To save a city: From urban renewal to historic preservation in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1920 to 1978

Date of Completion

January 2006


History, United States|Urban and Regional Planning




Lowell, Massachusetts was founded in the 1820s as the "birthplace" of the American Industrial Revolution. The city sustained a fairly stable economy based for over one hundred years on textile manufacturing powered by a complex canal system. Due to competition and lack of innovation, however, Lowell began a decades-long de-industrialization process in the 1920s which left the populace without a clear raison d'être for their city. In the absence of traditional leadership, a young French-Canadian banker named Homer Bourgeois worked to formulate a new identity for the aging mill town.^ Utilizing newly available sources of funds and ideas emanating from the local and federal governments, Bourgeois and other leaders began the process of re-making Lowell by attracting the "novel" industries of the post-World War II period; plastics and electronics. The city's planners also physically altered the landscape by building highways, creating parking areas and tearing down ethnic residential neighborhoods to make way for commercial, industrial and institutional development.^ By the 1970s, a critical mass of residents opposed to the displacement of people and to the destruction of historic buildings created a counter-movement to Bourgeois' leadership. Coupled with this challenge to the political elite was the unraveling of the city's economic and financial structures which were largely tied to the aging canal system. By the mid-1970s, Lowell's attempt at creating an identity as a center for new industry had faltered.^ Surfacing as the symbolic head of an alternate force in politics, Paul Toughness worked with the existing elite and with arising community leadership to develop a substitute plan to keep Lowell a viable city. The resulting movement propelled Lowell to reclaim its identity as an industrial heritage site and promote the use historic preservation as a new instrument for economic development. The designation of Lowell as a National Historical Park in 1978 codified this movement and provided a fixed framework to anchor the city's economic structure upon in the subsequent years.^