Lowell, Massachusetts: History and Culture in the City of Kerouac
While the 1995 documentary "High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell" was a critically acclaimed victory for HBO, it was a curse upon the fourth largest city in Massachusetts.
Lowell earned an ugly reputation in the early 1990s due to drug and gang issues, but since then a dramatic downtown revival has made the city a center of history and culture, from the historic mills and Jack Kerouac to art and the annual folk festival.
A Glance into History
Between roughly 1840 and 1870, Lowell’s textile mills made the city a veritable hot spot for young immigrants who traveled to America in search of work. The young generation of mostly Irish settlers struggled to make a living in what was then known as the town of East Chelmsford, living on mere pennies a day.
For $6 per adult and $4 per child, the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in downtown Lowell allows visitors experience the immigrants’ work and trials on location. The pulse-pounding noise of the fully functional weaving room is enough to make your heart reach out to the women who worked there for roughly 12 hours a day, but the museum is more than that.
Photography and video documentaries show children with dirty faces and hard-working young women surrounded by the city‘s original backdrop of cobblestone streets and brick buildings.
Through a prop-filled, interactive boarding house, the museum tells a story of the immigrant’s path and the human condition that many native citizens take for granted.
If you’ve got a flair for textiles, downtown Lowell is also home to the American Textile History Museum and the New England Quilt Museum, both of which offer a look into the evolution of the art. Each museum also offers specialized classes that vary in price, usually ranging between $30 and $100.
If lingering in a museum doesn’t tickle your fancy, The Lowell National Historical Park will guide you through the city by foot, trolley and boat, all in one two-hour sightseeing tour. It begins at the Lowell Visitors Center in the Market Mills and travels down to a preserved trolley stop, which takes you through the heart of the bustling city.
The trolley trip ends at the Pawtucket canal, where visitors hop aboard a boat and make their way to the Merrimack River. There’s a lesson in history, architecture, and waterpower around every corner for just $10 per adult and $8 per child. Shorter 90-minute and 75-minute canal tours are also available at a cost of $8 per adult and $6 per child.
The city also offers free Trolley Tours through the landmarks of the unique neighborhoods surrounding the mills, but every tour has various days and hours at which they run depending on the time of year, so plan accordingly.
For instance, the 90-minute Pawtucket to the River canal tour is only available daily from July to September. Reservations are required for all tours booked through the Lowell National Historical Park, but there’s also opportunity to save some money with park packages and group rates.Waxing Poetic
Though he wrote his most famous work on the road and is hailed by hip, lyrical poets around the world, Jack Kerouac is Lowell’s native son. Born in Centralville and raised in the Pawtucketville neighborhood, the houses and streets of Kerouac’s childhood were prominent in works such as Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy.
Moody Street became a place of legend for Kerouac enthusiasts, but the street was torn up, rebuilt, and rechristened University Avenue, leaving few traces of the poet besides a small recognition outside his first home at 9 Lupine Road in the Centralville neighborhood.
Lowell honored the memory of the King of Beat in 1988 with Kerouac Park on Bridge Street. Excerpts from some of Kerouac’s greatest works are featured on the granite structures, wedged between the serene, old-fashioned mills and busy, modern shops.
Just minutes away from Lowell High School, the park is considered the premiere location for students to play hackeysack and relax on the grass.
The park maintains a faithful audience once a year for the "Lowell Celebrates Kerouac" festival. Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, an organization that does just as its name suggests, along with local cafes, museums, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell hold poetry slams, documentary screenings, exhibitions and discussions based on the great poetic inspiration.
The crowds also flock to Edson Cemetery, where Kerouac was laid to rest after his death in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Kerouac was also a patron of The Worthen House at 141 Worthen Street in downtown Lowell. Allan Ginsburg, Jimmy Breslin, and Edgar Allan Poe, who reportedly wrote The Raven on the building’s second floor, shared this distinction.
Nowadays, The Worthen House is a popular tavern known for ex-patron’s memorabilia, open mic nights, and a rare pulley-based fan system. It creates an atmosphere of creative history unlike any other in the city. It’s also a great place to get a beer.
A Cultural Infusion
On the last full weekend in July each year, Lowell shuts down the streets of downtown to celebrate the city’s rich cultural diversity with guests from around the world. It’s a smorgasbord of ethnic food, music, dance, art and activities that keeps massive crowds buzzing through the area.
Immigrants have been populating the city in waves since the early 1800s -- first it was the Irish, followed by French-Canadian, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Cambodian, Latino, and Brazilian settlers.
All of these ethnic groups represented at the Lowell Folk Festival along with several others, showing their cultural pride at vending stands and through the streets.
Annual staples of the festival include six outdoor stages, local independent vendors, artists, and an entire street dedicated to children’s activities. Best of all, the entire event is free with the exception of food, drink, and souvenirs.
The Lowell Folk Festival boasts the title of the nation’s largest free folk festival, but it isn’t “folk” in the traditional sense. The entertainment ranges from jazz and country to mariachi and ska. The sights and sounds are uncommon and appealing, but there’s not too much to evoke the image of folk. More than anything, it’s a cultural education wrapped in warm July days and cool summer nights.
Some of the finest art displayed during the Lowell Folk Festival and throughout the year comes from The Revolving Museum at 22 Shattuck Street. Inside and out, the museum is home to colorful, outlandish collections reminiscent of a 1960s acid trip, overwhelming the senses with the art’s in-your-face expression. Among small shops and an urban renewal project, The Revolving Museum is the artistic pride of downtown.
Art is also available in motion at the Merrimack Repertory Theater and Lowell Memorial Auditorium on East Merrimack Street, next-door neighbor venues that are home to off-Broadway productions, intimate concerts, comedy acts, and the Golden Gloves boxing tournament. At any given point of the year, the stages provide something for everyone to enjoy.
For More Information
Kaitlyn Silva is a journalism major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD.
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