The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
Peter Hyunh came to Lowell for love. He stayed for ramen.
Hyunh’s girlfriend — now fiancée — grew up in the city, and when they first met almost a decade ago, he made the 45-minute pilgrimage from Boston to visit with her and her family. Hyunh was raised in Boston’s Chinatown, where his parents worked in restaurants, so he was surprised that Lowell’s downtown didn’t reflect the city’s sizable Asian population.
“Lowell always had a very diverse community up here,” Hyunh said. Nearly a quarter of its residents are Asian, and the city has the second largest Cambodian population in the country. But most of the retail that catered to the city’s Asian residents was centered in its neighborhood enclaves, not its downtown storefronts. And most of those storefronts were closed after 6 p.m.
But Hyunh saw an opportunity: The sea of Lowell High School students who flood into downtown daily after their classes end. Cater to them, he thought, and the rest will follow.
In 2015, he and his friend Charlie Mai opened 1981 Ramen Bar on Merrimack Street. It was a noodle shop with big ambitions. “It’s the ‘Field of Dreams’ story. If you build it, hopefully, they will come,” he joked. And they did. After attracting the high schoolers, he drew in college undergrads and young professionals finding their way to the city. “We wanted to bring what we had in Boston to Lowell,” he said.
1981 Ramen Bar survived the darkest days of the pandemic, and this past year, Hyunh opened his second business next door, a bubble tea franchise called Tea-Do. Today, he’s one of many Asian small business owners who are seeing downtown Lowell from a new perspective.
“The community has a huge Asian demographic, tons of foodies, and the rent is still cheaper than Boston,” he said. “People are beginning to see there’s opportunities up here.”
Peter Lam approached Merrimack Street with a similar mindset. The owner of the sneaker boutique AWOL has had a store in Allston since 2006, and he set up shop in downtown Lowell in 2014 with high school teens in mind. He said Lowell’s downtown had a reputation for being dodgy, but he’s watched it evolve. “Now it’s growing and more trendy. Kids are going out to eat, there’s more trendy shops,” he said. Several successful franchises that serve Asian cuisine in Boston, Cambridge, and Quincy have migrated north, he said, and more are on the way.
Part of the attraction is that he’s found it easy to set up a business in Lowell. “In Boston, if you were trying to get a permit, it would take you months,” Lam said, “but in Lowell they’re quicker to it because they want you to do good.”
As more Asian businesses have opened in Lowell, it’s helped lay the groundwork for other small businesses — many of which are immigrant owned — to follow suit.
Holida Huot, a 29-year-old Cambodian immigrant who came to the US in 2016, is the owner of Sweet Journey, a bubble tea shop downtown. She’s been in Lowell two years, and says it “gives her a feeling of home” to serve the city’s Cambodian population. She loves the fact that she’s able to run the small business on her own and serve Lowell’s diverse community.
That’s also why Emile Kamadeu decided to bring Cameroonian cuisine to Lowell when he opened the Sahel restaurant this past week.
“[We chose] Lowell because of the melting pot of the population and the diversity — and not only the diversity, but also the history,” Kamadeu told the Globe. “Lowell has a lot of immigrants, people from many countries. We thought it would be a good target for us to bring a diverse type of cuisine to that type of population.”
Laura and Greg Lamarre Anderson noticed the change happening downtown and wanted to be a part of it. Longtime Lowell residents, the couple opened Lala Bookstore on Market Street in July. “There’s a lot of great shops downtown, and absolutely they laid groundwork” for Lala’s arrival, Laura said. “Every successful business encourages someone else, all those early entrepreneurs made it possible for us all to keep going.”
And the city has put resources into supporting those businesses. Ani Vong, a program coordinator who helps run the Entrepreneurship Center at Community Teamwork, a small business assistance program in Lowell, is among those working to help. She says she’s heartened to see so many businesses open, particularly those run by second generation Asian Americans like herself.
She was born in a Cambodian refugee camp as her family escaped the Khmer Rouge, and Vong’s family settled in Lowell due to its sizable Cambodian community. But even growing up and attending high school downtown, she didn’t see herself reflected in the city. Her mother never ventured downtown. “We’d always go to Boston to seek out Korean barbecue or Japanese hot pot,” Vong said.
Eventually, Vong began working at Humanity, a downtown clothing boutique, and in 2014, she bought the business. “Overnight, I became a leader in the community,” she said. “I remember some of my interns saying they were so proud to see someone that looks like them” running a storefront in Lowell.
Vong ultimately made the decision to move her shop online in March 2020 and has been operating pop-ups throughout Lowell during the pandemic. She started working with Community Teamwork this year and is now watching the city’s transformation up close.
“All these Asian-centric businesses are popping up in downtown,” she said, “and for me as a lifelong Lowellian and an Asian woman and business owner, to see all of this make me feel seen and included as part of society.”
Read more about Lowell and explore the full On the Street series.