It’s always fun to get the SUN insert with the Lowell Folk Festival schedule, artist/group descriptions, and street map of the stage locations and other attractions. Looking at it this morning, I thought the community has done well in the past 30-something years building what is for all intents and purposes an arts and heritage theme park. Some people get squirrely when the term “theme park” is used in describing the big-picture Lowell Project of the revitalization years. It’s not an exact description of what we have because Lowell remains a living, working city with all the complexities therein. The challenge is to get the ease of marketing a “theme park” while maintaining the authentic and distinctive quality of the place. There are two Disney parks, but there can be only one Lowell “park.” From a cultural industry point of view, the core of the city has enough connected features that it can be experienced as a unified place. Consider what we have:
Historic 19th-century architecture, mostly restored
Historic trolley system and urban canal system (partially navigable)
Network of small museums (Textile History, Whistler/Art, Quilt, Streetcar, Industrial History/Society at National Park’s Boott Mills and Mogan Center)
World culture cuisine reflecting the population mosaic
Non-chain shops and small stores
Public sculpture trail
Art galleries and studios
Attractive green spaces and public plazas (Boarding House Park, Kerouac Park, Lucy Larcom Park, Whistler Park, Cardinal O’Connell Parkway extension, Market Mills Park, Lower Locks plaza, JFK Plaza, Market Mills courtyard)
Major entertainment venues (Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, Lowell Memorial Auditorium/MRT, Lowell High School Irish Auditorium)
We have an impressive package that never looks so good and works so well as it does on Lowell Folk Festival weekend when people, the crowds, literally fill in the spaces between and make the whole area function like one location with many attractions. What’s lacking most of the time is the connective tissue of people milling around the parks and plazas, walking the streets by the hundreds and thousands, and moving in and out of the cultural facilities and businesses. The mass of people obliterates the separation between the Quilt Museum and Boarding House Park, between the Brush Gallery and Barnes and Noble on Merrimack Street. The distances between shrink, at least the perceived distance shrinks because people are moving among people and drawn forward by the energy of the crowd and the vibrant sounds up the street and around the corner.
In the past few years, it seems to me that the Folk Festival has become more of a street festival than a music-listening festival, which will always be the A-1 asset of the Festival. The standard of excellence for performances gives the Festival its high quality status. But there are now so many people that the food and crafts and kids activities and parades and shopping and booth and tent displays are right up there with the music as major interests. Also, more and more Lowell people seem to be attending the Festival. Whether it is the “stay-cation” trend or the familiarity earned through the years, the residents seem to be more of a presence lately than in the earlier years of the Festival, when the audience appeared to be composed of more visitors. That’s just my observation. I have no stats on that.
So, let’s hope for favorable weather this weekend, and think about how to bottle the success formula of LFF weekend so that it can be applied more broadly across the calendar. Maybe it’s an all-purpose admission ticket to “LOWELL” that gets the holder into a variety of museums and performances, covers trolley and boat transportation, and includes a discount coupon for shopping and eating.