By Katharine Webster
Katie Gilligan grew up in Lowell and she’s always been proud of her city. Now she’s studying it in an Honors history seminar on urban renewal taught by Prof. Robert Forrant.
“It’s cool seeing the community from an urban renewal perspective – why businesses come and go and how development works,” says Gilligan, a junior history major who is applying for the fast-track M.A. in education with the goal of becoming a high school history teacher.
Gilligan is doing original research on the renovation and development of old textile mills and vacant lots in the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex area (JAM), which lies near the train station, downtown and the Lowell National Historical Park. She’s using historical documents and photos, as well as interviews with current and former city planners, to look at the transformations of Appleton Mills into housing and studio space for artists, the Hamilton Mill complex into a new home for the Lowell Community Health Center, and the former Freudenberg Nonwovens building into the university’s Innovation Hub at 110 Canal St.
In early May, Gilligan and the other 13 students will present their work at “Reclaiming Urban Renewal,” a research symposium at the Lawrence History Center, alongside historians, urban planners, and faculty and graduate students in urban planning from MIT and UMass Amherst.
“I’m really nervous,” Gilligan admits. “It’s a formal presentation where you’re treated as an expert and you have to know your stuff. But it’s good life practice to do a formal presentation in front of people who know what you’re talking about and can ask intelligent questions.”
Forrant, who worked as a machinist and union business agent and ran a community economic development program in Springfield, Mass., before starting his academic career, is the editor and author of several books on sustainable development and industrial history. He's also a consultant to state, national and international labor and development groups.
“I’ve been interested in, lived in and worked in cities that went through a lot of urban renewal after mills closed and jobs left. I’ve always been interested in how cities reinvent themselves after de-industrialization,” he says.
As a board member of the Lawrence History Center, Forrant is helping organize the May 7 symposium. That and the structure of the Honors College gave him the idea of teaching a seminar in which students’ research would contribute in a practical way to public dialogue about urban renewal.
“In these Honors College seminars, students are really tasked to do the research,” he said. “I thought it would be a perfect time to teach a course like this and have them present at the symposium.”
Several students are examining the impact of UMass Lowell’s expansion on the Acre neighborhood. Chancellor Jacquie Moloney visited the class with alumnus Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, to talk about redevelopment in Lowell. In the late 1960s, Solomont successfully organized residents of the Back Central neighborhood against a proposed extension of the Lowell Connector. The class has also had visits from Adam Baacke, former Lowell city planner and now director of planning and development for the university, and Paul Marion, the recently retired director of community relations on campus and president of the Lowell Heritage Partnership.
The students say they are excited to be doing research that helps them learn more about Lowell, from the role of the Coalition for a Better Acre as a significant property developer, to the history of the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, to the development of Mill No. 5, an eclectic space in a former mill building that hosts an indie movie theater, a café, artists’ studios and retail stores, as well as events such as live music, craft fairs and farmers’ markets.
Other students are looking at urban renewal in Haverhill and Boston. Nairoby Gabriel, an Honors political science major, lives in Haverhill, volunteers with the neighborhood group Urban Kindness and has interned in the offices of the Haverhill and Lawrence mayors. She’s researching the politics and politicians behind the destruction of part of the Bradley Brook neighborhood in Haverhill to make way for Interstate 495. At the same time, she’s also learning more about the history of the Merrimack Valley’s mill cities from her classmates.
“I’m seeing how relevant history still is to the politics of today,” she says. “Now I look at these cities through a different lens.”