By David Perry
In June 1987, Kelly Richardson became a Lowell cop, following in his father’s footsteps. For five years, his beat was the midnight shift in The Acre, a rough patch of urban land where poverty, drugs and crime flourished.
Richardson would pull his cruiser up along an overgrown alley that runs from Decatur Street, between Salem and Merrimack streets. When he shined his spotlight down the alley, criminals scattered like rats, recalls Richardson, now a captain on the force. They were swift and knew every escape hole in the fences.
How things can change.
Today, that same alley is Decatur WAY, thanks to a partnership between an Acre neighborhood group, the city, and UMass Lowell. It is an urban oasis, transformed through colorful art, poetry and community vision and sweat.
The cleanup was led by neighborhood activist Dave Ouellette, whose vision it was to transform a weedy blight to a welcoming walkway of poetry, simple green technology and 108 pieces of art.
Hundreds – including Acre neighborhood activists, local families, Lowell schoolchildren, city officials and UMass Lowell administrators and staff – packed a short stretch of Salem Street, in the shadow of University Crossing, to dedicate the art-filled greenway, Decatur WAY (Water, Art and You) at a June 2 event. It’s an L-shaped, 1,200-foot-long, 16-foot wide sliver that runs between Salem and Merrimack streets. Its walkway base includes porous, water-absorbing concrete that returns moisture to the soil instead of letting it pool and grow contaminated.
A first-grade chorus from the Lowell Collegiate Charter School beamed as bright as the afternoon sun as they sang “Light the Candles.”
“The university taking over that building was a godsend,” said Ouellette, pointing toward University Crossing at the dedication ceremony. Ouellette leads Acre Coalition to improve Our Neighborhood (A.C.T.I.O.N.). He led the effort but deflected the praise.
The university purchased the former St. Joseph’s Hospital five years ago, joining the Acre neighborhood almost concurrently with the cleanup. University Crossing rose in the underutilized hospital’s place, including a student union, café and Starbucks, noted Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.
Approached by Ouellette, the university offered an easement that allowed the project to become a public open space.
The university regularly lends space at University Crossing to ACTION and other Acre groups for meetings, and in the fall, one of Moloney’s 2020 Challenge Grants will bear fruit along Decatur Way. Karla Cuarezma, a civil and environmental engineering student, has designed a permanent working model on storm water filtration and its environmental impact that will be installed in the alley.
“We have 17,000 students whose safety we’re responsible for,” said Moloney. “We think a lot about that. … And we’re not going to build a fence around the campus to protect students. That’s not what UMass Lowell is about.”
Instead, the university has increasingly woven itself into the Acre and the city’s other neighborhoods, including the downtown.
“The whole area is better for the university moving here,” said Roger Levasseur, owner of the nearly 100-year-old Cote’s Market on Salem Street. “This is the latest thing. The grass used to be five feet tall back there. Now look at it. Beautiful, a great asset to the city.”
A graffiti artist’s work, which once might have drawn complaints, shone like a brilliant canvas on the brick alley-side of a building. “Mill City Pride,” a portion of it reads.
“Just trying to brighten up the community,” said Donald Defrock Maker, the Lowell-rooted artist who with Kurtis Kutz has formed Mural Mastery to render solicited work.
There are murals from dozens of community groups, including a poem by Paul Marion, recently retired UMass Lowell Community Relations director, and a piece painted by Steve Mishol of the university’s Art department, with his daughter. The University Relations design team also composed and painted a panel.
A Mill City Grows work quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, writ large: “The Earth laughs in flowers.”
Liz LaManche, a Somerville-based artist, did a painting dedicated to Lowell mill girl and suffragette Harriet Hanson Robinson. She also lined the walkway with works that are only visible when the pavement is wet.
For Ouellette, reclaiming the alley was more than a beautification project. It was proof of what happens when a community rallies together.
“We’ve forged a terrific relationship with the university along the way,” said Ouellette. The University Police headquarters parking lot borders the project’s welcoming trellis, which will eventually be covered in ivy. “That has made a huge difference,” said Ouellette.
“And something else,” he continued. “The children in the neighborhood might hear about the importance of going to college, but it hasn’t always been something that seemed possible. Now, they see students all the time around here. It’s like role models. UMass Lowell is right here, all the time, which tells them it’s possible.”