TWO CENTURIES ago, a revolution took place directly outside my office in Lowell. Titans of industry joined forward-thinkers, women ahead of their time, and immigrants from around the world to form an innovation hub that propelled the region and the country into a new age. Lowell’s legacy of reinvention remains a hallmark of the city to this day and is echoed in the transformative stories of Gateway Cities across the Commonwealth.
Lowell was established as a planned industrial city on the banks of the Merrimack and Concord rivers at the dawn of America’s Industrial Revolution, but, like so many Gateway Cities, suffered a period of decline following the collapse of the New England textile industry in the early 20th century.
But in the late 1970s, Lowell entered a period of renewal and renaissance due to an active, coordinated effort by federal, local, public, and private stakeholders. It reinvented itself as a livable and resilient city that embraces diversity and fosters innovative approaches to urban challenges.
A city created by immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Frenchspeaking Canada, Lowell remains strongly rooted in its immigrant history. It is now home to the second-largest Cambodian American population in the country with many recent arrivals from Latin American, Africa, India, and the Middle East.
The extraordinary transformation of Lowell began when the Lowell National Historical Park was established within the city’s core in 1978, the first urban national park of its kind in the United States. The park has been instrumental in preserving and protecting the historic landscape of the city and connects the city’s industrial heritage to its cultural and ethnic diversity. Public investment in the park has sparked unparalleled private growth in the redevelopment of Lowell’s historic district. And the civic energy generated by the national park helped Lowell’s arts and cultural community flourish.
The principles behind the formation of the national park in Lowell — a relatively small but well-targeted infusion of federal funds matched with a comprehensive, integrated urban strategy — should serve as the foundation for a national urban policy.
Gateway Cities face unique economic and urban challenges and cannot address all the challenges of the 21st century without a coordinated partnership with the federal government.
Gateway Cities were particularly hard hit by the most recent economic downturn and are still working to make a full recovery. They can be burdened with overextended and underfunded transportation systems and persistent poverty. Some have environmental challenges left over from their days as industrial centers, and many are dealing with aging infrastructure. For historic cities, the lack of a coherent federal commitment to urban areas has encouraged sprawl, putting neighborhood historical landscapes under threat.
An impactful urban policy to help realize the potential of Gateway Cities and ensure their future prosperity cannot be narrowly limited to any one of these needs. A broad range of national issues including tax policy, healthcare, education, immigration, and energy efficiency have a significant and interconnected impact on our urban centers. Without a comprehensive approach, we fail to utilize the insights that the urban experience can provide for the nation as a whole.
Gateway Cities are economic engines, and their well-being is key to the prosperity and well-being of all Americans. They provide a critical and underutilized perspective on our nation’s health. Gateway Cities generate wealth and economic development for entire regions; provide the foundation for an educated workforce that can be targeted to regional industries; serve as the home to pilot programs and public incubators for economic, technological, and artistic innovation; offer solutions to climate change and sustainable development; improve the health of our communities; and act as gateways for goods and knowledge. Furthermore, Gateway Cities in particular are centers of our nation’s cultural activities and a repository of architectural and historic riches. They represent the diversity and strength of our country.
Small and mid-size cities in particular have grown increasingly attractive to employers and employees alike thanks to their ability to respond quickly to the needs of the surrounding region, and to entice and help cultivate new and growing industries. One of the reasons they can respond quickly is their focus on education, which allows for targeted curriculum, research, and job training that in turn, feeds nearby industry. For example, institutions like the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence, and Fitchburg State University have made significant investments and as a result, play an invaluable role in their communities.
These cities can also offer a lower cost of living to recent graduates and lower cost of doing business to startups and entrepreneurs. In cities like Lawrence and Lowell, developers are repurposing old mill buildings into beautiful, modern housing and business spaces that are attracting residents and cutting-edge companies alike. Haverhill and New Bedford are reembracing their waterfronts, which went neglected for too long, in order to offer more attractive options to city residents, employers, and tourists. Fitchburg is leveraging the Fitchburg Art Museum to cultivate artist colonies. Elsewhere, we are seeing inventive and imaginative undertakings like hybrid art gallery/restaurants, mobile farmers markets, and innovation hubs.
And, at a time when some of our freedoms, rights, and national values are being put to the test, we again see Gateway City communities responding with progressive solutions. Lynn is prioritizing immigrant entrepreneurship, while Lawrence and Chelsea have stood side by side with metropolitan giants like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco to oppose new federal policies that seek to drive a wedge between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
A comprehensive, integrated approach to addressing the needs of Gateway Cities must be the cornerstone of an effective federal urban policy. Through a shared commitment to development, and a common vision for the future, residents, businesses, and creative community leaders are working together to invest in Gateway Cities and make real the reinvention we know is possible across the Commonwealth. These remarkable cities of immigrants and industry need a strong federal partner to ensure they can continue to realize their full promise.