fall 2015.” Several months ago City Manager Kevin Murphy announced that a bookstore café was in negotiations for that site but he couldn’t disclose its name. Now we know the name, although we don’t know any more than that. A bookstore café right on Merrimack Street would be a great addition to downtown Lowell, so let’s hope the plans stay on track.

Cherry & Webb building at Merrimack and John Streets

City Council Meeting

The city council met on Tuesday night. Much of the 150 minutes of the meeting were devoted to double telephone poles and better ways to schedule the paving of city streets. If either of those topics interest you, I urge you to go the LTC website and catch a replay of the meeting. Aside from the comic relief these interludes occasionally provide, if you compare the amount of time the council collectively spends discussing things like double telephone poles and street paving schedules to something like how do we create more good-paying jobs for Lowell residents (which is hardly any time at all), you are left wondering about the city’s strategic direction and priorities.

A couple of other items caught my attention. First, Councilor Jim Milinazzo announced that the Transportation Subcommittee will meet on October 6, 2015 at 5:30 pm in the City Council chambers to receive a briefing on the Lord Overpass renovation project. Many residents interested in making that whole area more walkable (me included) testified at a prior transportation subcommittee meeting on this issue and councilors seemed to take note of the issue as one important to many. The October 6 meeting will offer a good opportunity to reinforce those views.

Another item of interest was the council’s unanimous vote to authorize the borrowing of $2 million to conduct a feasibility study on the future of the Lowell High School facility. The city has received preliminary approval from the state’s school building assistance bureau to move to the next step in the “new” high school project. That step is to conduct the feasibility study. My sense is that the state, through the SBAB, controls the process and selects the company to do the study, but that the city pays for it. If the city is ultimately awarded the project, 80% of the cost of the study will be reimbursed by the state (which is the same rate of reimbursement for the construction of the entire project).

I thought the vote might generate some debate but it did not (which is just fine with me at this stage). Three people spoke in favor of the proposal at the public hearing (School Committee member Steve Gendron, High School Headmaster Brian Martin, and a citizen/parent). No one spoke in opposition. After some very brief comments by a couple of their colleagues, the council voted unanimously for the loan order.

Whether this project should be undertaken and if it is, where a new or renovated high school should be located (on the current site or elsewhere), will be issues in the coming campaign, both for council and school committee candidates. Between the politics and the money involved in this, the future of Lowell High School should be a big issue in the coming campaign.

A third item worth mentioning was a City Manager response to a motion that the city invite Verizon to install its FiOS network throughout the city. I don’t remember which councilor had made this motion, but the intent was to create some competition for Comcast (the sole cable provider currently in the city) in the hope that prices for cable TV might drop. Verizon had been asked about this before and their answer this time was the same as it was previously: NO. When Manager Murphy communicated this to the council, several councilors suggested that the city investigate installing its own cable network as other cities have done.

It was at that point that I realized that Councilor Dan Rourke must be an expert in self-calming meditation techniques. More than a year ago, he proposed doing this very same thing. Back then, his colleagues cast perfunctory votes in favor of Rourke’s motion but no one else latched onto the issue as a matter of considerable importance for the city. With only one councilor sincerely advocating the measure, it slid to the bottom of the priority pile.

When this past Tuesday night other councilors began proclaiming the wisdom of the city creating its own cable network, Rourke would have been fully justified in taking the floor and asking “where were you last year when I proposed this?” but in a show of self-discipline and good strategic sense, he remained silent. He did not get bogged down in a short-term battle for credit but stayed focused on the big picture, silently welcoming the late-arriving support for what could become a very important issue for Lowell and its residents.

Making Middlesex and Central Safer

Working pedestrian light at Middlesex & Central

I was pleased to discover that the pedestrian crossing light at Middlesex and Central Street. It’s a very wide intersection with cars coming from all directions so a working light is essential to pedestrian safety.

They’re Back

Students in the Lowell public schools return to class this Tuesday morning. Plan your morning commute accordingly.

Lowell Real Estate: Week of August 24, 2015

It was a (relatively) busy week for real estate sales in Lowell:

August 24, 2015 – Monday
85-87 Belrose Ave for $340,000. Prior sale in 1996 for $108,500
95 Endicott St for $255,500. Prior sale in 2009 for $230,000
31 Atlantic St for $350,000. Prior sale in 1973
363 Hildreth St Unit 11 for $80,000. Prior sale in 2009 for $50,000
82 Boylston Ln Unit 15 for $102,000. Prior sale in 2010 for $67,000
649-651 Westford St for $428,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $200,000

August 25, 2015 – Tuesday
137 Pine St Unit 25 for $72,500. Prior sale in 2003 for $91,000
107 Holly Rd for $230,000. Prior sale in 1989
417 Hildreth St Unit 11 for $179,000. Prior sale in 2005 for $218,900
287 Pleasant St for $360,900. Prior sale in 1999 for $180,000

August 26, 2015 – Wednesday
67 Arnold Rd for $130,000. Prior sale in 1982
54 Gates St Unit 4 for $90,000. Prior sale in 2001 for $109,900
144 Concord St for $120,000. Prior sale in 2015 for $80,000
118 Andrews St Unit 118 for $259,900. New condo
195 Campbell Dr for $252,000. Prior sale in 2009 for $244,000
80 Rogers St Unit 603 for $224,900. New condo
120 Glenwood St for $379,900. Prior sale in 2011 for $350,000
38-40 Marginal St for $254,000. Prior sale in 2010 for $175,000
109 Belrose Ave for $337,900. Prior sale in 1979
1240 Gorham St for $247,000. Prior sale in 2010 for $195,000
110 London St for $169,900. Prior sale in 2005 for $237,500
373 Aiken Ave Unit 3 for $137,000. Prior sale in 2008 for $124,000
277 Gibson St for $380,000. Prior sale in 2009 for $205,000

August 27, 2015 – Thursday
30 Angle St Unit 40 for $109,000. Prior sale in 1989
203 Mt Vernon St for $155,000. Prior sale in 2008 for $126,000
261 Dutton St Unit 4 for $175,100. Prior sale in 2010 for $127,500
40 Hadley St for $375,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $182,500
23 Desrosiers St for $335,000. Prior sale in 1995 for $136,000
30 Highland Ave for $250,000. Prior sale 2014 foreclosure

August 28, 2015 – Friday
79-81 Beaulieu St for $148,050. Prior sale in 2004 for $259,000
20 Woodland Dr Unit 382 for $210,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $229,000
1364-1366 Middlesex St for $214,000. Prior sale in 1977
29-31 Midland St for $345,900. Prior sale in 2001 for $232,000
200 Rogers St Unit 6 for $170,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $185,000
176 Starr Ave for $420,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $429,900
1484 Gorham St for $260,000. Prior sale in 2003 for $200,000
112 Woburn St for $263,000. Prior sale in 2014 for $132,000
146 Sparks St for $224,900. Prior sale in 2011 for $85,000
8 Freedom Way for $390,000. Prior sale in 2003 for $365,425
185 Eighteenth St for $250,000. Prior sale in 2003 for $255,000
8-10 Murray Ln for $315,000. Prior sale in 2008 for $344,900
62 Cambridge St for $270,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $120,000

“Lowell Public Schools in 1862” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters shares another essay on the history of the Lowell public schools.
By the year, 1862, there were 47 primary schools, most were one room schoolhouses.  There was 1 junior high school which was considered intermediate and was not well liked, 8 grammar schools, and 1 High School in Lowell.  The programs, which were altered somewhat to appease those in the Civil War, included vocational training.  Grading was discussed in a previous writing, it was very successful and kept the need for corporal punishment down from a high of ten incidents per day to a low of one punishment per day.
     The role of the Principal changed markedly.  The Principal no longer sat in one large school room with hundreds of students but in an office where his influence “…is more felt through all (of) the building under the plan of smaller rooms.”  He was the chief authority figure in the school, and people liked the change, which also was instituted in 1862.  It was a big year for change in the school system.
     The “Intermediate School” was broken up and “absorbed into the various departments of the Grammar School…”  There was “great disappointment” in the intermediate school.  It was thrown out of “…the sphere of instruction…” (School Committee Minutes, 1862).  There was an effort to try city-wide grading.  One course was in Spelling, one in Reading, and one in “Physical Training.”   Mr. Scripture was a person who taught “by having each student understand the office and power of each of the vocal organs. (ibid.).  “The growth of the mind cannot be stayed.” according to the Superintendent.  Lowell was a highly centralized school system and the Superintendent was a powerful player.
     Grading, as discussed “Has already justified itself and proved its own wisdom.  The actual advantages gained by thus grading our schools have far outrun all (of) our theories and exceeded our highest participation,” the Superintendent said at a meeting.  “The wear of nervous energies is greatly reduced.” (ibid.)
     There was one teacher in a hall of two hundred people, probably to save money in the classroom.  There was a steady cry for grading and pressure to get rid of excess teachers, especially since the number of students decreased during the war.  The Appropriation of money was playing a major part in academic considerations – returning measurable financial investment per student was considered essential by City Fathers.
     While the City Council could direct or advise the School Committee, the committee was not a city committee or  agency.  All existing records point to it being autonomous.  (Mayor’s Report to the Board of Aldermen).  “Despite the war,” the Superintendent said, “…the year has not failed to bring its full proportion of responsibilities and duties.” (ibid)  “Our public schools have not been neglected, and the work of education must go on.”
     While admitting that the lack of educational progress was offset by education and its processes, the Superintendent noted that, in spite of, or because of , the Civil War, the “…cherished and noble plan was passing through fierce trials.” (Superintendent’s Report of 1862)  “The plan is to provide a decent education to all who want it.  In spite of the conflict, he reported, “Idle hands will not remain idle heads.” (ibid).  To guarantee that, the school system continued to offer both evening and morning classes, with vocational curriculum was the mainstay of the evening classes, even though an academic offering still existed.  Academic pursuits continued as the core of the daytime program.
      We learned, in Lowell’s educational system, to “press on” and how did we do that in earlier times?   “Records show that we did it with sheer tenacity.”  Our nation was in a fratricidal war, but we continued teaching and learning.  What was our curriculum?  What was our promise?  We manufactured it in the same way as those people at the time manufactured cloth.  We refused to give in.  To the war, or to the naysayers in the educational system.  In “The Field of Dreams,” James Earl Jones tells Kevin Costner that the game of baseball was the constant.  In Lowell’s educational system, it was the consistency of our academic excellence that was constant.  We taught vocational training, but we excelled in academic excellence.
     Progress at the High School was rewarded by the Carney Medals.  The medals recognized the top six students in the class, three males, and three females.     The school building program was underway in eighteen years, during the 1880’s. The three “jewels” were the Coburn, the Moody, and the Butler.  The Pawtucket Memorial was built in 1880 along the same design as the Butler.  Both have been torn down.  They were magnificient buildings and I miss them.  The Pawtucket Memorial had only four principals including Mr. Leonard Flynn who served approximately thirty two years.  Mr. McAvinnue served over thirty years and brought the school to Mass at St. Rita’s every Holy Day in the Catholic Church.  He did not seem to care if the students were Catholic or Protestant.  Mass was Mass.
     My mind is on the school system tonight.  More on that at another time.

Walking in Lowell: August 27, 2015

Yesterday’s beautiful weather drew me out of the Superior Courthouse for a downtown walk at lunchtime. The highlight of the walk down Gorham Street was reaching the intersection of Middlesex and Central where the pedestrian crossing light now works after several months of being out of action. With a very wide road and traffic coming from multiple directions, having the crossing light is crucial to pedestrian safety. Old habits die hard, however, so some walkers I saw strolled right out into the street without waiting for the white light and some drivers coming up Central from Merrimack and turning right onto Middlesex cut off pedestrians properly crossing despite the very prominent “Yield to pedestrians crossing” sign. Still, it’s a huge improvement over what was there just a week ago.

Continuing down the west side of Central Street, I noted the papered-over windows of the former Ray Robinson’s sandwich shop (which served which I thought was the finest French Toast in Lowell) and wondered how long it will be until the space is occupied by a new tenant.

Appleton Bank Building

Across Central Street, the Appleton Bank Building is shaping up nicely. Purchased in 2013 by 17 RJC LLC for $940,000, at least twice that and more has been spent renovating the inside of the building for the new tenant, Element Care, which will provide “all-inclusive” care for adults. With an aging population, the need for those types of services will only increase and perhaps having such a large, comprehensive facility right in the neighborhood might make moving into downtown condominiums and apartments more attractive to downsizing baby boomers thinking about their long term health care needs. (Element Care plans to open in mid-September). Constructed in the early eighteenth century, the Appleton Bank Building was covered by a dark gray aluminum screen in the 1970s to make it look “modern” by covering up all of the historic architectural details that we find so attractive and desirable today.

Element Care inside Appleton Bank Building

My lunch choice was Fuse Bistro in the old central fire station at Palmer and Middle Streets. The night before I was researching my upcoming Lowell Walk on city monuments (this Saturday, August 29, 2015 at 10 am from the National Park Visitor Center on Market Street) and came across a 1966 editorial supporting the construction of the JFK Civic Center alongside City Hall. One of the main reasons given for the new facility was the decrepit condition of the Palmer Street Fire Station. The Civic Center was built and the fire department moved there although in keeping with the theme of lousy architecture of the 1970s, that building now needs to be replaced while City Hall and the Library, both built in the 1890s, continue standing tall alongside of it.

The Palmer Street Fire Station has had an interesting history post-closure. It stayed vacant for a while and then the upper floors were converted to office space. At one point, the lower floor where the fire wagons and then fire trucks once sat, opened as an indoor farmer’s market. That was a great concept but it soon proved to be unviable and closed. After years past, the first floor reopened as Café Paradiso, a popular spot run by a brother and sister who had a similar business in Boston’s North End, but the brother died suddenly at a young age and Paradiso closed. Eventually Fuse Bistro took over the space and from the crowd that filled the place at lunchtime yesterday, seems to be doing well. The fish and chips I ordered was excellent.

Walkway to right of canal; Dutton St to left; looking towards Merrimack St

Walking back to the courthouse I chose a route that took me through the Hamilton Canal District. Once you cut through the Market Mills Courtyard next to the National Park Visitor Center, you emerge onto a very nice walking path on the eastern side of the Merrimack Canal. That’s the canal that runs alongside Dutton Street. The western side of it has trolley tracks and then Dutton Street with no sidewalk on the side of Dutton. The planners, I believe, want people to walk on the inside of the canal. It’s a great place to walk and is certainly picturesque during the day, but I’ve never been there after dark so I don’t know how safe it would feel to a lone walker. Up near the Swamp Locks, where the trolley line ends (for now) and the National Park canal boats launch, there is an unnamed walkway/roadway that cuts over to Jackson Street and then Middlesex. This takes you through the heart of the Hamilton Canal District, past 110 Canal Place (the UMass Lowell Innovation Center) and the site of the new Judicial Center (which has yet to break ground) to Jackson Street.

Looking from Jackston St towards Dutton

Zig-zagging up a couple of small side streets, you eventually cross Middlesex and Appleton and get to South Street which takes you past the South Common and up to the back of the Gorham Street Apartments, built by the Coalition for a Better Acre on the site that once held St. Peter’s Church. These apartments are scheduled to officially open in mid-September though from the outside, they seem complete and very impressive.

Gorham Street Apartments

So Thursday’s walk was good. The weather was fantastic, the food was very good, and no real pedestrian complaints to report.

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