“We’re looking for new ways, creative ways to get people to come downtown, to get people to come together,” Vilma Martinez-Dominguez, Community Development Director for the City of Lawrence, told a crowd gathered at Lawrence’s Pemberton Park on the evening of June 5.
The 150 or so people had gathered for the “soft launch” of Iluminación Lawrence, a public and private partnership that will light up several structures around the city with colorful LEDs and projections. It aims to celebrate the city, mark the economic growth of the community and spark more.
At dusk that evening, after speeches by community leaders and drumming by the Lawrence High School Blueline (they concluded with drumsticks that lit up with color), people made their way to the edge of the Merrimack River to see the debut of the lights on the Casey Bridge and, downstream, the face of the Ayer Mill Clock Tower. The five piers of the bridge lit up, orange and purple and pink and blue and green, reflecting in the water flowing underneath.
“This will be the light,” Evan Silverio, chair of the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority, told the crowd, “that will keep our momentum going.”
In May 2017, the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority released “LawrenceTBD: An Urban Renewal Plan for a New Century.” The recommendations had been developed with more than 400 people at more than 40 meetings beginning in fall 2015.
Urban renewal is often associated with mid-20th century razing of city neighborhoods to replace them with highways and new development. “For us it wasn’t about tearing down buildings. It was about building the community and using our resources,” says Abel Vargas, the city’s economic development director from 2014 to August 2018 and now executive director of the workforce development agency MassHire for the Merrimack Valley. Lawrence wanted to be “making strategic changes that will spur economic activity, but that don’t necessarily disrupt or displace people.”
“We came up with a bunch of crazy things we wanted to do,” Vargas recalls. Proposals were whittled down over the planning meetings. Among the ideas was to create a Chapter 40R zoning overlay district to allow more dense housing in downtown, which the city approved earlier this year. Another idea was to paint and clean the façade of the city-owned Buckley parking garage and bus depot on Common Street. In summer 2018, Alex Brien led a team of artists who painted a mural of a young girl (modeled on his daughter) blowing bubbles that float across the whole front of the building. And then there was the idea to light up the Casey Bridge.
“When you’re in a community like Lawrence, a lot of the time we don’t think about these extra things that fill us with pride,” Vargas says. With budgets tight, the city concentrates on just keeping roads in decent shape and other necessities. “Any time we want to do something that goes above and beyond, we have so many things, why would you focus on a pet project?”
Or as Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera told the June 5 crowd, “I want to do the meat and potatoes stuff. They started talking about lighting the bridge, and I’m like, ‘That’s nice, but Lawrence, we’ve got to do the basic stuff.’”
“It’s a lot about renewal. Lawrence is always at the brunt of something bad … in the eyes of the media and people outside,” says Jess Martinez, a transformative development fellow from the state finance and development agency MassDevelopment, who has been working with Lawrence at the city’s request since September 2018. “But a lot of beautiful things happen here. Lawrence is changing. The community is at the forefront of that conversation. … It’s about making the city a better place.”
The bridge lighting project was seen as a way to beautify the community as well as increase public health and safety. “When you improve places that have the perception of danger or crime, people walk more,” Martinez says.
The lighting project is also a way to prompt people outside Lawrence to reconsider the city. “They have viewed Lawrence in a negative light for a long time. I think that is changing,” Silverio says. “I think a lot of these things were overshadowed by people’s perception.” In the 1980s and ‘90s, the city struggled with “a lot of vacancies, a lot of fires, things that come with poverty. But I think that has now turned into something beautiful.”
In the last six years or so, Vargas says, Lawrence has seen $450 million in private investment, 1,800 new units of housing permitted or created, and 1.5 million square-feet of real estate restored or rehabbed. Occupancy at the Lawrence Industrial Park has grown, he says. Lawrence added around 6,000 jobs over the past decade, mostly in healthcare, Vargas says, and “crime is down significantly.”
“We had really pushed for the bridge and clock to be lit. We saw it as the tangible thing that people could see in the city and not deny things are changing,” Silverio says. “All the beautiful mill buildings that are being rehabbed, it’s all on the interior. … They can’t really see the change, but once you put lighting up that’s a different thing. Once you put lighting up that attracts the eye.”
The Lawrence Redevelopment Authority took on the project to light the Casey Bridge. Vargas called up John Powell of Light Time In Space in Boston, who has done public lighting projects for some three decades, including Boston’s Moakley Bridge and Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They met on a rainy morning and walked the Casey Bridge to consider possibilities for its reinforced concrete structure.
“I thought I could have fabricated hangers that would put the lights just over the edge of the bridge and shine right down to the water,” Powell says. They have installed six fixtures on each of the bridge’s five piers that, he says, can produce 278,000 different colors. “It’s red, green and blue and you can change the intensity and shade of red, green and blue because they’re LEDs.”
As the bridge lighting plans were being developed, Vargas met with Karen Ristuben, program director for the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative, to discuss producing arts projects to foster economic development. “When I said that, her eyes lit up,” Vargas recalls. She told him, “We’re lighting up the clock tower.”
The clock lighting is funded by the Creative County Initiative, with support from Boston’s Barr Foundation. It’s one of a dozen cultural projects that aim to mobilize North Shore artists, arts organizations and community and business leaders to enhance life in Essex County.
The 267-foot-tall Ayer Mill Clock Tower on South Union Street is said to be the largest four-face clock tower in the world after London’s Big Ben. New Balance owns the building and the exterior façade of the tower itself, but the Essex County Community Foundation is “the permanent custodian” of the Ayer Mill Clock tower—the clock works, the four translucent glass clock faces and the bell.
Powell has been installing six light fixtures on each clock face, mounted on an aluminum rim on the clock’s drive shaft. “It’s a lot of stairs and everything has to be carried up the stairs. There’s no other way,” Powell says. “The idea is to have the color follow the hands.” There are plans to later add equipment to project still and animated images onto the building’s exterior.
The new clock tower lighting is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption, lower maintenance costs, provide better clock face illumination, and extended bulb life. Also, Ristuben told the June 5 crowd, the new lighting aims “to make the clock a dazzling beacon of Lawrence’s renaissance as a gateway city.”
Along with lighting Casey Bridge and the Ayer Mill Clock Tower, Iluminación Lawrence has plans to install equipment to project signs, photos and videos on the south wall of the Everett Mills in Warehouse Square. They’ve also got plans for color-changing LED lights and to project community artwork onto the column entrances of the Lawrence Public Library. Inspired by the lighting projects in the works, Pacific Mills on Canal Street may light up a smokestack.
“This can be something bigger than just one individual project. We saw it as an opportunity to really leverage the whole thing,” Vargas says. Martinez has been able to “make it something that has legs, something we can program more broadly,” for community engagement as well as promotion, “making it something more substantive that the community can get behind.”
“We want to see it get away from downtown. We want to see it in North Lawrence. We want to see it at South Lawrence. We want to see it at the high school, at the stadium,” Powell says. “It’s not just the bridge. It’s not just the clock tower. It’s a celebration that goes out all over the city.”
The lighting of the Casey Bridge and Ayer Mill Clock Tower is programmable and can be coordinated. “What do we want to celebrate as a community? What colors make sense to us?” Martinez-Dominguez asked the June 5 crowd. Discussions mention red and blue for Dominican Independence Day and green for St. Patrick’s Day. The lights could highlight the city’s Semana Hispanic Week, the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival, the Italian Feast of the Three Saints.
“I hope it’s seen as a resource to celebrate the things we always celebrate,” Vargas says, “and gives young people a sense that our community does cool stuff too.”
“These things aren’t very easy. It’s very easy to look at them and enjoy,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera told the June 5 crowd. “But they’re very difficult to do.”
He continued, “We’re going to do something they don’t expect us to do. … We innovate.”
Greg Cook is a Boston-based arts writer covering the public art projects funded by Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative. Photo by Creative Collective.