On Democracy in Lowell

Local Elections, Local Issues

by Santiago Rodriguez Rey

Lynne invited me to participate here regarding the latest elections. But who am I? Well, besides making all those funky looking maps populating the Lowell forum on Facebook casting an eye on the results, let me tell you a couple of things as to give you an idea on who’s writing. I lived exactly two years in Lowell, until December 2015. During that time, I had some radio shows at WUML, UMass’s radio station, and participated in many local activities as a volunteer. My background is in politics and campaigning, so I have always been inclined to pay attention to those things (besides Lowell and my native Buenos Aires, I have lived in Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and Denver, where I finished High School); in most places I participated somehow in campaigns and/or elections. I have had the chance to speak to many city councilors and the current city manager, and both Marty Meehan and Jacqueline Moloney; all interviewed at my show. The same goes for Evan Falchuk when he run for governor. You could take this as a small, short, not so deep or impression lasting piece of observation like De Tocqueville did back in the day when he visited young America. I am just observing, not taking sides, but my background does weigh in. Let’s get to my “On Democracy in Lowell”. 

The Dumbing Down of Lowell

Local Elections, Local Issues

On Lowell Live Feed, an April [2016!] article from Jeff Speck, a highly respected professional city planner who was brought to Lowell to help build long term plans for Lowell’s development, has raised a brouhaha once again. While some off-my-lawn codgers are arguing against bike lanes (especially on Chelmsford St, where not only was that space wasted on the super-wide road, but it’s also the main thoroughfare from the Bruce Freeman Trail into the city), I was especially disgusted by the dismissal of Speck, who again, is a well known city planning expert, by none other than current councilor Dan Rourke, who said, “At least he doesn’t hide his love from the non-profit that paid him huge money to say what they want him to.”

As you might recall, Mr. Rourke lost his reelection bid and will no longer be a city councilor. But it struck me hard, that his dismissal of Lynch-era city planning, and of Speck and the Lowell Plan who brought him in, is an awful lot like the knee jerk reactions that appears to lead the current resident of the White House to undo all the things Obama ever did, from renewable energy initiatives, to education (who is for letting men get away with rape in colleges?? I mean what?), to anything that science says, ever, about anything.

Jeff Speck is an expert in his field. Dan Rourke has zero experience in city planning. So naturally let’s not listen to a word the expert says, because heaven forbid we ever use facts, science, or expertise to determine anything. This strain of anti-intellectualism isn’t new in Lowell, of course. And for now thankfully, the anti-intellectuals are going to be in a small minority. But whether it’s Rita Mercier crying “kids on bikes dealing drugs!” to attempt to remove Father Morissette Boulevard bike lanes (at great expense to the city of course) or Rourke dismissing one of the country’s premiere experts on city planning because it’s part of that “other” faction of Lowell leadership (whether or not you love the Lowell Plan all the time, this is also about the Lynch era of city government), Lowell is constantly caught in the crossfire between people who want facts, expertise, and knowledge to inform our future, and people like Mercier and Rourke (add Elliott and often Belanger in that too) for whom facts be damned.

With such whiplash between smart thinking and thoughtless reactionary grandstanding, Lowell’s progress goes in fits and starts. Friends, this is why local elections matter. Do you have any idea how much further along Lowell would be if we had not had this interim Council of naysayers trying to undo the Lynch era? Have you been counting the number of really great city employees, particularly in the Planning Department, that we’ve lost since Murphy took over? I have, and it’s devastating, the amount of expertise we lost.

It’s great that we had a change election. Obviously this turnover is a side effect of the high school debate, but I’ll take what I can get. But if we constantly go in one direction for 4-7 years, and then backwards for another 4-7 years, as we did going from Cox to Lynch to Murphy, our progress will remain elusive and transitory. Every election should be about striving to keep Lowell moving forward. Complacency is not an option. We might have flipped the City Council (and added a construction project manager, Karen Cirillo, to our roster! go us!), but are you going to be there in two years, and four years, to keep this progress going? Or are we going to let the Merciers and Rourkes undo any progress in the next City Council?

Humans get lazy, I know that. But when it comes to local government, we have an obligation to stick to a vision to see it through, for the future of our lives together here in this city.

PS: can we revisit backyard chickens with this new City Council? Pretty please?

PPS: if you missed this blog in the last little while, a few things happened…some files got deleted somehow and I couldn’t post til my host fixed things, and I had a nasty cold and all my spare time was used up in prepping my house to host a big Thanksgiving gathering. So, hence, no blogging. Hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving, whatever you were doing!

Out of Sight, Please, So We Can Keep Ignoring You

Local Issues, Social Justice

A friend on Facebook posted the Sun’s article (you don’t have to click through to it, but I ethically have to put the link) on the latest City Council motion addressing homelessness. Was it a compassionate look at what initiatives Lowell could produce to reduce homelessness, address addiction, or support those in need at this time of year?

Hah. No, of course not, silly readers! No, it was a motion to “Req. City Mgr. investigate and report on any problem activities in the vicinity of Kirk and Merrimack Streets as well as Merrimack and Central Streets.” What does this have to do with homelessness you ask? Well, it appears that these areas are where several nonprofits serve the homeless meals or provide other services, after which, having nowhere to go because they’re homeless, they congregate, and even when there aren’t “serious” incidents like conflict or fighting, there’s yelling or swearing and it’s bad for business and downtown.

As the Sun quotes Councilor Leary, “This group of people comes out and crosses the street without looking. They seem intoxicated and they’re all over the place. It’s not good for the businesses and it’s not good for the city.”

I’d argue that it’s worse for people who are homeless, some of whom have unaddressed mental health issues, additions, or just terrible luck, than it is to walk by the homeless any day of the week, but hey, who are we kidding? We just want the homeless to be unseen and unheard, amiright? It’s bad for business.

While Lowell has many great nonprofits (please, support them with your dollars and donations! I’ll list the ones I can remember/find at the end) doing amazing daily work on supporting those who are less fortunate, and trying to solve the underlying causes, I feel like every few years, the Lowell City Council looks up, notices that there are homeless around, and then looks to address the appearance of homelessness in the public square. Whether they go after panhandling downtown (illegally), people sleeping on benches, breaking up homeless camps, or what have you, it’s never really about solving the problems for homeless folks and it’s pretty much never done with much or any compassion. Indeed, it often elicits comments like the one from Leary, which is at best tone deaf, and useless for solving the problem at hand.

Of course, the best outcome would be to home the homeless, thus giving them a place to go. It’s not cheap, but it’s a damn sight cheaper than the costs of policing, emergency room health care, and other expenses that the state bears when someone is homeless.

Is this an issue Lowell can address alone? Of course not. It needs to be statewide, nationwide, to be the most effective. But cities large and small across the US are taking matters into their own hands and addressing the actual problem—with measurable results. Maybe the next City Council will be more innovative in how it addresses the underlying causes of homelessness instead of trying to sweep it under a rug for appearance’s sake—because honestly, I think this lame duck Council is a bust.

If you want to help the homeless, instead of bluster, I highly suggest giving the gift of time, goods, or money to these fine organizations:

Lowell Transitional Living Center
House of Hope
Community Teamwork
Coalition for a Better Acre
Lowell Community Health Center
Lowell House, Inc.
Merrimack Valley Food Bank
Open Pantry of Greater Lowell
The Wish Project
Edit: adding…
Living Waters

If you know ones I missed that should be here, let me know! And, please tell your City Councilors that you don’t want homelessness to be unseen and unheard. We need to support real initiatives to address the root causes, not worry about how it looks to have homelessness in our city. If you reduce the homeless rate in our city, you get that outcome anyway, but while actually doing the right thing.

Addendum: Let’s be clear. Specifically, orgs like Living Waters are the ones under attack here. (Though at other times, places the Lowell Transitional Living Center were the focus of this kind of unintentionally hostile interest.)

I visited Living Waters quite some time back. They do amazing work. They open their doors compassionately for those who have no other place to go, or to eat. They have programs for the homeless and underserved. Look at their website: their programs include a makerspace, recreation, a street paper, and housing initiatives.

I would challenge the City Councilors to drop in for a visit some time. Just go; no fanfare, no credit for doing what you should be; just go see, go volunteer. Talk to both the program’s administrators and to the clients.

It’s so easy to be cavalier about appearances when it comes to the homeless. It takes guts, compassion and thoughtfulness to actually see what it is these organizations do. Not just handing out soup before Christmas, but really see what they do on a day to day basis, how they form relationships, learn about the humanity of their clients, see how they struggle, strive, sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. It would be the least some of our community’s political leaders could do.

Things I’m Reading This Week

Local Elections, Things I'm Reading

In a world of soundbites and social media and headlines you don’t even click on (guilty sometimes), I’ve fallen in love with longform journalism. Or as it used to be called: just journalism. I’m that annoying person who will read the entire Mother Jones article, leaving it up in a tab until dammit, I’ve finished the thing! I read a lot of stuff online, and then share it on Facebook when I love it, but then I thought to myself…self, I have a blog. Again. Why not have a curated list of articles I’ve read worthy of your full, longform attention? So maybe this will be a Thing. Or not, my brain can be fickle like that. If you like it, I’ll keep doing it. I am not above being bribed by flattery and eyeballs.

Basically I just am saving this post as a draft until the end of the week, adding things as I read them.

People Making Maps

Local Elections

So folks are starting to have some fun with the data Wayne posted yesterday (as mentioned in the previous post). In particular, Santiago Rodriguez Rey on Lowell Live Feed has created some precinct maps using shapefiles and that data. (Cue olde blogger griping: “Back in my day, sonny, we didn’t have such things as Google maps or shape files! Get off my lawn!”)

Not everyone is or wants to be on LLF, so I got permission to repost the maps he created. After all, this shiny new blog comes with a shiny new media uploading and management system. No more FTPing direct into site folders or using a third party embedding platform…Rwar, you kids have it so easy and why are you still on my lawn??

Data Nerds, Start Your Engines!

Local Elections

The esteemed and excellent Wayne J posted an open Google spreadsheet on Lowell Live Feed with the unofficial precinct by precinct election data for all candidates and the referendum (see other tabs there) from Tuesday’s election. (He also posted the ward/precinct map on request.) I am not the numbers person generally, but geek out, nerdlings, to your heart’s content. Of course, even though I’m really the paintbrush, keyboard, and HTML type, I might have a couple observations of snark interest here and there.

First up: What Happened In Ward 1?

There are no precincts that can hold a candle to 1-2 and 1-3 in elections. They had 1472 and 1247 vote cards cast, a 58% and 52% turnout, respectively. As Belvi goes, so goes Lowell, as they say. So naturally, any analysis has to take into account what happens there.

The first thing I noticed was vote totals for #1 vote getter Nuon, vs Mercier. (I know, I can’t help myself.) Wow, just wow. Belvi was Rita’s stomping ground. I don’t have the numbers per precinct and candidate from 2015 (I looked for it), but I’m guessing that her 438 and 297 finish in those two precincts (versus Nuon’s 832/723 and Kennedy’s 986/840) is less than she’s gotten there in the past. In 2015, Mercier had 6228 total votes (her total from Tuesday was 5730), so one imagines a lot of them had to have come from 1-2 and 1-3.

Turnout of extra voters obviously accounts for much of this difference too. Turnout in 2015 was 18%, versus a hair over 21% in 2017. That’s not as huge a difference as I though, but is 462 more voters in 1-2, and a 444 increase in 1-3 over 2015.

As much as I’d like this to be about Rita Mercier’s embrace of one Donald J. Trump last year, it’s very obvious that probably a majority of it is the high school issue. Karen Cirillo, a real newcomer who was very clear about her pro-downtown stance on the high school, not only made it onto the Council with her first campaign, which is virtually unheard of, but also beat Mercier in 1-2 and 1-3 with 743 and 702 votes. I’m a Cirillo supporter, and I think she’ll be great, but given recent local electoral history, Cirillo got a boost from being a part of the downtown “slate.” Not all downtown candidates made it, so obviously voters saw something in Karen to vote for besides that, but beating Rita Mercier on her home turf so definitively is definitely historic.

Hey 2-3, Where Are You Guys?

Something that puzzles me is that 2-3 has the highest number of registered voters, even more than 1-2, at 2650. And yet only 417 showed up, which is about a 16% turnout (rounded up). This is, of course, the heart of downtown. I suspect that the high registration rate is due to the population of affordable senior housing, and the low turnout rate due to age-related physical and other impediments. I wonder if there is a better way to give access to these voters, and if we’re doing enough to ensure they can make it to the polls. It would be one thing if they weren’t interested, but another thing if physical ability to walk to the polling place was preventing this population from voting. It would be a shame if that were the case. Maybe we could have some city golf carts offering rides?

Sometimes The Leap Jumps You

The last note I will make is about those who try to make the leap from School Committee to Council. Conway obviously made it, and it didn’t hurt (indeed, probably made the difference) to be on the high school downtown slate. If you recall, Leahy and Leary are both SC alum, who made it onto the Council on the strength of their exposure from governing our schools. However, whether it’s being on the wrong side of the high school debate, or something else, Gignac certainly fell far short of the top nine. Being elected elsewhere does not always translate into a win.

Well, I’m sure others will have lots to say. Thanks to Wayne for putting this out there!

Welcome back to Left in Lowell!


I’m including myself in this greeting, because as is well known I’ve had a rather extended hiatus.

During the intervening years, I’ve attempted to revive the blog, by going into my database of old posts and trying to wrangle them into modern WordPress format for importing into a fresh install. Only to come close and be stymied by this or that technical hurdle, then life intervenes and I get distracted.

To that end, I’ve decided to start fresh. At some point I’ll finish the data import and build archives, but for now the old-timers will all just have to rely on fond memories of days gone by.

This site and its layout are a work in progress. Excuse the mess.

So why now? I could have done this fresh start eons ago, and gee wouldn’t it have been useful to have another resource during this last contentious election? Aren’t you a little barn door after the horse fled? Yeah, busted. But to be fair I’ve been getting back into local activism this last year, on the ground (three guesses as to why), and I keep itching to have a place to write.

Plus who would have wanted to touch the high school issue with a ten foot pole? What a mess all around. For those who know me, I’ve been a keep Lowell High downtown supporter, but I have friends on both sides and it seemed like a mudfest to me. I mean kudos to both sides for passionate involvement, but could you have done it without the nastiness? This issue divided this city like none other I’ve ever seen, and I was around and blogging through the “I’m for Cox” campaign (don’t say that aloud in front of your kids!). I guess we’ll see where it goes from here…you can’t say yesterday’s results aren’t definitive, so hopefully the worst of this is behind us.

For the record, my conclusion in the end was that in any case, the kids will be all right. I mean, there are drawbacks on both sets of options. In case you lived under a rock, that would be whether to extensively renovate the downtown high school, or move it to a new building at Cawley Stadium. Reno while kids are attending a school isn’t a perfect situation obviously (though temporary), but also shifting our high school to a “suburban” campus at Cawley changes a lot culturally that I don’t think some people understand, plus the poor sleep deprived teens who would have to be bused across the river and through the Belvi area during rush hour will suffer a lot. As someone who was bused from a rural district to a nearby city for high school, which took more than an hour, I can tell you it was miserable, and it hugely affected my learning.

(Luckily I had band first period, cuz nothing wakes you up better than a line of snarky brass players behind you, or practicing halftime show moves in October at 8 in the morning…but I spent my teen years perpetually sleep deprived. Well, more so than is normal in the pre-smartphone era.)

I have a lot of other issues with moving the high school that I won’t even bother to go into because, guys, done deal, but suffice to say they’re pretty comprehensive.

I also think the downtown reno hysteria was a little overblown. OK, if I’m being truthful…a lot overblown. I listened to what people had to say, and it left me scratching my head. No, folks, the kids won’t be poisoned, and while, again, staging renovations can be tricky and disruptive, it can be done. And hey, we just elected someone who has project management experience in occupied renovated buildings!! (Go Karen Cirillo, so proud!!) Truth be told, as a kid I had a couple classrooms in trailers while a new wing was being built at my school, and I’ll tell you that I’d take that any day over that hour plus commute by bus to Manchvegas for high school…

All right, moving on, like I said. There are about a million two hundred and five other issues facing the city of Lowell over the next decade, so. Let’s do this.

P.S. OMG Rita came in fifth. I thought I would faint of shock. I hate to rub salt in any wound this deep, but for heaven’s sake she went to a Trump rally, I’m having a hard time feeling a lot of sympathy. And Belanger and Rourke bumped. And wow, Vesna! who came in first! He really ran an amazing campaign, worked social media like a boss, and I’m so happy to see him back on the Council. Good luck to the new Councilors!

I’ll be starting a countdown clock for Kevin Murphy’s resignation once I can install one. Maybe we can take some bets with the prize being some new amigurimi. I’ve been dying to try this baby Groot pattern.