Little Canada: Telling Somebody Out There Who We Are

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The Library staff at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell posted photos and documents related to the demolition of the city’s Little Canada neighborhood in the early 1960s. I’m grateful to the staff for integrating into the website my poem “New Pine Hill,” written in the late 1990s when the area was still being rebuilt. The dramatic pictures of the so-called Urban Renewal project that was funded with federal money can be seen at this link. Kudos to everyone who helped develop this resource site, including the late George Poirier, “George of Lowell,” one of the outstanding chroniclers of Lowell life in the 20th century. The two photographs are by George Poirier, c. 1964. “New Pine Hill” is included in two of my books that are out of print but often can be found in used condition on the internet: French Class (1999) and What Is the City? (2006).

New Pine Hill

Mr. Alphonse Hudon, wearing a blue parka and dress hat,
leans on his cane on Pawtucket Street, checking the freshly tarred walk
and grove of short pines along the Northern Canal.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?” I ask.
And he says, “I liked it better the way it was,” which opens up a line of talk,
because I know he’s missing the French Canadian-American village
that once colored this shoulder of land at the wide bend in the river.
I tell him my father, Marcel, was raised on Cheever Street in Little Canada.
He knew my father and grandfather, Wilfred,
whose meat market filled a corner on Moody Street.
He corrects me on the address of Nap’s Filling Station, owned by Mr. Marquis,
where my dad had our family car serviced before wrecking cranes pulled up.
A house across the street had a tree poking through the front porch roof.
“Oh yes,” he says, “that was Mr. Marquis’ house.
And there was a monkey there, too.”

The black-and-white sign on the canal bridge reads,
“Jean-Paul Frechette, The Blond Tiger,” with the boxer’s two dates underneath.
Another remnant, like the Little Canada memorial,
bronze plaque mounted on a granite stone
“from one of the last blocks to be torn down,”
placed by Franco-Americans and the priests of St. Jean Baptiste parish,
now a Latino Catholic church, Nuestra Señora Del Carmen.
There’s a fleur-de-lis in each corner, beginning and end dates, 1875-1964,
like a gravestone, like one life, and a litany of streets running up the sides:
Aiken, Cabot, Cheever, Coolidge, Hall, Melvin,
Montcalm, Pawtucket, Perkins, Suffolk, Tucker, Ward.
The amen is Quebec’s motto, Je Me Souviens! Lest We Forget!

All that history and geography in a supersaturated marker,
tucked between evergreens on Aiken Street,
in the middle of a district once so dense only Hell’s Kitchen beat it.
You stuck an arm out of the window to touch the next tenement.
You heard one tongue for blocks.
People ate, slept, drank, dreamt, and multiplied
in a native sound arranged like code.
Rag man, icebox, coal chute, baseball.
Pork pie, baked beans, mill rat, whiskey.
High Mass, soiréeL’Étoile, soupe rouge.

What was here was what Mr. Hudon liked better,
a familiar world that seemed to work
for people who got up in the morning with something to do.
Even I remember when Urban Renewal clear-cut the blocks.
The way he looked down at the long canal made me want to say something hopeful.
I admire the young trees, the sweeping path,
whose design draws us to the manmade channel
and black water that still moves the wheels.

The rough, stubby foundation stone
is a local version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey,
the one that made the monkeys go ape,
the one the moon-men couldn’t figure, the floating answer-bar.
This hunk of rock on Earth states its case for the record,
like the metal message boards shipped out with satellites,
telling somebody out there who we are.

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