Thursday, October 8, 2015

Remaking Industrial America: Homestead and Lowell, Massachusetts

I recently visited Lowell, Massachusetts, an old textile mill town, known as the "cradle of the Industrial Revolution" in the U.S. It's much older and bigger than Homestead, but shares a history of heyday, decline, fall, and rebirth.

A block on Merrimack Street in Lowell's business district

Settled in 1653, Lowell is located on the Merrimack River, 25 northwest of Boston. In 1826 a consortium of industrialists known as the Boston Associates started developing a planned industrial complex along the river. Its cotton mills were initially powered by water turbines driven by a series of canals, built largely by Irish workers who had fled the Potato Famine.  By 1850, the canal system produced 10,000 horsepower for the city's 40 textile mills, and Lowell's population had swelled to 33,000, making it America's largest industrial city.
Lowell's mills in 1910. The pollution, while not as bad as in Pittsburgh's steel towns, is still horrible.

Old Belgian block paving, as in Homestead.

The textile workers, called Mill Girls, were primarily young, single women from New England farms. Like steel workers, Mill Girls worked ridiculously long hours operating machinery in unhealthy conditions. The air inside the mills was filled with minuscule lung-clogging textile particles. The fast-moving looms and spindles made for an ever-present danger to life and limb. In the 1830s, a half-century before the mass movements for workers' rights, the Lowell  Mill Girls organized, went on strike, and mobilized in politics when women couldn't even vote—and created the first union of working women in America. This was a remarkable feat, as remarkable as the steelworkers' battle for better working conditions and pay in 1892 Homestead.
The dining room in a former women's boarding house, now a museum.
The housemother's room in the boarding house. Could that be a Welsh tapestry coverlet, or an American copy of one?

As in Homestead, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lowell saw a large influx of new immigrants from Germany, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Lithuania, Portugal, including Jews from Eastern Europe. By the beginning of World War I, Lowell had reached its economic and population peak with over 110,000 residents. But while Homestead's steel mills grew larger as the 20th century progressed, Lowell's textile mills fell into decline in the 1920s, when owners began relocating their mills to the South.
The sign on Lowell's Lithuanian Club. My Grandfather Katilius once frequented the now long-gone Lithuanian social club in Homestead.
In the 1970s, Lowell bottomed out. The population declined, stores closed because of competition from suburban malls, and unemployment skyrocketed--as happened in Homestead a decade later. In Lowell many historic buildings were wrecked and whole neighborhoods bulldozed in a desperate attempt to revitalize the city through new development. Like Homestead, the city of Lowell struggled with a plummeting tax base, empty storefronts, crime, and devastating fires.
A three-alarm fire in an old building in Lowell on July 9, 2014, killed seven and left dozens homeless. (Photo courtesy Boston Globe)
 While Homestead contains the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Site, in the 1970s, the Lowell Heritage State Park and Lowell National Historic Park were established to preserve the core industrial area of the city. Unlike the steel mills of Homestead, the textile mill buildings could be adaptively reused. Abandoned mill structures started to be converted into housing and office space, and some became museum buildings.
A former textile mill, now part of Lowell National Historic Park.
The interior of the mill today.

While the entire Homestead Works has disappeared, replaced with the Waterfront retail, restaurant, hotel, and apartment complex, the urban core of Lowell remains. Lowell, with a current population of over 100,000, is a city in its own right, an urban center boasting a university and a community college, and another influx of new immigrant residents. The population of Homestead, a satellite of Pittsburgh,* peaked during World War II at 19,000; its current population is just over 3,000.
The restored facade of the Bon Marché department store building (1887). After becoming vacant in the 1990s, the building has been successfully converted to mixed-use by the City of Lowell.
Like so many towns in the Rust Belt, both Homestead and Lowell are working to reinvent themselves, while continuing to embrace their industrial pasts.  As a preservationist, I am gratified that government has recognized the importance of their heritage and is giving them the resources to document and preserve it.  It's wonderful to walk down the streets and see new stores, shops, and restaurants in the old buildings; it's wonderful to see a new population of immigrants making these towns their home.
Arthur's Paradise Diner, a converted streetcar, is famous for its gigantic "Boot Mill" sandwiches.
Mofongo con chicharron at the Time Out Cafe, run by a Dominican family.

However, I am very concerned that with the renewal of these old towns and neighborhoods, so much of the redevelopment is aimed at the young, single, and affluent. In pricey Massachusetts, rents and mortgage payments on rehabbed historic properties are well above being affordable for families and the working poor. Worse yet, when parts of old neighborhoods are wrecked for new luxury apartments and condos (as is happening in mine), there is a triple hit: to the environment, to community identity, and to lower income residents who are forced out.
Renting a small two-room apartment in the converted Boott Mill complex will set you back $1,800-2,500 monthly.

Nevertheless, I am pleased and hopeful seeing the signs of renewal in these old industrial towns. Across the Monongahela River from Homestead, Mayor John Fetterman is working miracles in revitalizing Braddock (population 2,900). Attracted to the town's "malignant beauty" as an AmeriCorps worker, Fetterman stayed on. In ten years, Fetterman and the people of Braddock have turned the town around, working tirelessly to boost the economy, provide decent housing, and fight crime.
A former Lowell industrial baron's home. This Victorian Shingle Style house stands out among the many large Colonial Revival homes in the city.
Frank Lloyd Wright once said that "A building is not just a place to be but a way to be." The same can be said of communities. Homestead and Lowell, too, are coming back, reborn as historic places remaking themselves in new images.
Looms in the museum.
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*It amuses me when I see Homestead described as a "suburb."  A suburb it ain't; it's an old mill town seven miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
Row houses in the Lowell Historical Park

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