The History of Race and Place in Lowell

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

-James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985”

Over the last few weeks, protests throughout the country have called for racial justice, an end to police violence, and greater community control of resources for African Americans. We acknowledge and amplify these demands for immediate action, and we also want to take this time to remember our history. As James Baldwin reminds us in his writings, “…history is present in all that we do”.

The textile mills that make up Lowell’s post industrial landscape, for example, tell a story of technological innovation, labor, and capital. But they also bear witness to a racialized system of oppression. Mill owners and workers were dependent on Southern cotton, for it was this very material input that allowed the city of Lowell to flourish. In fact, the North’s appetite for raw cotton spurred increased cotton production, leading to an expansion of slavery.

Not only do we carry history within our personal lived experiences, history is also carried in our built environment. Race and place are intertwined in many ways and the history of slavery that is being played out today on the streets of New York, Louisville, DC and Atlanta is a shared history that all Americans must reckon with.

Let’s take this moment to educate ourselves about the history of race and place in our city and the wider world. Below is a recording of the conversation between Maiyah Gamble-Rivers from the Center for Slavery and Social Justice at Brown University, and Rogers Muyanja of the African America Alliance in Lowell. Recorded on February 9th, 2020 as part of the Lowell Talks community discussions hosted by the National Park Service.

In Honor of Healthcare Workers and First Responders, the Historical Cox Bridge Lights Up in Blue

Photo Credit Christopher Hayes

On Sunday, May 10, 2020 and through May 16, 2020, the Cox bridge will be turning blue to honor the healthcare, medical workers and first responders that are making extraordinary efforts to keep us safe during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

This bridge, a gateway between Centralville and downtown Lowell, was illuminated with 200+ LED lights in 2018 to celebrate connections and to recognize the importance of waterways in the founding of the city.

Photo Credit Christopher Hayes

The Greater Lowell Community Foundation and the Lowell Waterways Vitality Initiative thank the generous donors and local contractors that created this colorful display and  Lowell landmark. Lighting the bridge in blue represents a visible way to say thanks to our courageous health care workers and first responders.

Lowell Waterways Hires Two New Staff Members

Earlier this year, Waterways welcomed Malika Leiper and Jonathan Geer to the team to further the objectives of our Action Plan. This plan includes implementing lighting activities, supporting events, recreation, development, and arts and cultural programs centered around the city’s historic waterways. We are thrilled to bring on two individuals with diverse perspectives, experience, and skill sets.

Read on to hear more about their backgrounds, what brought them to Lowell, and their thoughts on historic preservation, natural conservation, urban development and more.

Malika was born and raised in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University in 2009. Her upbringing in Cambodia in the 1990’s during an era of post-genocide reconciliation and rapid urban development lead her to pursue a master’s degree in Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

“Coming of age in a place like Phnom Penh, where so much of our history was destroyed due to the genocide, the issue of conservation – be it cultural, architectural, or environmental – has always been central to the way I see the world. If we don’t know where we come from, how do we know where we’re going?” – Malika

Unlike Malika, Jon is a longtime resident of Lowell, having moved to the city in 1986 with his wife and two children – their third child was born in Lowell shortly after in 1987. In this time, he witnessed the city’s transition from a post-industrial economy to the dynamic urban setting it is today.

“Over this time, old mill buildings were re purposed to other uses including residences, office space, and even artist lofts. The tourism economy has boomed, UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College expanded their presence.” – Jon

This trajectory illustrates the many ways in which public private partnerships have helped make Lowell a desirable place to live and visit as an affordable alternative to Boston.  

When Malika first visited Lowell, it was in 2017 as a student in the GSD Urban Planning Studio where she investigated strategies for better integrating the needs of immigrants and refugees in urban development efforts. However, being of Cambodian heritage, Lowell was a place that existed in her consciousness well before she visited as an adult.

“My parents first met in the 1980s on the Thai-Cambodian border where they were both working for humanitarian agencies in response to the refugee crisis. I imagine some of the families they helped during this time made their way to Lowell.” – Malika

These strong personal connections to the city brought her back in the summer of 2018 to work for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association as a Harvard Community Service Fellow. During these two months, walking, biking and driving around the City, she found herself gravitating towards the canals and rivers where she came to appreciate Lowell’s unique blend of industrial history and natural beauty.

The most vivid memory of my summer in Lowell was kayaking down the Merrimack with my colleague at the CMAA. We paddled through a small opening past the Rourke Bridge, which led us into the city, floating underneath old red brick mill buildings where the remnants of Lowell’s industrial history felt so palpable. It was incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” – Malika

The conservation of the city’s natural resources occupies a major part of Jon’s life in Lowell. He was the former President of Keep Lowell Beautiful, Inc. which maintained the Riverwalk along the south side of the Merrimack River for several years doing cleanups and mowing. He also participated in Concord River cleanups with the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust and is in strong support of their efforts to complete the Concord River Greenway and Concord River fish restoration and monitoring.   

“I remember walking along the Riverwalk in the late winter/early spring and seeing bald eagles flying along the river – very inspiring.  I also participated in canal cleanups with the Lowell Canal Water Cleaners, a very dedicated group that works tirelessly to clean canals.” – Jon

With their complementary skill sets, Malika and Jon are eager to get to work enhancing LWVI’s vision for an active, diverse, and vibrant public realm along the canals and water edges. In partnership with the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, they will oversee programming, technical issues and fundraising, with a focus on expanding community engagement.

Chinese New Year Could Bring Festivities To Lowell

The recent Chinese New Year celebration can be an inspiration for forming similar events in Lowell to bring the community together.

The Chinese New Year is a holiday that is celebrated not only in China, but also in many other parts of the world. With it comes the famous red envelopes, delicious foods, and astounding events. During the celebration, streets are packed with people who are eager to watch the professional lion dancers perform their traditional dance. Loud drums echo through the air as the people cheer on the performers. Fireworks commemorate the Chinese zodiac animal that symbolizes the new year. After all the action packed events, there is still the lantern festival which occurs at the end of the celebration. At this event, countless floating lanterns are lit up, giving the mesmerizing illusion of a million stars in the night sky.

Lion dancer performing,

With a celebration as fascinating and popular as this, one might wonder why there have not been many events similar to this in Lowell. In Providence, Rhode Island, there is an award winning festival called WaterFire, in which braziers burned above the river flowing through the Waterplace Park and creates breathtaking views. Every year, it draws tens of thousands of people from all over the country. This promotes the local businesses in the area. Through improvisation  of the Merrimack river and our waterways, it is a possibility for Lowell to host similar spectacular events that could boost the economy. Additional benefits of hosting such events are the appreciation for the history of Lowell, especially among the younger generations, and encouragement of the community to get involved. Points of Light Lantern Celebration currently borrows a few elements from these events to spectacular effect. We can bring even more aspects of both Chinese New Year and WaterFire to Lowell.

Lighting lanterns during the festival, Credit:

Hosting community wide events is essential in the effort to make the City of Lowell even more active and vibrant. Not only do they provide entertainment for the people attending, events help preserve the history of Lowell and its many historical buildings. The Merrimack River and the canals of Lowell have the potential to become famous attractions as popular as the Seine River of Paris or the River Thames of London. Reply to let us know what elements from Chinese New Year, WaterFire, or your favorite festival we should bring to Lowell!

-Oudong Chhean, Staff Intern

Points of Light: Join the Community Kick-Off

The Third Annual Points of Light Lantern Celebration is having a Community Kick-Off on Monday, Jan 14, 6:00 pm, at the Mercier Center (21 Salem St) to share news and gather input from members of Lowell’s diverse community. We would like to invite you to join.

Please RSVP via Facebook or add the event to your calendar with the following links:

iCalendar  •  Google Calendar  •  Outlook  •  Outlook Online  •  Yahoo! Calendar

If you can’t make it to the community event, please take the Community Survey to share how your community uses light and water in celebrations and ceremonies, help on our planning committee, share news with your community, be a vendor or performer, or anything else!

How to Comment on Boott Hydropower Relicensing!

Enel Green Power (also known as Boott Hydro) must periodically renew their license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC gives an opportunity for the public to comment on the license and any things that they should consider when reviewing Enel’s application. That’s happening right now!

Because Enel owns nearly all the canals and hydropower equipment in Lowell, this is very important to Lowellians–whether they’re concerned about recreation in the canals, flooding, fisheries, historic preservation, or anything else related to the Pawtucket Dam or Lowell’s canals.

We’ve heard folks ask how people can submit comments. To comment, go to:

…and when it asks for a “docket number”, enter P-2790

To find all the information related to the relicensing, you can go to:,%20issuance&dkt=P-2790

This has a long list of documents, but the powerpoint presentation from last summer’s public meeting and Scoping Document 1 and Scoping Document 2 might be good places to start.

Finally, you can register and use the “subscribe” function to get more information as it comes by registering at the FERC eSubscription page.

Advancing Our Shared Vision: Tour & Talk

Thanks to everyone who joined us at Advancing Our Shared Vision, brightening a dreary Saturday morning with history and exciting ideas for Lower Locks and the other special places on Lowell’s waterways.

Our next step is to form working groups for actions we brainstormed in our discussion. If you would like to help or if you have thoughts on any of our topics, please reply to this email. We know our tour went a little long, so if you missed the discussion, we still want to hear from you! We’re collecting as much input as possible as we chart our course for 2019 and will have additional meet-ups and group discussions moving forward.

Tour Group

Our Tour

Andrew Shapiro started off the tour by pointing out the connections between the Hamilton Canal Innovation District and downtown, mentioning a number of high-profile projects being built in the area.

David Byers then explored the history of Lower Locks, explaining that the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord has been a gathering place for thousands of years. For example, Wamesit, one of two native settlements that existed in the Lowell area when Europeans arrived, was east of the Concord. The current UMass Inn & Conference Center was the site of the first major textile factory on the Concord. Finally, the Pawtucket Canal is flanked by two of the oldest buildings still standing in Lowell. One of which, the current Lowell Academy Hairstyling Institute, was once Frye’s Tavern, then the American Hotel. This was the meeting place for mill agent Kirk Boott and Irish immigrant Hugh Cummiskey, when they discussed hiring Irish workers to construct the canals.

Jane Calvin

Jane Calvin talked about the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust’s current efforts. Lower Locks is central to many of them: counting fish that swim from the ocean to the Concord via the Merrimack; conducting whitewater river rafting trips down the Concord; and completing the Concord River Greenway, creating a crossroad of trails including the Merrimack Riverwalk and a riverside trail through Belvidere toward Lawrence. Rafting trips used to utilize the lock chambers, but those chambers are now in need of repair.

Steve Ramirez, owner of Blue Taleh, showed the inside of the newly-renovated first floor of the former Sun printing press. A former worker recalled how the area was used as a loading bay, putting newspapers on trucks. Mr. Ramriez will now begin marketing the space, hoping for a restaurant or entertainment use, with a plan to enliven the canalwalk with people. However, he intends to be respectful of the residents living above the space, and isn’t looking for loud clubs or rowdy businesses.

Dan Adams

Finally, architect Dan Adams, designer of the Cox (Bridge Street) Bridge lighting, discussed how Lowell is special. Everyone that worked on the lighting project, from metal fabricators to electricians, were from Lowell—the first time he’s seen that in a community. Not only does Lowell have many skills to leverage, it is famous in architectural circles. Mr. Adams said Lowell is required reading for architecture students.


We broke our discussion into four topics, brainstorming short, medium, and long-term actions for each! This email contains just a sample of the ideas we discussed, and the full notes are available here:

Arts and Performing Arts

A number of visual and performing artists participated in the discussion and believed that arts were a key way to engage young people, attract college-aged folks, and even bring in people from outside of Lowell to appreciate our waterways. The diverse group suggested for all actions to Involve ethnic and cultural organizations to find out how people want to show off their culture.

Short Term: Have a waterside talent show and art showcase with prizes focused on young arts
Medium Term: Create a participatory light art performance with handheld lamps that audience can use
Long Term: Create a movable theatre for “brunch theatre” and food trucks at the focus areas

Water Access

This discussion centered around the ways we can start working together with the three entities (National Park Service, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Enel Green Power) that have ownership or rights in the canals to launch kayaks, paddleboats, or kinetic sculptures safely in the canal. Enel is advancing a study to be completed in 2020 that will identify locations and improvements needed for these recreational uses as part of its relicensing process, and the comment period for that relicensing is open.

Short Term: The Public is encouraged to comment on the FERC relicensing process
Medium Term: Explore a demonstration project such as a Folk Festival gondola fundraiser with Enel, NPS, and DCR
Long Term: Utilize Enel studies to locate a safe, lengthy kayak run, perhaps on Western Canal, with associated improvements to be able to launch the kayaks and ensure the safety of those in the canal 

Improving Lower Locks

Waterways intends to work with its partners to develop a major improvement project to repair the plaza and lock chambers of Lower Locks, including improving the plaza’s accessibility, utility, and appearance. This conversation centered on what to include in that project and small actions that could be done before the project.

Short Term: Abutters used to put a lit holiday tree on the small island in the canal. They’re interested in renewing the tradition
Medium Term: Improve the gateways of the plaza, including directory signage and lighting in the “Clafin Block” tunnel and bridge between Middlesex Community College and Prescott Street
Long Term: Make an arts/technology walk as part of the retrofit, including possible lighting in the walkway and improvements to the pavement surface of plaza 

Economic Development

The economic development group included discussion of both general economic development and how a festival might be able to strengthen economic development. The festival was the subject of a great deal of discussion, including where and when it would happen, or even if a small weekly waterside event with different sponsors would be better than one, large festival.

Short Term: Enlist a pilot coffee cart or beer/wine garden in Lower Locks area
Medium Term: Promote Kerouac Park incubator for existing businesses
Long Term: Locate an underutilized waterside storefront to have a rotating restaurant similar to Lawrence’s Revolving Test Kitchen 

Final Thoughts

Thanks again to everyone who came out. We had a number of questions about the food, so here it is, all in downtown Lowell:

  1. Subs, including falafel, tikka chicken, and more: Pizza and Sub Stop
  2. Quesadillas and Dominican fare: Time Out Cafe
  3. Dessert Waffles: Sweet Journey

Special thanks to Middlesex Community College and Steve Ramirez for hosting, City of Lowell for poster printing, all of our tour guides, Lowell National Historical Park for attending and providing a glimpse into the Gatehouse, Fred Faust for photos, and the Steering Committee and Lowell Heritage Partnership for spearheading the Lowell Waterways coalition.

Remember, if you want to join a conversation about any of the above ideas or want to send us your thoughts in writing, please reply to this email!