Here in Lowell, where the American industrial age was born and much of its promise died, stands perhaps the most notable example of something this country has been missing lately: success. Lowell's experience also seems to say that you have to hit bottom before you can bounce back.

Lowell was our first industrial success and certainly one of our first examples of near permanent depression. Now, it pioneers in showing American communities facing an uncertain economic present and an even more unsettled future a way back from industrial decline.

"About 10 years ago, Lowell was No. 1 in the country in unemployment among cities over 50,000 population," recalls City Manager B. Joseph Tully, a Lowell native. "The Merrimack River was listed as one of the most polluted rivers. The textile mills had closed and gone south to Carolina where there was a cheaper labor supply and no union problems.

"We were left with millions and millions of square feet of empty factory space. We had over 100 acres of industrial land sitting vacant. We were a very depressed city."

In less than seven years, the unemployment rate has been halved. All of that vacant industrial land is occupied. The old, red-brick textile mills standing idle are being renovated, and new businesses are operating in some of them. Others are being converted into condominiums, and still others house museums. The river has been cleaned up and so has much of the small, decaying downtown area.

In this year of economic distress nearly everywhere else, Lowell has been barely affected by the recession. The leading new business here, Wang Laboratories, a model of success for the computer industry, has just reported that net earnings increased nearly 40 percent over this time last year.

Formerly a place that few would choose to visit, Lowell in recent years has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists to the new state and national urban park complexes and museums. There, people can see renderings of the history of the mill area that once made Lowell famous.

And last week The Lowell Sun ran a page-one banner headline that read:Lowell jobless rate lowest of Mass. cities

People here can tell you proudly and to the decimal point that Lowell's unemployment rate of 6.8 percent ranks well below the U.S. average and is the lowest in Massachusetts. It had dropped below 5 percent before national economic conditions began to worsen.

History has played a trick in this old mill town along the banks of the Merrimack. It has taken Lowell to the heights and dashed it to the depths. Now, other communities are sending delegations here to study how Lowell did it. Articles and television productions are examining "the Lowell plan" and "the Lowell renaissance."

It is heady and heartening stuff for a place that seemed permanently assigned to the pits. Yet, ironically, the problem Lowell faces now comes not from within its own boundaries. What lies outside Lowell raises new concern.

As well as Lowell has been doing, it is not an island. Civic leaders here are worried that the nation's economic woes will jeopardize Lowell's hard-earned new prosperity. No place, no matter how seemingly well-insulated, is immune from this recession.

Lowell is instructive for other reasons.

No other place so starkly shows the road America has traveled from its agrarian past to industrial present and now beyond toward a different future. The old mills clustered here in the rolling New England countryside, surrounded by 19th-century canals built to make this city the Venice of America, were the glories of American enterprise.

This birthplace of the American industrial age was the model for industrial centers throughout the nation.

Here, for the first time on American soil, the combined resources and talents of capital, technology and labor were put together to form the first mass-produced product. Development of the power loom made it possible to fashion finished cloth from raw cotton, all within the walls of a single factory. Mills sprung up in ever-greater numbers to send their wares around the world.

From that spectacularly successful innovation a century-and-a-half ago came the impulses that launched the young nation on its way to becoming the world's greatest industrial power.

Here capitalism scored some of its greatest achievements, and here it recorded some of its greatest failures.

It is the failures, even more than the successes, that paradoxically are most significant in today's context of nationwide economic problems. Lowell seems to say that a community's political and economic leadership are mobilized into making necessary changes only when a true crisis grips an area.

Lowell has another message for the nation's political and economic leaders grappling with hard new questions about the reindustrialization--or, probably more accurately, the deindustrialization -- of America. It takes the combined talents of government -- federal, state and local -- working in real partnership with community political and business leaders, to fashion a workable future. Lowell could not have made it without forming such a partnership.

It had something else that made its success story possible. Its people, though battered by decades of business decline and embarrassed at what had happened to their city, retained a strong pride in the best of the past. Lowell built on that pride.

Lowell remains one of the most ethnic of American cities. Waves of immigrants were lured here to work in mills and other businesses that grew around them. Irish and Greek and French Canadians and Italians and Spanish and Portuguese and Poles and Jews came here and stayed. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are Lowellians today.

"My mother and father came here from Ireland when they were 16 and 17 years old," says Mayor M. Brendan Fleming, a pink-faced man with thick, curly white hair who is a mathematics professor at Lowell University.

"My mother worked as a maid in a home, and my father worked in the mills. They had no more than a fourth-grade education, but they wanted to make sure their children had educations . . . they worked in the mills with little education, but today you can see the doctors, lawyers and clergymen that took their places."

The first step in Lowell's renaissance was aimed at those children of immigrants. In the early 1960s, during the days of national planning and Great Society federal programs such as Model Cities, neighborhood debates began about what to do with the shuttered and grimy old mill buildings. Some had been covered with ticky tacky aluminum facing, while others stood bleakly boarded.

"The question was how to get people to turn those negatives of the past into assets for the future," recalls Fred Faust, executive director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a federal sister agency of the National Park Service. "Although people were ashamed of much that had happened in the past, there was a feeling that the mills represented valuable lessons that could be passed on."

Instead of tearing down the mills or further hiding them with nondescript facing, the idea was born to make them centerpieces of an urban revival. With the aid of federal and state grant money, the mills were stripped, cleaned and refurbished. They became the heart of a new national urban park here. Regeneration of other buildings, streets, even the old canal systems, spread throughout the city.

Lowell found other assets among its people. Two who came out of Lowell's immigrant background were helpful at state and national political levels. Michael S. Dukakis, who became governor of Massachusetts and is favored to regain that position at the polls Tuesday, and Paul E. Tsongas, first a congressman and now a U.S. senator, worked hard to get aid for Lowell.

Urban parks and museums were not enough. Lowell needed jobs. Seven years ago, a tough new partnership was formed between the city's business and political leadership.

The Lowell Development Finance Corp., a new creation, resulted in the city's 11 banks pledging to form a pool of capital that the city could use to attract new industries. That, plus U.S. economic development grant money from Washington, permitted the city to induce new businesses to locate here by giving them loans at very low interest rates, 40 percent of the prime rate.

Lowell had other assets, again ironically growing out of its depressed recent past.

It had a large pool of skilled, but unemployed, workers. It had all of those empty factories providing good space at little cost. It had a new climate in which old political-business adversaries worked together instead of opposing each other. They fought to cut red tape, to get new industrial revenue bonds, to keep outside grant money coming into Lowell. And they had the perfect new businesses to fill those old warehouses.

The new companies created by the computer technological revolution, spurred by the talents from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were expanding beyond their original boundaries of Rte. 128, which encircles Boston. Lowell, 25 miles to the north, was an obvious target of opportunity for them, and Lowell aggressively courted those companies.

Its biggest break came when Wang Laboratories, now a billion-dollar firm, made Lowell its corporate headquarters.

"The city had been in what I would call a depressed state for 30 or 40 years," says Frederick A. Wang, senior vice president and son of Dr. An Wang, the founder and chairman of the board, "and the people were looking to anyone who could help them revitalize it. They were eager to help.

"Lowell didn't just come back by accident. It had a group driving it, focusing its energies. They were just kicking off their whole grand plan for revitalizing the city. Their mental set has been to help industrial growth as much as possible. When we looked at the additional space they had available, it was much more than we needed, but the price was so good we took it. The city has helped us a lot."

And Wang has helped Lowell immeasurably. Smaller firms have located here to be suppliers for the giant electronics company. In one 18-month period, Lowell registered 30 industrial expansions. Almost overnight, Lowell changed dramatically.

Jim Milinazzo, the city's young planning development director and a native, speaks of the changes in awed tones:

"It used to be a person my age who grew up in Lowell would have deemed it success if he had been able to leave Lowell. If people asked you where you were from, you would never say Lowell. You would always say 'north of Boston.' That's not true anymore. Lowell isn't a depressed old mill town any longer. It's a place to do business. It's a place to locate."

It's even a place to tell others that you're from.

Certainly there are lessons enough for the country to be found here. But there are also worries. Perhaps only Lowellians could appreciate the final irony: Despite all their efforts, fate again could deal this area another blow.

City manager Tully expressed that fear best:

"What I'm concerned about is the United States of America, because all over the country there's a feeling of gloom. I have a business that keeps me in contact with people all over the country, so I can tell firsthand what people are saying.

"In Oregon and Washington, the lumber business is gone. Nobody can build houses. Wherever rubber is a factor, wherever steel is a factor, wherever automobiles are a factor, wherever there are urban centers that depend on those kinds of industries, they're all hurting badly. It isn't going to be too long before that sort of thing permeates everywhere.

"And it isn't just the conditions of gloom; it's a feeling of gloom. President Reagan, who I thought would come in and turn things around--well, he hasn't done it. Once the whole country gets real bad, I don't care how well you're doing; you're going to suffer, too. And that's what we're headed toward unless it gets turned around.

"In 1929 and 1930 and 1931, no one did well. I don't care who they were or where they were. Some cities and towns did better than others, but no one did well. That knowledge of what's out there keeps seeping in here, and that's what worries me."