Gateway City #5: Lowell

Overnight the company founders became the first city fathers in what would today be called a huge company town. Both men and women slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining-rooms, shopped in company stores, and were buried in company lots. Employees worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Women received from two dollars and twenty-five cents to four dollars a week, men about twice that...
Europe watched Lowell with something like amazement. Its rapid rise to industrial eminence interested and astounded economists, historians, and writers all over the world.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

LowellMA-sealThis post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Lowell is the next stop.

Lowell is, generally speaking, the poster child for Gateway Cities. The consensus seems to be that of the original eleven Gateways, this northeastern Massachusetts city of 100,000 has most successfully turned around its fortunes. Public officials and the media consistently consistently point to Lowell as an example of what focusing on image and investing in important infrastructure can do to a mill town (within the state anyway – I’m not sure this type of good news travels very far).

Having visited a few times, I am inclined to agree. Though the city benefits from an advantageous starting point, it’s certainly one of the most exciting and economically vibrant Gateway Cities I’ve visited. For this series I wanted to look a bit deeper. How good is good? If things are really as they seem, what’s the secret sauce in Lowell?

Lowell Map
Birds eye view of Lowell, Mass
Source: Leventhal Center at the Boston Public Library

Lowell: the Massachusetts-est of them all?

In addition to its status as favorite Gateway child, Lowell is perhaps the archetypal Massachusetts city. It carries the name of a Boston Brahmin (like Adams, Quincy, Gardner, Winthrop, Peabody, Boylston, Lawrence, etc…)  and along with the last of these, was named after a wealthy textile patrician who probably never saw his namesake. Francis Cabot Lowell was the foremost of the “Boston Associates” who shaped the Northeast by building textile mills and the towns around them.

Just as familiar is Lowell’s path from factory boomtown and massive immigration hub to decline. As described in the opening quotation, Lowell was a textile company town, growing in the 1850s to contain the largest industrial complex in the United States. Like its peers, it lived by the loom and died by the loom. Eventually the industrial textile mills that powered the local economy moved south and then overseas. By the mid twentieth century, Lowell was a depressed place lacking jobs and opportunity.

But unlike some of the other cities covered in this series so far, the population of Lowell today is near its height – like many others, it reached its population crest in 1920, but it is back to almost the same level, unlike cities such as Fall River or Holyoke, which are still fractions of their previous size. In addition, today Lowell has built up more specialized and technical firms than other Gateways, and performs relatively well in metrics like employment gains and median income.

A Bit of Luck, a Bit of Love, and Good Planning

So how did Lowell end up in the winner’s column relative to Holyoke and Fall River? The answer is in the section’s title: a bit of luck, a bit of love, and good planning.

World War II provided a temporary boost to traditional manufacturing that had sustained Massachusetts economies for the previous century. But by the 60s and 70s, the writing was on the wall, and in some places had been for 50 years. Cities responded to the changing economic circumstances in different ways. Some wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth, some abandoned the city altogether, and a few met the challenge with proactive leadership.

Lowell, thanks to a couple of unique factors, took the latter approach. It made a conscious effort to shift towards comprehensive planning and a more diversified economy in the 1970s. The foremost among these efforts was the “Lowell Plan”, formed in 1979 as a nonprofit economic development organization tying in partners from the public and private sector to work together on collaborative city growth goals.

In retrospect this was a key time to be moving away from old school, top-down and manufacturing-dependent economies. 1979 was well before Public Private Partnership was every government’s favorite catch phrase. Everything I’ve read indicates that the Lowell Plan was a daring and meaningful experiment for its time, leveraging tens of millions of private and government dollars for education, workforce development, and economic growth..

A difference in approach informed how the city responded to later economic challenges. While many places in Massachusetts felt the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 80s, that miracle was coming to an end in the 1990s. In 1992, Lowell was hit with a shockwave when Wang Laboratories, a $3 billion computer manufacturer based in the city employing 33,000 people, filed for bankruptcy .

The closure had a gigantic impact on Lowell’s economy. But unlike other cities, Lowell appears to have had better infrastructure, capacity, and even political willingness to deal with the loss of the company in the company town. Lowell pivoted and continued to build on strengths, taking the loss as further evidence that reliance on a single industry was a bad ide,a even in high tech sectors. A Boston Fed analysis of the booms and busts in Lowell found that while the ups and downs of the Lowell economy have been severe, the local economy was still better off than it would have been without the high tech sector that had made the bust possible.

Lowell’s Many Assets

I don’t want to leave the impression that Lowell is doing well because the powers that be willed it to be so. Meaningful economic development comes from leveraging existing community assets to build the wealth of inhabitants.  When it comes to assets, Lowell would be well above the average Gateway City even if city leadership was incompetent (which it doesn’t appear to be) or if the state ignored it.

IMG_2254
Old mill machinery, left in place in a building now used by UMass-Lowell and other local institutions.

First and foremost, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The fact that the state’s second largest and fastest growing public university is located downtown and runs programs from dozens of the old mill buildings provides a unique “anchor tenant” for the whole town. Similar to Worcester, “town-gown” relations aren’t the strongest, but having 20,000 student and faculty based in the city is a powerful economic engine that isn’t going anywhere.

The people are another significant asset. One reason that Lowell has not suffered severe population loss is foreign inmigration. Lowell has grown much more ethnically diverse in the last 25 years, with an enlivening effect on the local community. Lowell has the highest proportion of Cambodians of any city in the US, with a corresponding effect on local cuisine and culture. Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Brazilians, Colombians, Indians, and Liberians and other African immigrants also form substantial communities.

More so than its neighbors, Lowell also received attention at the federal and state level. The name Paul Tsongas may not mean much to folks outside of Massachusetts, but he was instrumental to the government attention and financial firepower that has helped Lowell weather the economic storms over the years. As a US Representative, Senator from Massachusetts, and presidential candidate in 1992, hometown hero Tsongas tirelessly advocated for Lowell. His major issues in Congress were ecological and historical preservation, and he cultivated a reputation for economic revitalization. It’s probably due to his work that the National Historical Park that forms a centerpiece of Lowell’s downtown today exists.

Lowell-Merrimack looking west
Merrimack Street looking west, Lowell, Mass.
Source: Library of Congress
Lowell-Merrimack looking west 2012
Same view in 2012. Not many Massachusetts cities stayed this well preserved through urban renewal.
Source: Google Maps

The combination of economic flexibility and asset preservation has allowed Lowell to be relatively well positioned in the 21st century. Through skillful use of historical status and open space, the city does a good job cultivating a feel of modern entrepreneurship existing alongside the machines that powered the industrial revolution. For example, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell occupies space in old mill buildings that maintain their impressive original machinery.

This balance is not easy to do. Many other cities in Massachusetts don’t have the capacity to put underutilized properties to use unless they have a new occupant with deep pockets moving in. Trying to balance preservation and growth either leads to a jarring contrast between the past and present, or row after row of abandoned buildings. The temptation to clear “eyesores” and start again or focus attention on the outlying areas is strong.

Looking up, but a long way yet

I’ve been pretty glowing in my review of Lowell, but it would not be a Gateway City if everything was working perfectly. Lowell still suffers from slow job growth, underutilized properties, and serious poverty – we’re talking about one of the top performers among a class of Massachusetts’ most challenged cities.

An example of how those difficulties manifest themselves is the recent experience with the Hamilton Canal project a vital piece of downtown with an ambitious plan for mixed use redevelopment. Progress on the development has been slow because attracting a main tenant and arranging financing are both tricky (there are many similarities with Worcester’s City Square project). Trinity Financial, the developer that had been chosen to build out Hamilton Canal, pulled out in May. The state has a lot of money on the table but as is usually the case there are complex jurisdictional questions to be dealt with, things like contingent funding and various levels of government ownership. Patient money is hard to find, especially when developers can make a killing in and around Boston with much less headache.

Still, I’ll bet that Hamilton Canal makes substantial progress before City Square. The city has a firm idea of where it wants to go with the project and appears to have the leadership to make it happen. Although Lowell has a long way to go to reach its potential, it inspires confidence in onlookers.

Lowell’s success seems to be in process rather than product. The city has more resilience and flexibility that allow it to deal with crises, comparing well to the fragile systems (of politics, administration, or economy) in other Gateways. On its own, this has not propelled Lowell towards the high bar the state has set, but it’s headed in the right direction and is won’t be easily deterred by the roadblocks that stand in its way.