Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Neighborhoods of Lowell

My article for the June 2019 edition of the Merrimack Valley Housing Review described the history and boundaries of the various neighborhoods that make up the city of Lowell. The MVHR is a joint publication of UMass Lowell and the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, delivered electronically for free each month. To subscribe, email David Turcotte at UMass Lowell.

The Neighborhoods of Lowell

As the geographic center of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds District and the fourth largest city in Massachusetts, Lowell is frequently the subject of articles written in this space. To better understand Lowell real estate news, it is helpful to know the city’s geography, particularly the identity and location of its neighborhoods.

Although the first English settlers arrived in this area in 1655, Lowell was not incorporated as a town until 1826. The region’s rivers – the Concord and the Merrimack - brought those settlers here and are central to understanding the city’s geography today.

The Merrimack River originates in the White Mountains and flows south until it crosses the Massachusetts border where it turns east and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The Merrimack bisects Lowell from west to east. The Concord River originates in the marshes at Concord, Massachusetts, and then flows north until it joins the Merrimack. Within Lowell’s boundaries, the two rivers form the letter “T” and help form some neighborhood boundaries.

At its founding, Lowell was much smaller geographically than it is today. Through the nineteen and early twentieth centuries, the state legislature annexed portions of Chelmsford, Dracut and Tewksbury to Lowell. By 1907, the city reached its current 14.5 square mile size.

To understand the layout of Lowell’s neighborhoods, it is helpful to think of the city as the face of a clock. At the center is downtown which initially contained only the textile mills and company-owned housing for those who worked in the mills. However, many retail, commercial, financial and religious buildings were soon added. In the 1980s, as businesses left the city core, the upper floors of many downtown buildings were converted to housing units making downtown a residential neighborhood as well as the city’s central business district.

The entrepreneurs who conceived the great textile mills were immediately joined by Irish immigrants who did the back-breaking work of digging the canals and building the mills. The mill owners granted these immigrants an acre of land just to the west of downtown to use for housing. This neighborhood became known as The Acre. It has always been the entre point for Lowell’s newest residents and it lies at the 9 o’clock position on our imaginary clock.

To the south of downtown at the 6 o’clock position is a cluster of neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods that formed another part of Lowell’s initial land grant. Known variously as Chapel Hill, Back Central, Sacred Heart, the Flats, the Bleachery, the Grove, Swede Village, Wigginville and South Lowell, this cluster is bordered to the east by the Concord River, the west by River Meadow Brook (and the Lowell Connector) and to the south by the Billerica line. Although it is now largely residential, there was once considerable heavy industry along the banks of the Concord River, some of it pre-dating the founding of Lowell.

Across the Merrimack and to the north of downtown at the 12 o’clock position lies Centralville which was annexed from Dracut in 1851 (with a small addition in 1874). The proximity of this neighborhood – initially called Central Village – to the mills on the south bank of the Merrimack made this an attractive place for worker housing once the bridge across the Merrimack was constructed on Bridge Street.

Also north of the Merrimack is Pawtucketville. It lies to the west of Centralville and at the 10 o’clock position from downtown. Pawtucketville, annexed from Dracut in 1874, was mostly farm and woodland although it now is predominantly single family housing.

To the west of downtown and the Acre, at the 8 o’clock position on our clock, is the Highlands, another of the city’s larger residential neighborhoods. Initially part of Chelmsford, much of what is now known as the “Lower Highlands” was part of the original 1826 Lowell grant. (Draw a line form UMass Lowell South Campus to Cross Point to get an idea of the original boundary). The rest of the Highlands including Middlesex Village was annexed from Chelmsford in 1874.

Finally, the Belvidere neighborhood lies east of downtown at the 3 o’clock position. Bounded by the Merrimack River to the north, the Concord River to the west, Billerica to the south and Tewksbury to the east, Belvidere joined Lowell in a succession of annexations in 1834, 1874, 1888 and 1906.

From its founding until the 1960s, most everyone in Lowell may have worked in downtown, but residence, retail, recreation and worship all took place within the same neighborhood making the city a series of independent villages. The infrastructure and patterns of these separate places remain in Lowell’s neighborhoods today. Analyzing contemporary real estate information is more valuable when viewed through this historical lens. 

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