We Built This City
by Alex Duran
Placed next to the canals that powered the city, paid for by the leaders who bettered it, and honoring the people who helped create and continue to transform it, agápetimé is a symbolically intricate contribution to the Lowell Public Art Collection. In 1988, Paul and Niki Tsongas commissioned artist Dimitri Hadzi to design a work honoring their parents. The meaning of the resulting sculpture, however, extends beyond any one family. This work pays homage to all those whose contributions, though not always recognized, built this city from the ground up.
People may not remember the names of the owners of the mills. They may not even know Lowell’s namesake or who founded it. But they do know the legacy left by its settlers. They know Jack Kerouac, a descendant of French Canadians. They know Paul and Niki Tsongas, descendants of Greek, Irish, and French families. Many have heard stories of the sweat, labor, and low pay of the immigrant families that allowed for the expansion and profitability of Lowell’s mills. They often forget the Southern slaves, as essential as local workers to Lowell’s success, who labored over the cotton that was used to make fabric in the mills. Now, hopefully, they remember who built this city every time they walk by this sculpture outside Middlesex Community College at the Lower Locks canal complex.
The title “agápetimé” is derived from two Greek words: “agápe” means love and “timé” means honor, an important virtue in ancient Greek culture. Though this artwork seems to present a wholly new and abstract sculpture from every viewing angle, it also evokes a human narrative that confirms its title. Two taller figures reaching ten feet in height face one another, one with an “arm” that reaches like an affectionate hand toward its companion. The smaller figure is placed between the two but sits closer to one, like a child to its mother. This work epitomizes, in content and name, honor to the family.
agápetimé‘s eclectic style is suggestive of a universal symbolism, representative of all Lowell’s immigrant families. Hadzi himself was the New York-born son of Greek immigrants and an artist with a passionate interest in world cultures. He studied in Greece and Rome for twenty-five years and found inspiration in the cultures of ancient civilizations the world over, including Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. The forms stand on their granite pedestal like the ruins of an ancient city. The overhanging “arm” of the tall figure almost creates a post-and-lintel structure. The figure in the middle resembles the broken stump of a Roman column. The suggestions of carving and etching recall a sculptural style that is distinctly African. These factors, taken together, support a broad symbolic interpretation of this sculpture.
Lowell’s immigrants have played a profound role in shaping the city. Due to conflict with Yankees, immigrants were scarcely allowed rooms in the boardinghouses and had to carve out their own spaces in Lowell. The Irish, French Canadians, and Greeks still form the base of Lowell’s ethnic identity and have made lasting contributions to the city’s political, economic, and cultural growth. By the time the sculpture was commissioned in 1988, Lowell had become the second largest refuge for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge, who today contribute tremendously to its cultural diversity. I like to think all of Lowell’s immigrant families can find meaning in Dimitri Hadzi’s homage to the Tsongas family and that others will remember the importance of these families to both the history and future of the city.