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Water, Art and You Brighten Formerly Blighted Acre Alley in Lowell

City Councilor Corey Belanger, standing in for the mayor, Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility executive director Mark Young of Lowell, David Ouellette of ACTION, State Rep. Rady Mom, and UML chancellor Jacqueline Moloney. Photo by Julia Malakie/Lowell Sun
Participating in the ribbon cutting, from left, city councilor Corey Belanger, standing in for the mayor, Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility executive director Mark Young of Lowell, David Ouellette of ACTION, State Rep. Rady Mom, and UML chancellor Jacqueline Moloney.

06/03/2016
Lowell Sun
By Grant Welker

LOWELL -- For years, it was a rundown alley, with overgrown brush, trash -- and worse, according to some, alluding to drug or illegal activity that took place there.

It took about five years, but that old alley in The Acre neighborhood is now not only cleaned up but turned into a safe place where people can stroll and enjoy art, including many made by Lowell students.

Dozens of city and neighborhood officials, UMass Lowell leaders, schoolchildren and others gathered Thursday in a roped-off section of Salem Street to mark the ceremonial opening of Decatur WAY, its transformation finally complete.

Dave Ouellette, president of the Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood, or ACTION, knows the alley well.

Living as a child in subsidized housing just down the street, he would take the alley to walk to and from the St. Joseph's School.

On Wednesday, he was the man of the hour, but he deflected praise onto others who helped make the alley transformation possible.

"It's not about me, it's about all of you," Ouellette said. He asked those who played a part to raise their hand, and most of the dozens in attendance appeared to raise their hands.

Art is at the center of the alley but is only a part of it. The word "Way" in its name is actually an acronym: Water, Art and You.

Not so noticeable to those walking along the 1,200-foot length is the fact that the alley is made of porous concrete, meaning water filters through it and seeps into the soil instead of running along pavement, where it could pick up contaminants before flowing into a sewer.

"This is exciting," said Mark Young, head of the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, which saw the new alley as a way to reduce rainwater flow in The Acre.

Young paused to acknowledge that it isn't often people celebrate a wastewater project, other than to be happy it's over. "This was a little different," he said.

The most visible part of the alley isn't the part that runs between multifamily homes, parallel to Merrimack and Market streets.

The Shorter end of the L-shape, covered in a black metal trellis that runs behind UMass Lowell's University Crossing building.

The wave shape of the trellis is meant to evoke the Ouellette Bridge, which carries Aiken Street over the Merrimack River. Eventually, it'll be covered in ivy. Water also comes into the alley's name because some art on the walkway appears only when wet, a surprise for rainy days.

There are about 100 pieces of art now, but there's room for about 100 more pieces, with more still being added.

Several artists attended Wednesday's ceremony, including Lowell High School students who painted a mural for an art project, members of Community Teamwork Inc.'s YouthBuild program, and Liz LaManche, who painted a portrait of a Lowell Mill Girl.

"Wonderful," LaManche, of Somerville, said of seeing the public enjoy her work. "It's what I live for."

The girl in her painting is Harriet Hanson Robinson, who began a labor strike for better working conditions when she was only 11. She went on to found the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts. LaManche said she wanted to make the art more than just a cityscape, and found an opportunity to start and be part of a broader conversation.

The mural made by Lowell High School students included pictures of mills, various countries' flags and festivals to show the city's history and diversity.

"It's exciting," said Adelaide Szczesiul, a senior. "It looks a lot better than in the basement."

"It looks bigger, too," senior Tina Phan said.