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.