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Discovering Kerouac

Lowell finds tributes to a native son are generating economic activity

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2010

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LOWELL — In 1979, 10 years after the death of the writer Jack Kerouac, the city of Lowell held its first public event recognizing its native son. Until then, Kerouac’s hometown had done little to honor a man many remembered more as a wayward boozer than a literary figure of historical significance.

The event’s success surprised even its most optimistic supporters.

“So many people showed up, the Fire Department had to seal the doors,’’ recalled Paul Marion, an organizer. “It was an early indication of the potential of Kerouac as a cultural asset.’’

At the time, Lowell was beginning to clear the rubble from the decades-long decline of its once-mighty textile industry. In more recent years, the downtown area has become a model of urban revitalization. Some say it has plenty to do with the legacy of the local boy who once cut classes to design his own course of study at the public library.

Lowell really began to explore its relationship with Kerouac in the late 1980s, when Marion and others spearheaded a drive to establish the Kerouac Commemorative, a contemplative sculpture park featuring the Beat writer’s words etched into stone. The year of the park’s dedication also featured the first Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival, arranged by a group of fans and civic boosters who first convened in 1985. The committee will mark its 25th anniversary tomorrow through Sunday with a series of events under the umbrella of the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival.

The city’s infatuation with its most famous resident (sorry, Bette Davis and Ed McMahon fans) escalated dramatically in 2007 with an exhibit of Kerouac’s “scroll,’’ the paper roll on which he typed the manuscript for the backpackers’ bible “On the Road.’’ Twenty-five thousand visitors came to view the scroll that summer.

“That sent a clear message that there was a huge audience ready to soak this stuff up,’’ said Jim Cook, executive director of Lowell Plan Inc., a nonprofit community development organization. “Why not take advantage of that?’’

In addition to promoting the renamed Kerouac festival, the city is also exploring ways to attract and identify more daily visitors year-round.

“There are people every day in Lowell on the Kerouac trail, but we have a hard time tracking them,’’ said Marion. “It’s very much a self-discovery experience.’’

To that end, Marion and a teaching colleague from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Michael Millner, have secured a $35,000 creative economy grant from the university to build a definitive Kerouac website and a stand-alone exhibit for the Lowell National Historical Park’s visitor center. Additionally, long-term plans are being laid for a Kerouac Center for Creativity.

The center would be “less a massive Kerouac museum than a multiuse venue that would capture his creative spirit,’’ providing studio and performance space for filmmakers, musicians, writers, dancers, and others, Marion said.

The editor of a collection of Kerouac’s early writing, Marion is also a Beatles fan who has twice been to the band’s hometown, Liverpool, England. That city’s efforts to promote commerce based on John, Paul, George, and Ringo provide a model for Lowell, he said.

The childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon are owned and operated by the National Trust. Liverpool hosts a “Magical Mystery Tour’’ by bus and an attraction called the Beatles Experience. And the city has developed tributes to its industrial and maritime history.

“They have parlayed the Beatles’ cultural power into redefining Liverpool as a major cultural center,’’ said Marion. The new creative economy has so transformed the place that two years ago Liverpool was named the European Union’s City of Culture.

Cook likes the Liverpool analogy, too. “It took them a long time to step up and acknowledge this could be a cultural mecca for them,’’ he said. “We’re probably at the crossroads of doing the same thing here.’’

Steve Edington, president of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, said the city is not close to maximizing the potential for Kerouac’s drawing power. Just as the literary festival is expanding its focus beyond Beat writing (this year’s guests include novelists Tom Perrotta, Russell Banks, and Alan Lightman), the city is learning to use Kerouac’s name to attract a wider range of visitors.

Edington, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Nashua, said he went through his Kerouac phase while still in theological school in the early 1970s. He now teaches a course in the literature of the Beat movement at UMass Lowell. Edington said his interest in the writer was rekindled when he moved to the area.

“We’ve kept the Kerouac flame alive and well here in Lowell,’’ he said.

That’s partly because of people like veteran restaurateur John Capriole. About a year ago, he opened Dharma Buns Sandwich Co., a sandwich shop and late-night gathering place on Market Street, naming it after Kerouac’s novel “The Dharma Bums.’’

Capriole has welcomed scores of visitors looking for Kerouac’s homes and historical sites. They come from all over — places such as California, France, and Argentina. Devotees often come in at night, he said, when “we’re one of the few places open.’’

“We definitely have a lot of people come in who know a lot more than I do about Kerouac,’’ said Capriole, who grew up in nearby Methuen and Lawrence. “I learn from them.’’

The walls of Dharma Buns feature portraits of Beat figures and related writers painted by the owner’s wife, Mary. In one corner they sell an array of Beat merchandise — T-shirts, posters, books by local authors. Fittingly, the restaurant will host some festival events this weekend.

On Monday, the day after the festival ends, the Caprioles will begin a vacation. Like the characters in Kerouac’s “On the Road,’’ they are driving to San Francisco.

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net. For more information about the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival, go to www.lowellcelebrateskerouac.org.