By Robert Mills
LOWELL -- Little things can make a big difference when it comes to cleaning up a neighborhood.
Police call it "broken windows theory." But Dave Ouellette, president of Acre Coming Together Improving Our Neighborhood, isn't as confrontational about it as police, who use enforcement as a tool, while Ouellette uses poetry, partnerships, and art.
"The idea is if you put a lot of good, happy people doing positive things together, it moves the crime and drugs out of your neighborhood," Ouellette said. "Through art, music and poetry, we can take over a drug-ridden neighborhood."
That idea took yet another step forward Thursday, when Ouellette and UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney unveiled a new student-painted mural on Decatur Way, a narrow alley between Salem and Merrimack streets that was transformed from a wooded haven for drugs and the homeless to a paved walkway lined with art, poetry, and the creativity of the neighborhood.
In 2012, growth made the alley virtually impassable to all but the most determined, according to Ouellette. When Ouellette and other volunteers from ACTION went inside, they found an old mattress surrounded by what Ouellette estimates were up to 80 hypodermic needles.
"We took chainsaws and just started cutting down the trees," he said.
Four years later, ACTION partnered with the city and UMass Lowell to completely makeover the alley, getting it paved and installing works of art and poetry created by those from the area.
"Now everyone has taken ownership of it, and you can see the difference," Ouellette said.
The creation of the latest mural was funded by a $2,000 micro-grant as part of Moloney's 2020 Community Impact Grants program.
The program awarded grants to about 40 individuals from Lowell and the university who have plans to enrich university and community life.
In addition to supplying the grant, the university also supplied the artists. UMass Lowell students Yahira Torres, of Lowell; Mary Connell, of Princeton; Anna McCarthy, of South Hamilton; Adel DiPersio, of Burlington; and UMass Lowell graduates Dana Cram, of Townsend; Austin Wells, of Dracut; and Julie Howard, of Dracut, teamed up to learn about the neighborhood and create the mural.
Connell said history Professor Robert Forrant helped teach the students about the Acre's history before the group set out to meet residents and see the area for themselves.
"I was really big on making sure the people of the Acre were the focal point," said Torres, who was born and raised in Lowell. "We didn't want to do just the buildings. We wanted to make sure we actually showed the community."
Moloney said it was seven years ago when the university took over the former St. Joseph's Hospital and turned it into the sparkling University Crossing. She said the improvements in the neighborhood have become a talking point for her when people visit the building.
"You can see private developers investing in this neighborhood and that's a huge sea change," Moloney said. "I think this whole neighborhood is being seriously revitalized."
She said the idea for the mural, though small, was exactly the sort of community and university partnership the grant program is meant to support.
"We encourage everybody to keep imagining and reimagining this beautiful city and bringing more neighborhoods back like this," Moloney said.
Mayor William Samaras the project is an example of the sort of partnerships that have improved the city.
"This is a place that could actually be problematic to the city, but now it's a greenway and a place where we're talking about sharing artistic expression," Samaras said.
Connell hopes those who take a stroll through are able to slow down and appreciate the melting pot that the Acre is.
"The making of this mural was a valuable learning experience for this entire group of artists," Connell said. "We hope that our painting is able to give the people who see it an opportunity to slow down, pause, reflect and consider the rich, diverse mosaic that is the Acre."