Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Remembering Lowell

The Lowell Experiment, by Cathy Stanton (2006)

Cathy Stanton’s book explores the essential paradox of culture-led revitalization in postindustrial cities. That is, the restored buildings and interpretive vignettes of working-class life, as well as the salaries of those who fashion them, are products of the same system (i.e., capitalism) that wreaked havoc on mill towns, their people, and their economies in the first place.

Stanton’s two-year stint as participant-observer in Lowell yields a richly detailed portrait of class struggle among the cultureworkers. But the kicker lies in the epilogue, in a surprise ending that blows her two years of fieldwork out of the water.

Somehow, the public historians in charge of crafting the primary exhibit, outlanders lacking deep Lowell roots, had managed despite long odds and dissension to infuse it with a critical narrative linking globalization and the quest for cheap labor not only to the city’s past, but to its present. Stanton’s postscript also takes up the question of why organized labor was marginal to the endeavor, but offers an anecdote about the use of non-union masons to reface a key building in lieu of any firm conclusions.

Stanton’s work raises more questions than it answers. How did that happen? How will this critical perspective play to visitors? Will more locals and blue-collar folks be among them, and if so, how will they respond?  Is the narrative replicable? Does it provoke?

Earlier, I expressed the hope of comparing Stanton’s work with Andrew Hurley’s approach to applying public history and historic preservation in urban revitalization. While Stanton’s emphasis on exhibit-making, paired with Hurley’s on placemaking, might suggest a comparison of apples to pears, I think the comparison illuminates.

Hurley’s team enlists indigenes in a big way. Residents are invited to re-imagine their neighborhoods through their history. In Lowell, the National Park Service and its redevelopment arm, the Lowell Development and Finance Corporation, try to expand participation, but the effort is shaped largely by the “blow-in” professional cultureworkers from the NPS along with the local power elite from the LDFC. The two factions are often at odds, while the city’s new Cambodian and Hispanic immigrants are notably missing.  

Lowell Lite

Last month, I joined a group sponsored by the Society for Industrial Archaeology for a two-day whirlwind tour of factories, mills and bridges and other historic attractions in the Quinebaug-Shetucket National Heritage Corridor, a National Park Service creation that spans 35 municipalities in eastern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts. The area goes by the name "The Last Green Valley," encompassing both natural and historical resources. The tour group, as the name of the sponsoring organization suggests, was composed largely of engineers, architects, wannabes, and others with an interest in the workings of things.

One stop on the tour was the city of Willimantic, Connecticut. Like Lowell, it is a distressed mill town whose glory days seem long past.  Like Lowell, it is mobilizing cultural resources in the service of redevelopment. Stops on our tour included the new Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum, the Frog Bridge built in 2000 and adorned with cement frogs on spools of thread to commemorate an 18th-century incident in which the croaking of frogs dying of drought led townspeople to take up arms to repulse an imagined enemy attack, and the Windham Textile and History Museum, at the center of Willimantic’s mill complex.

                                                       A frog on the bridge

While my visit to the Willimantic mills lasted about two hours, compared to Cathy Stanton’s two years of research, the comparison was instructive. I bypassed the tour of mill buildings, which was heavy on mechanical detail (here’s to you, Tilden), in favor of the interpretive materials at the small central museum. The interpretation struck me as a pastiche.

The introductory film depicted mill work, with the obligatory nods to ethnicity, community, child labor, occupational injury and gender. One set of rooms re-created a mill worker’s home; another showed how the manager lived. Another room held sewing machines of various vintages. On the stairway were pictures of churches attended by each of the city’s main ethnic groups. A large mural narrated the ecology of the mill town, an interpretive framework favored by the museum director.  The museum periodically sponsors special events, such as the recent exhibit on Connecticut’s “cotton connection” to the Civil War. In all, the Willimantic effort, a smorgasbord of commodified culture within the added context of a pristine natural environment provides one response to Stanton’s question about the potential of second-generation culture-driven revitalization, particularly when lacking the concentrated financial largesse and political muscle that propelled the Lowell experiment.