Mass. mayor, Cambodians find common ground in park

What worked in post-Apartheid South Africa also works in a small American city, proving good governance is universal

Charlene Smith By Charlene Smith

Patrick Murphy, mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts (Credit/City of Lowell)

LOWELL, Mass. — Patrick Murphy knocked on doors in his quest to get elected to the city council of Lowell — storied industrial town, backdrop for the recent movie “The Fighter,” birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution and a center of the Massachusetts Miracle. When Cambodians answered those doors, the complaints were all the same: What can you do about Clemente Park?

Clemente Park, not far from Lowell’s downtown, is a center for community life for the nearly 30,000 Cambodians in Lowell, its largest ethnic group.

“In the evenings 70 to 100 people go to the park. It is an important gathering place,” says Vesna Nuon, a city councilor in Lowell, who arrived in the United States from Cambodia in 1982. “Here men play chess, women sell egg rolls or teriyaki and young people play sports—it’s a lifestyle similar to Cambodia, where people escape apartments for green space and community life.”

Turn out the lights, the party’s over

But starting in 2006, Lowell’s police decided switching off the lights at 11 p.m. would reduce petty crime by getting kids to bed earlier. So the lights went off. No one knows if kids went to bed earlier, but criminals took advantage of the dark.

After he was elected, Murphy decided to fight for the Cambodians’ desire to socialize in the park at night, just as they were accustomed to in their home country. What happened next suggests a way forward for struggling American cities like Lowell, which face similar problems as cities in developing countries.

Lowell boasts the biggest Cambodian population in America. Another 17 percent of its residents are Hispanic, and  about half its population is white. In other words, it is tomorrow’s America.

Troubled waters

But there is trouble in tomorrow’s America. The FBI ranks Lowell the 18th most violent city in America. Though Lowell is the smallest of the cities on the top 25 list, 11 of the top 25 have between 100,000 and 200,000 residents.

There is also hope in tomorrow’s America, in part because of Murphy and the politics of parks.

After he was elected a city councilor in 2008, it took three months to get the council to approve the $137,000 needed for lights and upgrades to Clemente Park. To help the cash-strapped city save money, leaders of the Cambodian community agreed to help maintain the park.

That started a new relationship between the city and its largest immigrant group.

A sense of community

“It gave the community a sense of belonging,” says Vesna Nuon. “Before few voted because they did not feel they were part of anything. Now Asian Americans in Lowell are more active in civic affairs, and they’re voting.” Inspired, Nuon ran for office two years ago and became the first Cambodian on the city council.

All smiles now. Lowell Mayor Patrick Murphy with the Angkor Dance Troupe (City of Lowell)

Lowell’s city councilors elect a mayor from among themselves, so Murphy’s position as mayor is not the seat of power it is in some places. But he can still effect change.

“The mayor is not interested in the old boy network, and so they feel threatened by him,” says Nuon. ”But the majority of the council backs him.”

Park politics

Lowell is also revitalizing Hudson Park in the city’s Back Central area, riven with crime and frequented by immigrants, old and new, from Portugal, Brazil and Asia. Dave Koch, whose parents were German Jews, lives in the house he was born in 51 years ago, along with his Portuguese wife and eight children. “About 20 years ago,” Koch says, “I tried to motivate the city leaders to develop community gardens and inner city orchards, to get the youth busy. There are no jobs for them. No one listened until this fine young mayor.”

Now Hudson Park features a community garden fat with squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, oriental cabbages and root vegetables. Beans climb up arches and loop around fences. An old man shows teenagers how to turn the soil for planting. Women sit with babies and chat.

Koch is pleased. “We’re a neighborhood again, we look out for each other,” he says. “Crime is down. We want to expand this to an inner city orchard where we can pay kids to care of it.”

Things in Lowell are looking up. Lowell’s unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, significantly better than the national average of 8.3 percent. Lowell still has some manufacturing, but its largest employers are the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and two hospitals.

In the latest city budget, police chief Kenneth Lavallee crowed that in the last year murders were cut in half.

Transforming cities, here and around the world

Murphy’s ability to connect with politically disenfranchised immigrants has clearly helped the city. It also happens to be an instinctive application of ideas that have worked in economically challenged developing nations, says Robert Rotberg, president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Intrastate Conflict. He’s also the author of a recent book called Transformative Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World.

Good governance matters, Rotberg says. He notes that Murphy’s ability to make people like Nuon and Koch feel heard resembles a trait of Nelson Mandela, who could create “a sense of belonging to all.” Rotberg calls it transcendental leadership, as opposed to transactional politicians, who simply seek power and have little concept of public service.

Turning around a country requires leaders to “bring the aggrieved as well as the satisfied into a big tent,” Rotberg says. Such leaders spend “perhaps 70 to 80 percent [of their time] listening, taking in, appreciating and empathizing.”

Mayor Murphy is interested in Rotberg’s concepts of leadership, and he’d like to read the book, but for now he’s running late for a television interview.

Murphy, of course, does not live in the developing world, and it’s too early to predict the long-term impact of his efforts. But if the same governance tactics work in Lowell and the developing world, perhaps certain leadership traits are universal.

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