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VOL. 6, NO. 2-- SUMMER 2004

Main Street Diary: Massachusetts Mill Towns

I am heading east across Massachusetts on Route 2, for four days of photographing Main Streets in early spring. There are barely buds on the trees and the mornings are chilly. I'm armed, as usual, with a list of towns recommended to me by architects and urbanists. I've requested, as usual, downtown streets that are "distressed but handsome." I know that the mill towns of northern Massachusetts will supply rich subject matter, because any place where there once was a thriving industry and money for fine buildings but that lost its industry and money, is going to fit that profile. (See also: Pennsylvania steel towns, West Virginia coal towns and New Hampshire textile towns.)

I wake up in my motel at 5 a.m. to get out on the Main Street of Orange, which I scouted yesterday. There are some wonderful buildings on Main, including an unusually tall and rambling white clapboard Georgian/Federal New England add-on with distinctive quoins, housing the Historical Society. Across the street is a striking Richardsonian Romanesque school building, ruined by a graceless universal access ramp right in front. Down the hill is the dense two-block commercial district, including some modest but stalwart factories. One has been adapted as an antiques market. Another is the workplace of Ames Trophies. I love this one because it has four symmetrical rows of arched windows, the fourth-story windows each covered in green plywood, which is very photogenic against dark red brick.

I always try to set up the camera before sunrise to get at least one shot with soft even light, but I have failed to account for how far east I have come from Philadelphia, and the sun bursts forth at 6 o'clock before I'm ready. Instead of subtly caressing light, then, I get wildly dramatic light and distinct tree shadows. Ideally, I would have gotten both.

I have to ask one of the Ames workers to move her car as she pulls up in front of the building around 7:30. She does it, but she is extremely disgruntled.

After a swell $3 breakfast in Athol's ultra-skinny Main Street Diner (stools and counter only), I head for Fitchburg. This is my first taste of the most botched traffic engineering in the Union. Yes, Massachusetts, as evidenced by Fitchburg, Lowell, Lawrence and Lynn, easily takes the cake for pointless one-way streets. The main streets (and many others) of all four towns are one-way, to the detriment of all. For example, to return from the end of Fitchburg's Main by car, you are routed behind the commercial buildings, past parking garages and surface lots and dumpsters. Pedestrians also suffer because traffic zooms along unimpeded, and of course Main Street merchants only get half the possible car traffic.

Many of my expert friends have told me Lowell is a must-photograph. Either they did not hear me say "distressed" or they have not been here in many years. Its main shopping street is beautiful and bustling, in large part (I assume) because many of the city's gargantuan brick mill buildings have been restored and made into a National Historical Park. The American Textile History Museum is also here, an AAA TourBook "Gem." Now tourists come, instead of textile workers, cotton barges, and trains. Tourists come; I leave.

Lawrence is much better, though I feel ghoulish thinking so. The city has some fine classical blocks, but there's a seedy downtrodden air; it's deserted after hours, with security grates on the storefronts. Again there are the silly one-way downtown streets, which get used for drag racing and double-parking fiestas. Actually, I am more excited visually by the succession of huge Merrimack River mills, some of which are derelict, some of which are becoming condos or artists' studios, and some of which are quite full of individual business tenants of various sorts. One of the Pacific Mill buildings has batting cages on the third floor. "People come from all over to use those in the winter," the watchman tells me. "Whole teams, sometimes."

I get up extra early to set up my camera, tripod, and orange traffic cones on Essex Street and this time I manage to capture the pre-sunrise light. At about 6:00 a man in a casual suit ambles along and strikes up a distracting conversation. "Hey, do you have a business card? I have a website, and I'll link it to your site! I have a very controversial site. Everyone in town knows it." I consider this a less-than-attractive offer. "Maybe I don't want to be on a very controversial site," I say. "You give me your card; I'll check it out." Then he asks me to join him for coffee in the deli in the mill I am photographing, but I insist on catching the dawn and shoo him along.

Bad as the traffic patterns are here, the signage is great. Lawrence has well-designed icons on signs pointing the way to downtown, museums, and courts and other government buildings. I am delighted to see that the bright red icon for Essex Street is a clear evocation of a traditional Main Street, so everyone coming to town will know right away that Essex is the main street of Lawrence.

Next, they have to give people a reason to linger here, and make it two-way.

I was sent to Lynn by an older Vermont friend. When I told her what I was doing she said right off, "Go to my hometown. It has wonderful buildings, but it's very sad. The residential neighborhood by the beach is lovely, but downtown has really deteriorated."

I don't know what real estate prices are in downtown Lynn, but if I worked in Boston I would jump on it. From Lynn it's only 10 miles across the water to Fenway Park and every other good urban thing, but clearly some cheap places can be had if you are willing to be part of the first wave of gentrification. The commuter train stops at a flamingo pink stucco train platform in Central Square, where there's a distinctive flatiron building and a few restored round-cornered blocks.

In the morning I set up the tripod in the median triangle near the train station and shoot for more than three hours as the overcast sky slowly brightens. Finally I go into the deli where the early birds have been watching me; I order an egg and cheese croissant and coffee. The owner points to an empty seat opposite a man reading a newspaper. "Sit with Tom," he commands. "He knows all about Lynn." Tom is wearing a Bush/Cheney hat and does not want to discuss the Red Sox with me. But he's happy to talk about Lynn's heyday, when it was a shoe manufacturing town, before the business went overseas or to other American towns. "Go down that street to the end," he says, "and look back up this way, and you'll see that the 'Vamp Building' is shaped like a shoe."

Then I remember that in the 1911 Georgian-style inn where I stayed last night, out by the Lynn beach, there was a miniature ceramic shoe collection on display, and the bedrooms had names like "Vamp Room" and "Pump Room." When I checked in, the innkeeper said to me, "Oh, the downtown is awfully rundown. I hate to say it, but if only we could get rid of the poor people." I said, "You mean, make them richer." I don't know whether she heard, or agreed.

I don't want to seem holier-than-thou about it. Last night, I was afraid to set up my expensive equipment in Central Square. There were too many "poor people" around. At least for that moment, I wanted to get rid of them too.