Lowell’s reinvention is a love story — full of loyalty, commitment, pain and passion.
Sharing Lowell’s tale takes a special person — someone whose heart, mind and purpose are intricately enmeshed in the city.
That person is Paul Marion.
In “Mill Power,” Marion uses 276 pages, hundreds of photographs and numerous personal accounts to describe how the City of Lowell, once the celebrated birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, turned the tide on decline and created a vibrant new future with a national park at its center.
Marion, UMass Lowell’s executive director of community and cultural affairs, describes what happened here as a “harmonic convergence of personalities” that included Superintendent of Schools Patrick Mogan, U.S. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, and a cadre of others, including Marion.
After World War II, the mills closed and Lowell began a precipitous decline. “The population of Lowell fell from 112,000 to a low of 90,000. People who could leave, did,” says Marion.
To staunch the exodus, heartfelt but disastrous attempts at revitalization were made, including razing neighborhoods including Little Canada, where East Campus sits today. “The hope was that these cleared tracts would invite business — electronics or manufacturing — to build here, and bring jobs,” he says.
They didn’t. The city’s struggles continued, its once great stature seemingly lost.
“Patrick Mogan, an astute, compassionate man, used to say he wanted to ‘make Lowell a good address again,’ ” says Marion, adding that for years, when asked where they lived, Lowell residents would say “North of Boston.”
Then, in 1967, Lowell received a Model Cities Grant under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. Part of the task force for the Model Cities program was on education, from which sprang an idea: create a national park in Lowell.
Lowell Becomes Model City
“In the early 1970s, things begin to shift in the city,” says Marion.
Gov. Francis Sargent enacted legislation forming Lowell Heritage State Park. Lowell State and Lowell Technological Institute merged into the University of Lowell. And things started to feel better. And the nascent idea for pursuing national park status took hold after the National Parks Service made a push for more urban parks.
In 1975, Congress created a commission to study Lowell as a candidate for national park status.
As Marion describes in his book, creating the national park proposal was like constructing a complicated court case: fulfilling requirements, outlining arguments and checking off boxes took years of meetings, memos and patience. The urban renewal model had been turned on its head — no more the top-down, raze the neighborhood approach, this was a community-driven effort by people who cared.
“Our big selling point was that there was no national park that told the story of the Industrial Revolution,” says Marion.
In 1978, 11 years after the seed for the idea was created, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation making Lowell the first urban national park, and what follows is nothing short of magnificent.
Lowell has enjoyed a revitalization that is the envy of cities worldwide, thanks to the confluence of many factors, including the national park, the significant growth of the university, repurposed mills, a buzzing arts scene, resurgence of the trolley cars, canal tours, museums, economic preservation of buildings and attraction of business.
And best of all, Marion says the city isn’t done evolving: the waves of immigrants who call the city home are making their own stamp on it, young people attracted to live here are making it home, and students who graduate from the university are more likely to keep their talents and passion within the city limits after graduation.
Says Marion: “I hope students grab on and own a piece of the city, and shape it as their own.”
Fast forward to 2014, and the publication of “Mill Power.” Marion devoted three years to writing it, trying to balance the meatier historical material with equal parts personal narrative. He gathers stories from people on tours, from old journals, from young and old, those born and bred here and those new to the city. Tsongas, one of Lowell’s own, was famous for saying people must be on a “journey of purpose.”
For Paul Marion, who describes himself as a “witness, participant and observer” of the Lowell story, that journey is one well-traveled. Book signings are planned for Thursday, Nov. 6 at 4 p.m. at University Crossing's River Hawk Shop bookstore, and Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. at Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack St. It is also on sale at LNHP Visitor Center and Boott Mills Museum. Hardcover books are available for $45 for Lowellians at www.rowman.com. Visit www.paulmarion.com for info. Proceeds benefit the Lowell National Park.