Three Blog Posts from 2009

In 2009, I was writing up a storm on the blog. I had a routine of talking long walks on Sunday mornings, sometimes with a friend, and then writing about what I encountered around the city. Following are three posts from March 2009. A version of "Watching the Canalway" appears in my book Mill Power (2014) about the national park in Lowell. 

Centralville of the Universe

MY SUNDAY WALKING COMPANION this week was a historian from Christian Hill who has embraced the city full-strength since moving here about four years ago. We rendezvous’d in front of Vic's (Breakfast, Subs & Bakery) at Lilley Avenue and West Sixth Street. Across the street the Lowell Provision Co. (est. 1915) with its longhorn steer logo advertised "Our own corned beef homemade red or gray" next to the leprechauns in the front window. Other signs pushed "Italian sausage hot or sweet," "Delicious prepared meals," and "Steak and chicken marinades."

     A couple of doors up on West Sixth, towards the Peter J. Deschene Memorial Fire Station, there are the Soap Box Laundry, Nana's American Store (African clothing, cosmetics, and handbags), and Sunrise Scrubs Boutique. Opposite is La Reneita Market and Restaurant (Pay your bills here/Paque sus quentas aqui) with "Spanish and American food," Michelle's Hair Salon, and Nails by Christina. Peniel Spanish Christian Church welcomes worshippers at the corner of Ennell and West Sixth.

     Across the intersection from Vic’s, where Aiken Avenue angles in, I saw the red, yellow, and green African continent logo of Auntie Rosie's Cultural Market (African and West Indian foods, clothes, and jewelry.) The neighborhood branch of Eastern Bank fills a silver cube between these small businesses and others lined along Lakeview Avenue. In the distance stands A. G. (Ace) Hardware. I'm fascinated by the micro-economy in the city. Every neighborhood includes clusters of small and tiny businesses, most of them owned I assume by residents who depend on the local patrons for earnings with which they pay the rent or mortgage, buy supplies and merchandise, make goods to sell, provide services, hire workers, etc. The Great Recession is changing their lives day by day.

     This being Jack Kerouac's birthday week, we walked northwest up Lakeview Ave. to make a brief pilgrimage to his birthplace at 9 Lupine Road, the small two-story brown house close to the corner of Orleans Street, which rises sharply and was a favorite sledding hill in my family when my brothers were young. I was too small to join in. We lived for a while at 67 Orleans before my father used his G.I. Bill veteran's benefits to buy a small ranch in the outer Navy Yard section of Dracut. Many of the French Canadian-Americans from St. Louis de France parish made the leap to suburbia in the 1950s. Ste. Therese parish up Lakeview Ave. was an ethnic and religious overflow from St. Louis. The family names were much the same in both Sunday Mass bulletins.

     The top of Orleans offers a panoramic view of the city, especially when the trees are bare. Down the other side, we followed Hildreth Street to the east and stopped at the old cemetery near Aiken Ave. The gate to the main section was open, so we took a look around. The adjoining Hildreth Family Cemetery, which was locked as usual, includes the imposing gray monument in honor of Benjamin F. Butler (lawyer, industrialist, general, governor). The gravestones are like fading photographs. The earliest one I saw was 1810 or so. Many of the names are venerable ones from Dracut, which was settled in the mid-1600s and incorporated in 1702. Coburn. Fox. There was an area of Peabody graves, not a name I associate with Greater Lowell. The phone book lists a handful. Several markers were broken, but the cemetery was in good shape for its age.

     We moved on and took a right that brought us to Homestead Road, which has a few distinctive compact houses that remind me of the small Victorians around a park in, I think, Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. These small houses in Centralville are architectural curiosities as worker housing. We wound our way down Bunker Hill Street with its neat houses in a row and on past the shuttered St. Louis de France church. My companion lamented the loss of the imposing social edifices of such churches whose activities once stabilized and pumped energy into neighborhoods like this one. Today's Boston Globe article about the decreasing number of Catholics in Massachusetts underscores the changes.

     We moved deeper into the side streets and byways of lower Centralville, but that's for another report. In 90 minutes we covered a broad patch of a neighborhood that is in transition, a place remaking itself house by home, street by block. If every picture tells a story, in the words of the Rod Stewart song, then every window frames a drama. I think about that when I pass the buildings, each a container packed with history.

March 9, 2009

Watching the Canalway (with Apologies to Elvis C.)

WE HAD A PURE BLUE near-spring morning for a Sunday walk that loosely traced the rough cut of a stretch of canal walkway along the midsection of the Pawtucket Canal. My walking partner this morning has expert knowledge of the Canalway, the official name of the system of canal-side paths that crisscross the city. We met on Jackson Street and traversed the Hamilton Canal District, where we may see some real construction start by late spring or early summer. There's a mini-industrial canyon vista up the Hamilton Canal with two remaining suspended walkways over the water. The area was fairly quiet at 8 a.m., with the Charter School not in session and the upper-story residents getting a slow start on Sunday. Photographer Jim Higgins calls this area the "last frontier" of Lowell's mill-scape. Once redevelopment begins, changes will come swiftly. The plan calls for extensive preservation and adaptive reuse—and even the protection of some of the factory ruins as architectural evidence of the scale of production once seen in this part of the city. These are the early mills: Hamilton Mfg. Co. (1825), Appleton Co. (1828).

     We walked over the Lord Overpass and crossed the invisible line between the Acre and the Lower Highlands. The sidewalk overlooks a subterranean section of Middlesex Street that you have to be looking for not to miss. Of note is the Nobis (sustainable) Engineering building, a historic rehab of the former Davis & Sargent Lumber Co.—which is being certified by the U.S. Green Bldg. Council as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project and may be the first LEED project in Lowell. Around the back rises an unusual chimney, and the side closest to the Boys and Girls Club is clad in corrugated metal that complements the cleaned-up brick and stone exterior of the original structure. The property backs up to what will be the Canalway path. Birds sang loudly in nearby trees. Next door, Kenny's Cleaners (leather and suede service center) occupies an impressive brick building whose weathered green window bays jut out, flanking a stone archway above the door. Behind the Boys and Girls Club back lot is jungle-thick brush, high twisted thickets and inter-wrapped branches that could hide any kind of wildlife.

     We popped out around the side of the Club, opposite Palin Plaza with its Asian angles and busy business cluster (Angkor Wat Realty, New Palin Jewelry, White Rose Restaurant, H & R Block, etc.). Roberto Clemente Park across the street was unusually deserted—it’s one of the most active parks in the city: basketball, skateboarding, volleyball, swings. California-based poet Tom Clark (who wrote one of the best biographies of Kerouac) has two memorable poems about the baseball legend Roberto Clemente. One short one goes this way: "won't forget/his nervous/habit of/rearing his/head back/on his neck/like a/proud horse." The other poem recalls Clemente's death in a plane crash at sea (near the so-called Bermuda Triangle) while on his way to deliver disaster relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972. Clark’s poem called "The Great One" concludes: "No matter how many times/Manny Sanguillen/dove for your body/the sun kept going down/on his inability to find it//I just hope those Martians realize/they are claiming the rights to/far and away the greatest rightfielder/of all time".

    At this spot, the Pawtucket Canal makes a broad curve around Western Avenue on the other side. In the early days of the National Park, tourists in the canal boats swinging up this way would often get waves from the workers in the Joan Fabrics plant when the windows were open. Today there are hundreds of artists working in studios in the massive industrial structure.

     Past Clemente Park, we slid down a side street (Saunders) that dead-ends at the canal, where there's a big old taxi barn for yellow cabs, and proceeded down Payne, where you begin to think that Lowell is the auto-body-repair-shop capital of the northeast. We've got Le's and Vo's and M & R and James Trinity bunched up. At the corner is School Street Light Truck Parts with a neat, compact operation that reminded me of Hampton Beach. Truck fronts and backs, cabs and rear ends, are stacked three high just like the shelves of boats at Hampton marina. A green canopy shields a row of tires. We noticed a funny juxtaposition of businesses in the building—upstairs are a chiropractor and a sign about accident treatment.

     We crossed the Korean War Veterans (School Street) Bridge and passed through the National Grid complex behind the Stoklosa School. When I was a kid, my father would drive our family over the original School Street bridge late on Sunday afternoons to get fresh, warm donuts from Eat-a-Donut farther down on School, and we'd eat them in the car. I liked the marshmallow and have never had one better. I also remember the huge gas tanks in the Lowell Gas Company complex on School Street. I can't remember if there were two or three reddish brown behemoths several stories high, which always looked a little ominous.

     We wound our way back up Willie and Franklin streets, where, on Franklin I'm pretty sure, there are two remarkable small stone houses on either side of a wooden house with a strange roof detail that reads "1902." From there we picked our way back to the recently completed section of the Canalway along the Western Canal at Suffolk Street, behind the American Textile History Museum, and then crossed Dutton to the Swamp Locks area and back to our starting point. The ice had not completely given up its hold on the canals, and we were surprised to see a beat-up blue rowboat trapped in the lower part of the Merrimack Canal. How did it get in there?

March 15, 2009

Hale-Howard Next Door Neighbors (a found poem)

Hood's Sarsaparilla

   Comfort Furniture





The Glory Buddhist Temple

   Buddy Elston Plumbing & Heating Supply

Clear Channel


Bangkok Market

   Buck's Bar & Grill

Flanagan Square

   Bridal by Bopha

MA-COM Technology Solutions

   119 Gallery, Where Art Meets Innovation

Tepthida Khmer Cuisine

   Monro Muffler Brake & Service

7 Eleven

   Palin Dental

Culligan Water Conditioning

   Morning Star Travel

March 25, 2009