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.