I spent this past week in Washington helping my son Andrew move into the apartment he’ll live in while attending graduate school so I missed much of what went on in Lowell since last Sunday. I did return in time for yesterday’s Lowell Walks tour on the Hamilton Canal District. Allison Lamey, the city’s Economic Development Director, did a fantastic job leading the tour which was attended by 129 people.
With eight of fifteen tours completed, Lowell Walks has averaged 96 participants per tour. (Tours continue each Saturday until September 12, 2015). Because these Saturday walks have tapped into a large vein of interest among Lowell residents (who make up most of the attendees), I decided to use today’s post to review how Lowell Walks came about and where it might be headed in the future.
Five or six years ago the late Catherine Goodwin, then in her 80s, solicited a volunteer to take over the Lowell Cemetery tours that she had originated nearly 30 years earlier. I offered my services and Catherine shared with me her notes and advice. Since then, I’ve given perhaps 60 tours of the cemetery for groups ranging from 10 to 120 (here is the Fall 2015 tour schedule).
From this experience I learned a couple of things. People love good stories. It almost doesn’t matter the topic; if you can be engaging and deliver some interesting, thought-provoking information, it taps into something in the core of every human being. Also, nothing can replace being on the ground, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others, when you hear such a story. I’m a huge proponent of social media, video, and the internet but there is no substitute for seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling a place.
While the Lowell Cemetery tours informed this observation, other events sent a similar message. Every March during Irish Cultural Week, Dave McKean would draw a big crowd for his Irish in the Acre tour. The same thing happened with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac and their occasional tours of Kerouac’s Lowell.
Public Matters, the leadership training program co-sponsored by the Lowell Plan and Lowell National Historic Park, always devotes a Saturday morning to neighborhood tours led by volunteer guides from each corner of the city. I often am the guide for the Highlands and the experience of introducing people new to the city or to that section of the city to the Highlands proved to me that there is something of interest to be found in every corner of Lowell.
The greatest concentration of interesting places is by far downtown Lowell. While the National Park is “in” downtown and the tours conducted by its personnel are outstanding, those tours are also somewhat repetitive which is completely understandable. Whether it’s Lowell or Gettysburg, the target audience is the one-time visitor, so the stories to be shared should be standardized and should use the local as a way of connecting to broader national themes.
Lowell residents are certainly welcome on the NPS tours and should participate in them. I did that last summer with the canal boat tours. Three times. Each time an out-of-town relative or friend would visit, I would insist on taking the canal boat tour because it is incredible. But truth be told, by the third tour, I felt I could give it because the story was the same each time. That’s not a criticism because the target audience is the one-time visitor. But once someone from Lowell has taken the NPS tour, there was not much to bring him or her back to Lowell National Park.
That got me thinking: What if downtown tours had different topics that changed from week to week? Would Lowell people participate in them? I decided to find out by organizing a series of walking tours of downtown Lowell. I called it Lowell Walks.
Following the “keep it simple” principle of management, I wanted each of the tours to start at the same time and place so there was predictability for potential attendees. The National Park Visitor Center on Market Streets seemed like a perfect starting point. It’s centrally located, there is plenty of parking nearby, there are interesting exhibits and artifacts on display, there is a bathroom for those who need it, and the tour attendees could legitimately be counted as visitors to the park.
Next, I reached out to acquaintances in Lowell who I knew had expertise in particular areas. Almost everyone I asked immediately agreed to participate. The toughest thing was scheduling the fifteen tour guides into the fifteen Saturdays but everyone was flexible and it worked out fine. From there, it was completely decentralized. Each tour guide was responsible for the content, the route and for recruiting participants. While there was no budget, we did receive in-kind contributions from the National Park (use of visitor center space), University of Massachusetts Lowell (posters and brochures), the Lowell Historic Board (“Lowell Walks” stickers) and the Lowell Heritage Partnership (voice amplifiers).
The result? Our first eight tours have brought 766 people into downtown Lowell. Some are repeat visitors but most are new to the tours. The variety of attendees is brought home to me every Saturday night when I upload the photos I took earlier in the day to Facebook and start “tagging” the faces I recognize. There aren’t many amongst the big crowd. I am delightedly left asking, “Who are all of these people?”
Mostly they are residents of the city who are interested in the story of their city. They seek authenticity and context. Their mere presence enhances the collective sense that this place and its stories are important, are worth being heard and repeated.
So what happens next? Certainly Lowell Walks will return next summer with its schedule and topics to be determined over the winter. But there’s much more that can be done. Every neighborhood in the city has fantastic places and fantastic stories. If you grew up in the neighborhood, you may be familiar with them but if you’re from another section of the city or a newcomer altogether, you would probably welcome the chance to learn more. Other possibilities are specialized tours of restaurants, churches, parks, even a ghost tour. The possibilities are endless. Suggestions are welcome. Please make them.
But this just isn’t about creating new tours. Every day, throughout the city there are talented, energetic people doing interesting things they willingly share with others. Perhaps the challenge is not finding things to do in Lowell. The real challenge is to find people to do those things. It’s sort of like that Walt Whitman quote: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” Maybe the key is to focus on the audience and not on the event.
Reinforcements will arrive in three weeks when thousands of students and staff from UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, and Lowell High School return to downtown on a daily basis. That should come as a surprise to no one and anyone who claims to be interested in promoting both downtown and Lowell in its entirety should be working overtime between now and Labor Day to find ways to share the enthusiasm the Lowell Walks participants have shown for the city and its people with the newly arriving students. Conversely, the resumption of the academic calendar will yield countless events and opportunities for Lowell residents to participate in college activities.
It’s not a coincidence that Broadway (the performance venue in New York City; not the street in Lowell) is undergoing a once-in-a-generation transformation with the arrival of Hamilton, a musical that uses rap, hip-hop, and R&B to tell the story of the founding of the American nation (see recent NY Times review). In our turbulent political age with its 24-hour news cycle in which facts matter only so far as they can be used to spin a political agenda, history provides some permanence, some stability and, most importantly, some context in which to better assess contemporary events. It’s no coincidence that the Hamilton Canal District we toured yesterday is named for the same Alexander Hamilton who is the inspiration for the transformative Broadway musical.
Lowell is rich in history. It is rich in the fascinating stories that are history. Lowell Walks has demonstrated that Lowell residents will come together in large groups to hear those stories. We should provide more opportunities for them to do so.