A canal runs through it

/ Saturday, February 25, 2012 /

In 1807, the local industrialist visionary, Samuel Blodget, announced, "For as the country increases in population, we must have manufactories, and here at my canal will be a manufacturing town, the Manchester of America!"

Whether you're biking through the Millyard or grabbing a drink at Milly's Tavern, imagine for a second that Commercial street was filled with the dark, churning flows of the Merrimack River. Rafts and small boats polling their way through the street carrying mill workers and business men. Barges transporting goods between Lowell and Concord plodding along the watery steps of an old lock system. Maybe even a small canoe being paddled by the young naturalist, Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John Thoreau. At the top of the Millyard, just beyond the parking lots of PSNH's Energy Park, sit the truncated remains of two small canals that once flowed through the arteries of Victorian Manchester's industrial, beating heart.

The remains of the Amoskeag Canals.
The remnants of the Upper Canal in PSNH's Energy Park.
Between Chelmsford, MA and Concord, NH the Merrimack River descends 135 feet, the largest drop being the Amoskeag Falls (where the Amoskeag dam currently sits) descending 54 feet in half a mile, making movement up the river via boat near impossible. After gaining the state legislature's approval and leveraging funds from several New Hampshire and Massachusetts state lotteries, Samuel Blodget broke ground on the first of these canals in 1798, that took a decade to complete. The Blodget Canal flowed through what is presently the center of Commercial Street in the Millyard and served to carry boats and barges passed the Amoskeag falls through a series of locks, each lock 11' x 100'. Blodget, in lockstep with the local governments and businessmen, intended to open up trade along the Merrimack River from Lowell, MA, to Concord, NH.

The granite-lined canal sat naked against the small village of what was then Derryfield with a population of 600+. It wouldn't be until 1815 that the town would change its name to Manchester and the first mills would begin to setup shop along the riverfront. The Blodget Canal was also renamed the "Amoskeag Canal" during this time. The mills utilized the river's torrents to power the textile manufacturing machinery, but it wouldn't be until the late 1830s, when the Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation bought land and water rights along the river and canal, that Manchester would become the textile production powerhouse that we came to know it as in local history.

Taken from the Central Street Canal Bridge which crosses the Lower Canal. (1969)

In 1839, Henry David Thoreau paddled up and down the Merrimack River with his brother, John Thoreau, over the course of a fortnight. His recorded and collected thoughts on the trip were published in the book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (despite the title, Thoreau spent two weeks on the river) first published in 1849. Coming upon Manchester and its canals Thoreau said:

Just above the mouth of this river we passed the artificial falls where the canals of the Manchester Manufacturing Company discharge themselves into the Merrimack. They are striking enough to have a name, and, with the scenery of a Bashpish, would be visited from far and near. The water falls thirty or forty feet over seven or eight steep and narrow terraces of stone, probably to break its force, and is converted into one mass of foam. This canal-water did not seem to be the worse for the wear, but foamed and fumed as purely, and boomed as savagely and impressively, as a mountain torrent, and, though it came from under a factory, we saw a rainbow here. These are now the Amoskeag Falls, removed a mile down-stream. But we did not tarry to examine them minutely, making haste to get past the village here collected, and out of hearing of the hammer which was laying the foundation of another Lowell on the banks.
Even in the 1800s, people we're trying to escape the encroaching commercialism and industrialization of society.

In 1836, the Amoskeag Dam was built and in 1838, coinciding with the sudden rise of the Amoskeag Corporation, a second canal was built a block east of the Amoskeag Canal and followed what is now the current railroad bed through the Millyard. The canals would be named the Upper Canal and Lower Canal, respectively. The Upper Canal ran from the top of Millyard, beside the dam, down to Pleasant Street where it turned West and rejoined the Lower Canal. The Lower Canal also started at the top of the Millyard, flowed through center of present-day Commercial Street for a mile and a half and eventually terminated right in front of Fisher Cat stadium. The boat launch beside the stadium, known as Stark Landing, is most likely the exact point of the canal's exit and the result of the canal's eventual fill-in.

A map of the Lower and Upper Canals. Click here for the hi-res version.

When Blodget visualized the Manchester of America, it's doubtful that he foresaw the industrial complex the city would become. In the span of a decade, the population jumped from under 1000 to over 10,000 and the mills eventually extended the entire length of the Amoskeag Canal. One might conclude that the canals are almost as much of a cornerstone to the city's development as the river itself. Without them, the city may have never attracted the business necessary to propagate the city's future.

The canals powered the mills until the 1880s when electricity and steam power gained purchase in the industry. Eventually losing all function, other than an aesthetic, the canals sat vacant and unused for almost a century. With the decline of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation in the 1930s and a plethora of new businesses occupying the old mill buildings, the canals were eventually filled in during the 1970s as part of a large public works project aimed at revitalizing the Millyard. The Lower Canal was filled in and glazed over with the new pavement of Commercial Street. The railroad tracks running beside a narrower iteration of Canal Street were moved over the top of the former Upper Canal, and Canal Street was widened into the downtown bypass it has become. Several of the smaller accessory buildings were demolished in this project as well, leaving only the larger mills.

Once again, the route of an antiquated form of transportation has been renewed for a current one, in this case, canals for boats and power being replaced by roads for automobiles and track for trains. But in some ways, the canals may as well still be there. Over recent years, Manchester has been in a constant struggle to draw more people from Elm Street and into its prized historic district, expanding the physical idea of "downtown". Using myself as an example, when I'm walking around downtown, I feel little incentive to turn foot and head down the slope into the Millyard. Some might say, "that's because there is nothing there worth walking to in the Millyard," but in my case, and I assume a lot of people's cases, that's not it. One of my favorite bars resides in the Millyard, as do several good restaurants and the climbing gym that I patronize at least twice a week. It's almost subconscious, but what it comes down to is that it's a hassle. The wonderful Livable MHT blog painted it perfectly saying, "...pedestrians must pass through the automobile-oriented wasteland of Canal and Bedford Streets and what feels like the backside of the Millyard." It's almost as if the spaces were converted just short of what the city actually wanted accomplish with them. The canals' prior presence still perpetuate an unconscious barrier to the walkability of the Millyard. The Livable MHT blog has covered this topic with far more clarity than I could hope to accomplish. Make sure to check it out.

The Upper Canal in the process of being filled in. Canal Street can be seen to the left of the railroad tracks.
What Manchester spaces and structures, that seem necessary now, will be obsolete in the future and how will we convert them? Perhaps in a new energy scenario, the hydro-electric dam will be reconverted back into the Amoskeag falls with fancy restaurants utilizing the old dam buildings overlooking a white water rush, the rapids illuminated from underneath giving the falls a different hue every night of the week.

Lower Canal, Looking North From South Lower Canal Building Central Division. (1969)

Spontaneous Intervention

/ Sunday, February 12, 2012 /
A group of urban activists paint an unauthorized "wikilane" cycle path in the middle of Mexico City. From CNN.

"Spontanious interventions: design for the common good" is the theme of the International Venice Architecture Biennale this fall. Their website describes it perfectly:

"In recent years, there has been a nascent movement of designers acting on their own initiative to solve problematic urban situations, creating new opportunities and amenities for the public. Provisional, improvisational, guerrilla, unsolicited, tactical, temporary, informal, DIY, unplanned, participatory, open-source—these are just a few of the words that have been used to describe this growing body of work."

It's direct action flying under the radar of proper channels. From urban farms and crowd-sourced maps to more extreme projects like guerilla bike lanes and grafting fruit tree branches to non-fruiting trees, the exhibition promises to be intriguing and surprising at the very least. But what I like most about the theme of "spontaneous intervention" is that it is focused on urbanism and making cities more sustainable and better places to live, as opposed to the gaudy, unrealistic and abstract architecture that has been the paradigm in years past. There is a real communal element to these projects that proliferate the idea that a city is more than just a large population of people living in a close proximity to one another; that residents want to love, change and take ownership of their neighborhoods, instead of filing their grievances with the local government and hoping solutions arise.

Does Manchester need spontaneous intervention? I could think of a few places to drop an unsolicited bike rack or go for a geocentric, augmented reality game (City of ManchQuest?) that forces people to explore the Queen City in tandem with online gaming. While I can't say painting an unsanctioned bike lane down the side Elm Street is a wise idea, the answer to the question should always be an emphatic "Yes".

Reading through some of these spontaneous interventions, I was reminded of a quote by a local author and high school teacher, Rob Greene. In response to the question on My Good Good Manchester, "What would make Manchester even better?" he said:

A common vision: Is it more important to have a thriving downtown or create a haven for box stores? Data-driven decision making. A focus on education at all levels. An Ethiopian restaurant. Manchester is one of those places that you never need to leave. If you want it or need it, you can generally find it here. With some effort we could be a place that creates generation after generation of smart, self-actualized people who stay here to do smart, self-actualized things.

A constant point of discussion in Manchester's improvement is drawing more businesses and consumers into the area, and the stereotypical solution is "we need to revitalize downtown." That is a very broad, vague and uninspiring solution; luring more people to the city with the promise of better consumerism. While it is important, I don't see many people moving just for the shopping and restaurants. It's the unspoken, intertwining undercurrents of creativity, intelligence and bustle that give a city its liveliness. That feeling when one stops in the middle of sidewalk on a busy morning and can sense important and interesting things going on around them. Smart people doing smart things.

Posters from the Inside Out campaign hanging in a store front. Via My Good Good Manchester.

I've often held the ideal that cities are not unlike people; they need to be smart and attractive. Have an air of confidence that says they don't need anybody but themselves to feel good about life. Nothing is more repellant than desperation, and building a stadium or latching onto the gravitas of a larger, more attractive nearby town has that stink to it. Manchester shouldn't want to be Boston's fat, best friend. The city and its people should want to do innovative, creative, necessary, unnecessary, whimsical and down-right thoughtful projects for itself. Spontaneous intervention can be the first small steps to a better Manchester.

Needless to say, I'll be keeping a close eye on the International Venice Architecture Biennale this year.


/ Saturday, February 4, 2012 /

Driving down Bridge Street or jogging along its sidewalk near Trinity High School, you may have noticed something doesn't look right when you pass by the Derryfield Park. It's not a bad looking park; nice, grassy field, new playground and even a gazebo, but something is amiss. Maybe it's because it looks like there should be a bus stop every 50 feet along the sidewalk. 

The benches that line the park's outer edge, along Bridge Street, all face one the city's most heavily trafficked corridors instead of the nice park behind them. It's a weird decision in urban planning and the only conclusions I drew from it were that either the original parks planner thought the benches might be better utilized in winter if they faced south, melting the inevitable snow build-up, or that the homeless would be more conspicuous sleeping on them.

Curious, I sent out an email to Manchester's Parks Planner, Jessica Fleming. She kindly responded with a call and explained that she had asked the same question a few years ago when she took the job. When she asked around, the answer she received was that the benches were rest areas for walkers and joggers heading up the steep hill that the park sits on. But no one knew for sure, as any person could take the extra step to sit on a park facing bench, or the city could have settled on backless benches giving joggers and park goers the option to sit either way. 

There were no definitive conclusions, as the benches have been there for many years now, but Fleming mentioned that if the benches were to be replaced, they would probably face the park or be backless instead.

The slanted benches of Livingston Park.
Along with my inquiry into the Derryfield Park benches, I asked about the benches in Livingston Park that are slanted towards the ground. Once again, I thought it was a deterrent to keep people from sleeping on them, similar to the rash of anti-homeless benches springing up in Tokyo. Fleming explained that was not the case at all, and that they are sloped downwards from overuse. "It's one of our most trafficked parks and they're the wrong benches for the application," she said.
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