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The Rebirth of a Neighborhood: Sister Lillian LaMoureux

Sister Lillian LaMoureux has lived and worked almost all of her 84 years in the Moody and Merrimack street areas of the Acre. Over the decades, she has witnessed her beloved neighborhood decline into ruin and then proudly rise again.

On every block, at every intersection, Sister Lillian LaMoureux has a story to tell of her beloved Acre neighborhood. Born 84 years ago in 1925, she and her five brothers and sisters were raised in a small house on Moody Street – a lot that is now the site of a new city playground being developed by Coalition for a Better Acre and the City of Lowell.

Walking by the playground, she points to the third floor of the stately brick building at 517 Moody St. “Up there, up in the corner, that was my room.” Now the offices of Coalition for a Better Acre, the building was for decades the St. Joseph’s convent where Sister Lillian lived with her fellow Grey Nuns.

“And over there, that’s where I taught.” She points to the lovely brick structure next door housing the newly refurbished St. Joseph’s Apartments – what was St. Joseph’s Elementary School for more than 100 years. “And over there, too.” She gestures toward 760 Merrimack St., the former St. Joseph’s High School, vacant since 1993, but soon to house 22 affordable housing units.

“This whole complex—the convent, elementary school, high school, church—was my life,” she says. “It absolutely broke my heart to see all these beautiful buildings closed up and deteriorating in front of our eyes. And how wonderful it is now to see them all come back to life again.”

In the past few years, the CBA has literally transformed this section of the Acre, starting with the Moody Street corridor. CBA completed the convent renovation for its offices in 2002. In 2006 and 2007, CBA invested $14 million in property improvements to the 267-unit North Canal Apartments, including new kitchens and baths, flooring, high-efficiency heating systems, and landscaping and paving. The St. Joseph’s apartments – an adaptive reuse of the historic school building – welcomed tenants in 2008. In May 2009 CBA purchased the severely distressed multi-family properties at 474-486 Moody St. and replaced them in 2011 with 23 new housing units. Across the street, the city worked with CBA to invest local CDBG funds to redevelop the playground.

Over on Merrimack Street, the former St. Joseph’s High School, where Acre youth were educated for more than 100 years, has a new lease on life. Empty and in disuse since the high school closed its doors, the historically significant building was adapted to create 22 affordable rental units. “The Grey Nuns would be very, very pleased at what’s being done to this building now,” says Sister Lillian, now a member of the Sisters for Christian Community.

“The Grey Nuns were founded to take care of the poor, and it is so appropriate that this building will continue to serve those who need it most.”

Sister Lillian’s heart is full as she sees her beloved neighborhood being brought back alive, restored rather than destroyed, honoring and preserving its history.

A savvy businesswoman as well as a nun – she obtained her law degree at 66 – Sister Lillian has monitored CBA closely over the years and has identified their solid recipe for success: “They know how to get the funding, they’re close with the residents so they understand their needs, and they are committed to the neighborhood. That’s how you transform a neighborhood.”



"The Acre's Back and So Am I": Rebirth of a Neighborhood

When Jose Morales was growing up, Moody Street was in sharp decline, with vacant buildings falling into disrepair and families moving out. As a result of CBA’s dramatic makeover of the Moody Street corridor over the past 10 years, Jose and his wife Eliana are choosing to raise their young sons in this revitalized neighborhood, living in the renovated St. Joseph’s Elementary School where Jose was once a student.

Jose Morales, 27, a former teacher who is a new recruit for the Lowell Fire Department, has lived his entire life in the Acre neighborhood. He is filled with both pride and amazement when he looks around the Moody Street neighborhood he now calls home with wife Eliana and sons Phoenix and Griffin.

“This is not the same Moody Street that I grew up with,” he says. “It looks beautiful now, with all the new buildings, the landscaping, the playground. It’s a whole new neighborhood. The Acre's back and so am I.”

The adaptive reuse of the former St. Joseph’s Elementary School is one of the showpieces of a comprehensive redevelopment of the Upper Merrimack neighborhood that CBA has undertaken over the past decade in partnership with private and public funders.

“This transformation of the Moody Street corridor over the past two decades is literally rebuilding and giving new life to a neighborhood that had been crumbling and deteriorating around us,” says CBA Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum. “CBA has successfully leveraged over $80 million in investment since 2002, making the neighborhood attractive, safe and desirable as we created hundreds of good-paying construction jobs for the area.”

The revitalization of neighborhoods through property development is supported by many other citywide CBA initiatives – from crime prevention initiatives such as “Lights On, Crime Off” to resident empowerment initiatives such as NeighborCircles – to stabilize neighborhoods.

Residents have compared CBA’s success in the Moody Street corridor to the popular “Extreme Makeover” television show, but on a larger scale, transforming not just a single house, but an entire neighborhood. In 2002, CBA completed renovation of the former St. Joseph’s convent at 517 Moody St. for CBA offi ces. In 2006 and 2007, CBA invested $14 million in property improvements to the 267-unit North Canal Apartments, including new kitchens and baths, fl ooring, high-effi ciency heating systems, and landscaping and paving.

The renovation of St. Joseph’s Apartments was completed in 2008, transforming former classrooms into 15 stunning new apartments. CBA invested local Community Development Block Grant funds to develop a spacious playground, including a basketball court, on the property next door to the apartments.

The Morales family was one of the fi rst to move into the newly renovated building. Eliana Morales adores their apartment, with its graceful high ceilings, brilliant natural light, and gleaming fl oors. She loves living less than fi ve minutes from her work as office manager at St. Patrick’s Church.

"It is a good place to raise a family. We love living in this neighborhood,” she says.

Over on Merrimack Street, CBA gave the former St. Joseph’s High School a new lease on life, transforming the historic building into beautiful, affordable housing for 22 families. The Acre High School Apartments opened in December 2010, offering on-site parking, all utilities included in rent, central air conditioning, an elevator, community room, and on-site laundry facilities.

Construction was completed in December 2011 on the new Unity Place Apartments at 482 Moody St.. The exciting new development replaced two of the city’s most notorious blighted buildings with 23 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units of smart, green affordable housing.

CBA’s long-term investment in the neighborhood is generating further improvements by developers who can now count on a return on their investment. On one side of Unity Place, a developer renovated the troubled 12-unit property into a beautiful private dormitory for University of Massachusetts Lowell students, while on the other side another local developer completed renovations to the shuttered Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church and rectory.

CBA has worked collaboratively with neighborhood and government interests in the successful revitalization of the Moody Street Corridor, earning the respect and praise of city and state officials. “All we have to do is look around to see the success of CBA: quality affordable housing, a playground, and residents and business owners proud and excited by the transformation of their neighborhood,” says Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch. “CBA’s long-term investment is providing smart, sustainable, affordable housing for the residents of Lowell while protecting the public-private investments of the neighborhood."


Learning Zone Homework Club

In many of Lowell’s immigrant families, parents struggle to help their children with their homework because of the language barrier. The “Learning Zone Homework Club”, a partnership between Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Housing Authority, is helping families overcome these barriers.

Since moving to Lowell from the Dominican Republic seven years ago, Ana Munoz has worked very hard to provide her daughter Leishanny with a good home, a loving and supportive environment, and a quality education. But there is one thing Ana cannot provide: help with her 11-year-old daughter’s homework.

“We didn’t know any English when we came here. Children learn the language so must faster than adults, so now she is so far ahead of me, especially in reading and writing it,” Ana says. “I tried, but I couldn’t help her with her homework. She got very frustrated and so did I.”

Ana was thrilled to learn about the “Learning Zone” Homework Club, a partnership between Coalition for a Better Acre and the Lowell Housing Authority at 606 Market St. in the North Common Village. Every day after school, from 3 to 6 p.m., the Club provides one-on-one assistance for children in the second through eighth grade, helping them with homework completion, organizational and study skills, as well as character and leadership.  The program served about 42 students.

The idea for the program came from CBA resident leaders, who identified language barriers as an issue for students they were working with in Lowell public schools. These leaders, like the students they work with, speak English as second language. They wanted to find a way to help other families overcome barriers they themselves had faced.

“This is so wonderful that she can come here and get the help with her homework that I can’t give her,” Ana says. “It’s such a help and a relief to know that she won’t fall behind because of me.”

Parents experiencing cultural and linguistic barriers are often unable to help their children with homework assignments and are less capable of advocating for their children in school. The goal of the Homework Club is to help students overcome those barriers that could prevent them from reaching their potential.

 “These parents are really behind their kids, supporting them and wanting to give them every opportunity to succeed in school,” according to Pete Hantzis, an LHA staff member who serves as director of the Homework Club, along with CBA staff member Zach Allen. “What we’re doing here is breaking down the barriers for the students who, for whatever reason, can’t get the help at home.”

Jean Franco, Superintendent of Lowell Public Schools, praises the CBA’s investment in the future of Lowell’s children.

“The Homework Club is a wonderful resource for students working to overcome the barriers they may face in school - particularly our immigrant students for whom English is a second language,” she says. “It is very valuable when community organizations support the school system in breaking down these barriers and ensuring all students a quality education.” 

After completing their homework, the students have the opportunity to work on computers – many of the kids don’t have access to them at home – or enjoy some down time playing video games. A retired piano teacher volunteers his time to teach lessons to the students on a piano his family donated. The students also take occasional field trips and have had lessons on personal finance, dental hygiene, and recycling.

Since the program’s inception in spring 2009, there has been measurable improvement in the students’ grades and homework completion rate. But Pete and Zach measure their success more in the students’ progress in thinking and approaching problem solving.