When I first met Charlie Gargiulo, we were both in our late 20s. He was a community activist working in the neighborhoods of Lowell, and I was a budding reporter writing about the contentious redevelopment of that depressed mill town, several sites of which had recently been designated a National Historical Park.
We were touring Lowell with one of the park rangers when she pointed to an aging triple-decker nearby, describing it as a fine example of “an immigrant tenement house.” Gargiulo let out a laugh. “That was my house,” he said.
The irony was rich. When he was 13, Gargiulo’s immigrant family was evicted — along with thousands of others — from Lowell’s Little Canada, as their neighborhood was razed in the 1960s rush for urban renewal. He had lived briefly in the “tenement house” featured on the tour before being relocated to public housing. And here, just a decade or so later, part of his life had become a literal museum piece; a curiosity for tourists.
Gargiulo has written a memoir, “Legends of Little Canada,” which recounts the life and death of that densely packed community, full of indelible characters and places like the Club Passe-Temps and the hulking St. Jean Baptiste Church. The beat author Jack Kerouac, also a denizen of Little Canada, was an altar boy there; he called it “the ponderous chartreuse cathedral of the slums.” Gargiulo’s poignant book — the 2023 selection for the citywide Lowell Reads program — recounts the slow hollowing out of the neighborhood, the fires, the rumors, the mysterious relocation of families in the night.
The book is largely written in the voice of Gargiulo’s 13-year-old self: angry, frightened, and powerless to save his home, his friends, and his beloved Aunt Rose Perrault from the ravages of so-called progress. “Who was this ‘urban renewal?’ ” Gargiulo recalled thinking in a recent interview. “It made me even angrier; you can’t punch ‘urban renewal’ in the face.”
But this is also a story of Gargiulo’s political awakening, born of the trauma of losing his home to a faceless bureaucracy. Gargiulo turned his pain into organizing, cofounding the Coalition for a Better Acre in 1982. The Acre was a poor community abutting the former Little Canada, populated largely by migrants from Latin America. And it, too, was in the sights of developers, who saw gold in the atmospheric industrial canals and abandoned textile mills.
Gargiulo was determined that the Acre wouldn’t become another urban renewal tragedy. “We had to organize people to stand up and fight for their rights like we weren’t able to do in Little Canada,” he said. It was a way to vindicate the memory of his Aunt Rose, who was deeply damaged by being evicted from her home of 65 years.
The Coalition for a Better Acre focused on the North Canal Apartments, a 267-unit federal housing project that was facing “expiring use,” making it eligible for conversion to market-rate housing. “Suddenly it was the hottest property in Lowell,” Gargiulo said. For six years the coalition, structured as a community development corporation, worked with other housing advocates, local banks, and government agencies to stop the conversion and in 1989 turned management of the property to its low-income tenants, considered the first preservation of an expiring use property in the country.
In a video of the press conference announcing the rescue of the project, senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and then-secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp bask in the limelight of this signature achievement. And there is Gargiulo, in his 1980s-era glasses, remembering his Aunt Rose and the strength he took from her to persevere in the fight. “The least I could do was never forget,” he said.
Today what was Little Canada is dominated by the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus, which didn’t cause the neighborhood’s destruction but benefitted from it. Recently the university installed new historic markers to document the story of the neighborhood’s demise. UMass history professor Robert Forrant, who helped site the panels and leads student walking tours of the area, says institutions like the university or the National Historical Park had until recently ignored the darker aspects of the city’s immigrant past. “There’s a new approach to the way history is taught,” he said, broadening the lens and directly involving affected communities. A good example is a new National Park exhibit commemorating Lowell’s mosaic of cultures that opens Saturday.
These recognitions are welcome, but they lack the visceral power of Gargiulo’s memoir, which wrenches the experience of urban renewal right out of dispassionate academic debate. Let’s hope visitors to Lowell read up on that history, too.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.