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.