Charleston, South Carolina

For those interested in the history of the American Civil War, there are a number of iconic places that just have to be visited. One of them is Fort Sumter, the place where the shooting part of the Civil War began on April 12, 1861.

Although I’d spent 20 years visiting Civil War battlefields, it wasn’t until 2010 that I made it to Fort Sumter. The delay was partly because it was tough to get there from here and partly because it was in South Carolina. I had never been to that state but the image I had wasn’t a particularly positive one. Four years ago I finally decided that I could tolerate a few days in Charleston if it meant setting foot inside Fort Sumter.

A funny thing happened during that trip: I fell in love with Charleston. When the opportunity arose to return there for a few days this spring, I seized the chance.

It’s easier to get to Charleston now. Several airlines (JetBlue, Delta) offer direct flights from Boston to the Charleston International Airport which is only a 20 minute cab ride away from the downtown historic district. Charleston is a peninsula wedged between two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. The historic district is at the tip of peninsula.

Fort Sumter in 2014

Fort Sumter in 2014

Civil War-wise, Charleston is most famous for the shelling and capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861 but Charleston suffered greatly through the rest of the war. The Union blockade closed the port and made scarce many of the essentials of life. The Confederate flag over Fort Sumter also stuck in the collective consciousness of the northern states and great efforts were expended to recapture the fort and punish the city. For example, the movie Glory, which recounts the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (composed of African American soldiers), was set just outside Charleston. Battery Wagner, the objective of the fateful and fatal final charge of the 54th sits on Morris Island, just to the southeast of Charleston. Eventually captured by the Union army, Morris Island became the site of a huge concentration of Union artillery that was used to shell both Fort Sumter and downtown Charleston. The city claims to be the site of the longest siege ever on the North American continent (it was eventually captured by Union forces when General Sherman cut it off from the rest of the Confederacy with his march northward after seizing Atlanta). This caused much of the downtown to be leveled. It also turned Fort Sumter into a pile of rubble. When first built, its red brick walls were three stories high. All that was left when the Civil War ended was the first level which is all that remains today of what is now a National Park Service site.

Charleston homes
After the war, the destroyed sections of the city were rebuilt with majestic houses at the bottom of the peninsula followed by a large stripe of commercial buildings filled with banks, law offices and retail space. Further up the peninsula is the tourist district filled with hotels, restaurants, shops and historic businesses. Finally you have two colleges, the Citadel military academy and the College of Charleston. Beyond that is more affordable residential areas mixed with large industrial and shipping enterprises (the port of Charleston is one of the busiest cargo and passenger hubs on the east coast). On the drive back to the airport, we passed an enormous Boeing facility where the Dreamliner is being assembled which made me recall past news stories about Boeing moving this plant from union-friendly Washington state to union-hostile South Carolina. Thinking of the textile mills leaving Lowell in the 19th century for the same reason, I was reminded that history does indeed repeat itself.

King St, CharlestonCharleston does a great job of using history to drive tourism which in turn drives retail and the arts. During our stay we attended a locally-produced play at the Charleston equivalent of the MRT and spent Sunday afternoon strolling along King Street, the main retail area, which is closed to vehicles on the second Sunday of the month for a street fair that gets many people – mostly locals from the looks of it – into the shops and restaurants that line the streets. Although the city is quite walkable, a free shuttle bus continuously circles the downtown, moving tourists mostly from hotels to historic sites to dining establishments.

Like every city, Charleston undoubtedly has plenty of problems, but my visits back in 2010 and again last weekend showed the city does a lot of things right, things that Lowell is trying to do or do better. In April of 1861, the gaze of Lowell’s leaders focused on Charleston; perhaps in 2014 it’s time for that to happen once again.

Another Lowell Poet Whom We Should Know

(re-posted from Sept. 14, 2008)

“Thomas Fitzsimmons was born in Lowell in October 1926. He entered WWII as a young merchant mariner following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and left the US Army Air Force after the bombing of Hiroshima. He taught for many years at Oakland University in Michigan and is now professor emeritus of literature. He has received several Fulbright fellowships to travel in Asia and Europe and was awarded three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in the categories of poetry, translation, and belles lettres). He worked as a writer and editor for the New Republic magazine in Washington, DC, and the Asahi Daily News in Tokyo. He has written, edited or translated 60 books. As of 2003, he was editing two book series published by the University of Hawaii Press: Asian Poetry in Translation: Japan and Reflections. His books from the past ten years include Build Me Ruins: The One-Eyed Boy Grows Another Eye(2002),  Iron Harp: The Birth of the One-Eyed Boy (1999), Planet Forces (1999), Fencing the Sky (1998), and The Poetry and Poetics of Ancient Japan [a translation] (1997). With his wife, Karen Hargreaves-Fitzsimmons, he publishes Katydid Books (distributed by Univ of Hawaii Press), from their home near Santa Fe, NM (” [I reprinted this biography from the website.]

In 1981, I published one of Tom’s poem in a broadside form in a series from Loom Press. The original has slightly different spacing for the lines, but I can’t find the original broadside at the moment. Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, then of Billerica and now a book artist in Newburyport, did the poem in calligraphy as a nod to Tom’s interest in Asian poetry. Here is the poem:

Rainbow Poem

by Tom Fitzsimmons

When I was a kid

Playing hooky

Spending my dime on a loaf of Greek bread

To eat dry

High on a hillside above the Merrimack River

Outside Lowell, Massachusetts,

I did not think I

Would be sitting on Parnassus slope

Above Delphi

Eating my loaf of Greek bread

With feta, black olives,

& retsina

Looking down thru temple valley and time

To when I was a kid

Playing hooky eating my bread

Dry on the hills above the Merrimack River

Outside Lowell, Massachusetts

(written at Delphi, 1976)

Lucy Larcom ~ Author, Poet, Lowell Mill Girl


MassMoments reminds us that writer Lucy Larcom – one of Lowell’s iconic Mill Girls in her youth, died on this day April 17, 1893.  In her autobiography A New England Girlhood, Lucy Larcom wrote: “From the beginning Lowell had a high reputation for good order, morality, piety, and all that was dear to the old-fashioned New Englander’s heart.”  Larcom  not only tells her story but the story of Lowell – of those who funded, founded, built and worked the factories – the story of the “Lowell experiment.” Lucy Larcom  also reflected on the role of women ~ “We  might all place ourselves in one of two ranks the women who do something, and the women who do nothing; the first being of course the only creditable place to  occupy.”

On This Day...

      …in 1893, Lucy Larcom died. A popular poet during her lifetime, she would be forgotten today except for a work of prose that she wrote in 1889. Her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, tells the story of her early childhood in the coastal village of Beverly and her move to Lowell, the mill town on the Merrimack River, where she lived and worked for more than a decade. She was a regular contributor to the Lowell Offering. The magazine was published by a group of “mill girls,” as the young women who made up the great majority of workers in Massachusetts textile factories were called. Larcom’s reputation as a poet soon faded, but A New England Girlhood remains an American classic.
Learn more here at

Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with Khmer Post USA

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the Khmer Post USA, the city’s Cambodian language newspaper, will kick off the celebration with its 4th Annual Media & Community Gala on Friday, May 2, 2014 from 6:30 pm until midnight at the Hong Kong Restaurant at 308 Westford Street (Cupples Square) in Lowell.

The keynote speaker will be the Honorable Sichan Siv, former US Ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Siv was born in Cambodia, escaped Pol Pot, and made it to the United States where he ended up at the White House as a special assistant to President Goerge H. W. Bush and as a US representative to the UN under President George W. Bush.

In addition to remarks by Ambassador Siv, the event will include a multicultural fashion show, a silent auction, a live band and dinner.
Lowell has long been known as a city of immigrants. The city’s Asian American community is rich, complex and diverse with roots reaching throughout the Asian continent. Please consider partaking in this celebration of Asian American food, music, art, performance, literature and leadership. For information or tickets (which are $35), contact Soben Pin at (978) 677-7163 or

Tip O’Neill Announces a Run for Congressional seated being vacated by John F. Kennedy

If you think that the Congress of today has always been this way, well just remember Massachusetts Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill - the way he served, his work ethic and the way he ran the House of Representatives when he was “Mr. Speaker.” A man of the 20th Century,  he believed that government works and should take an active role in fighting poverty and injustice.  A  man with a genius for getting things done, his colleagues elected him as Speaker in both the Massachusetts House and U. S. House of Representatives. At his death in 1994, O’Neill was eulogized as one of the twentieth century’s most gifted politicians but also as a man who never forgot where he came from. As his North Cambridge neighbors said, “His hat still fit.”

Tip O’Neill Announces Run for Congress

On This Day... 

      …in 1952, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill of Cambridge announced that he would run for the Congressional seat being vacated by John F. Kennedy as Kennedy began a campaign for the Senate. O’Neill had already served seven terms in the state legislature. He would serve in the U.S. Congress for the next 39 years, the last ten as Speaker of the House. An affable man who believed “all politics is local,” O’Neill played an important role in national affairs —supporting civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War, and leading the fight for liberal causes. Although one of the most powerful men in the nation, at his death in 1994, O’Neill was remembered as a man who “never forgot where he came from.”
Speaker O’Neill came to Lowell  to support 5th District Congressman Jim Shannon. He is pictured here at The Speare House circa 1980 with my parents Jim and Marie Kirwin (and me).

Marathon musing: who is a hero? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Don’t read this if you’re tired of the non-stop coverage of the Marathon bombing.  Don’t read it if you’re not touched in some way by the tragedy that befell individual runners and bystanders or disturbed by the assault on our community.  Have there been efforts to capitalize on the grief and memorialization of the event?  The profit center that Boston Strong tee shirts and other memorabilia have become?  The media efforts to outdraw the competition? Yes, yes and yes. Obviously.

But count me among those townies who, since childhood, have gone to the running route, cheered on the travails and triumphs of the winners and the struggling also-rans, felt the communal experience of an event drawing people from around the world (back then, it was the Finnish and Japanese who came to best the American runners) and, without being able to put it into words, thrilled to the experience of a sharing and upbeat crowd. Last year it was: how could they do that to our town?

Randomness heightens the sense of horror.  Being in the right place at the wrong time. But are these victims heroes?  They don’t think so. Jeff Bowman had both his legs blown off a year ago.  He told WBUR he is not a hero, that he is an ordinary guy. Other victims have echoed his sentiments. They are overcoming adversity, clenching their teeth, battling their pain,  showing resilience, and moving forward. It’s what my father did when he lost his leg decades ago. The survivors will be in recovery for a long time, perhaps forever.

Are the police, firefighters and other responders heroes?  Or are they just doing what their jobs require?  They, too, are often dismissive of the term hero.  Even Lt. Ed Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy would probably have said they were just doing their jobs when they perished in the recent Beacon Street fire.  Perhaps their heroism shone when they decided to become firefighters in the first place.  Or police officers. Or soldiers, at least some of them.

Hero, to me, implies acting on behalf of others with disregard for one’s own well-being. Such were the people who ran toward the explosions last year, rather than trying to flee the scene (which is what I probably would have done.) Carlos Arredondo, the man in the cowboy hat, is such a hero.    He had tried to kill himself years before when his son Alexander, a Marine, was killed in Iraq.  His youngest son Brian did commit suicide three years ago.   The senior Arredondo lived and happened to be near the finish line. Disregarding his own safety, he helped to save Jeff Bowman’s life.  He reached beyond the burden of his own familial losses and has become a symbol of courage and resilience.

But what does “Boston Strong” symbolize?  Again, for some, it’s blatant commercialization.   Others deride it as a cover for increased security regulations that undermine the very peace and freedom that are other core traditions of Patriots Day. But, for me, it validates some of the good things about our community, including a commitment to pull together, to restore the sense of who we are or at least aspire to be. Resilience. Generosity. Courage. Determination. Are we all capable of those characteristics all of the time?  Of course not.  But it’s what we hope to pull out from deep within ourselves when circumstances call upon us to do so.  When tragedy befalls us, we hope we can measure up.  Events like the one-year anniversary or the evocation of Boston Strong give voice to the ideals that we hope to realize.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

Dismantle the South Common? Hands Off.

The South Common was created for the enjoyment of all the residents of the city. The South Common is not an empty lot waiting for a better use. The South Common is functioning well for its designated purpose, thank you. The South Common is scheduled for a major renovation, based on a thoughtful plan put together for the City of Lowell by a well respected landscape architecture firm—and with significant community input. We have been waiting for years for a major investment in this park. The South Common is part of the South Common Historic District, and the Lowell Historic Board has a say in the razing of existing structures and design of new structures in the district. The South Common is not a good location for a new high school. I live on Highland Street. No secret. The idea of injecting many hundreds of additional cars of teachers and students into already highly congested Thorndike, Gorham, and Highland streets is not a good idea. In addition to contributing to the quality of life of current neighbors and recreational users, as a marvelous and active green space the South Common can be an asset for Sal Lupoli’s planned innovation-commercial-residential development at the former Comfort Furniture/Hood Co. complex and for the future Judicial Center, not to mention the whole Hamilton Canal District. Who speaks for open space in the city? Who speaks for Nature? Who speaks for the current users of the South Common? Who speaks for this important part of Lowell’s heritage?


Massachusetts Passes First Education Law ~ April 14, 1642

Education has always been a high priority in Massachusetts even back to its ”Bay Colony” days. So it’s important to go back to the archives to remember this important day.

MassMoments remind us that on this day – April 14, 1642 – the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law in the New World requiring that  children be taught to read and write. It was an incredible step for education. While not a universal mandate at the time, it did set the stage for universal, free, compulsory  public-school education in Massachusetts.  “When John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, he included provisions that guaranteed public education to all citizens.”

On This Day...

      …in 1642, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law in the New World requiring that children be taught to read and write. The English Puritans who founded Massachusetts believed that the well-being of individuals, along with the success of the colony, depended on a people literate enough to read both the Bible and the laws of the land. Concerned that parents were ignoring the first law, in 1647 Massachusetts passed another one requiring that all towns establish and maintain public schools. It would be many years before these schools were open to all children. Only in the mid-nineteenth century was universal free public schooling guaranteed – in time, made compulsory — for Massachusetts children.
Read the full article at here  for a fuller history of  how a free,  public school education  system evolved in Massachusetts and how it became a model for the nation.

Lowell Politics & History