June 4, 2017

Worcester 2.0: An outsider’s inside look at the city’s developing future

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Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie

A view of Union Station.

Right after Jane Week in Worcester, during which multiple meetings were held to celebrate Jane Jacobs’ legacy, I walked into a bar to buy myself a beer. Checking my Turkish passport, the bartender asked: “Among every place around the world, why come to Worcester?”

I know the bartender is not alone in his surprise. I had countless conversations with people from Worcester, and the common theme is a skepticism about its trajectory and a strong desire to leave the city — the sooner, the better.

Contrasting the conversations above, I love Worcester.

I moved here from Istanbul three years ago for my Ph.D. studies at Clark University. I don’t know how many times I wandered its streets and got distracted by the amazing architecture of its brick buildings. I was shocked by how much it could possibly snow. I had quick lunches in its parks with my dates or took long nighttime walks in its empty streets when I was heartbroken. I had great beers in its bars and breweries, great food in its restaurants, and so many memories on its streets.

I always looked forward to the weekends, when I hit the road to have breakfast in a Worcester diner, and then headed to a café to study.

In Istanbul, I was drowned in the city and its events, while in Worcester I have to dig in to reach them. It certainly took me awhile to overcome my longing for the crowds, but learning to live with fewer people and quieter streets has transformed me.

In Istanbul, a machine of 15 million, I always felt disposable and replaceable. In Worcester, I feel more significant.

Worcester feels almost counterintuitive. Why, for instance, despite the sprawl culture of America, haven’t more people moved to Worcester, but instead preferred to live in Boston — a city that many cannot afford? Or take the neighborhood where I have lived for three years, whose reputation reached me even before moving here: Why does a pedestrian experience around Main South, Clark University’s neighborhood, contrast so sharply with that of Becker College and WPI — despite the significant improvement achieved in security and planning during past decade?

Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie

Russell Street, Worcester

Jane Week: What Worcester is

Worcester may not be the industrial powerhouse that it used to be; but if it is New England’s second-biggest city, it should be providing a certain level of shelter, security and economic opportunities to its residents.

Yet Worcester is transforming, and this creates a significant tension that needs to be addressed: People have different approaches regarding what Worcester is and what Worcester should be. And this complicates this process of transformation — which can be very productive, if we create a Worcester that is inclusive of everyone, while it can also be very destructive, if we create a Worcester that is exclusive for the higher socioeconomic strata.

During Jane Week, I attended six events that gave a glimpse of what Worcester is. Five of these were walks around Worcester — its downtown, Canal District, Shrewsbury Street, old Jewish East Side and Main South. Another was held at Worcester Public Library, where we watched a documentary and held a discussion on what the socioeconomic impacts of revitalization/renewal projects are in Worcester.

Jane Week reminded us that Worcester is a city of immigrants and the working class, and I was amazed when I listened to its history.

I didn’t know that Union Station was designed to transmit the image of the industrial powerhouse the city was back then, and that it welcomed thousands of workers and immigrants from several destinations each day — something I still fail to imagine given that it is always so empty when I am there. Nor did I know that the famous canal that connected Worcester to Providence worried residents of Boston that they would be reduced to a fishing town while Worcester would explode into an industrial giant. The joke’s certainly on us!

I knew that Shrewsbury Street welcomed Italian immigrants, and I enjoyed the buildings there. But I didn’t notice that they followed a certain pattern as several of these used to be automobile galleries. We have always rushed to a have a cheeseburger at Boulevard Diner after having drinks and dancing, but I didn’t know that its name came from the earlier European design of Shrewsbury Street, which had a boulevard in the middle.

We cracked up when we heard that some immigrants were involved in illegal wine-making or fights at the corner of Mulberry and Shrewsbury streets. While we wandered around the East Side, which formerly accommodated Jewish immigrants, several participants were surprised that they never noticed the mikvah and synagogue, despite their standalone architecture.

I didn’t know that the Declaration of Independence was read in Worcester — for the first time in Massachusetts — because Boston was considered unsafe. Although I biked around it hundreds of times, I never noticed that the first settler of the city rests in Worcester Common. I knew the contraceptive pill was invented in Worcester, but I didn’t know that some of the bravest women, like Abby Kelley Foster, who fought for anti-slavery and women’s rights, lived here.

I couldn’t believe the controversial story of anarchist Emma Goldman — believed to plot the assassination of the manager of Carnegie Steel Company in her ice cream shop at the corner of Winter and Grafton streets. While we stood across where her shop was supposed to be (only walking distance from Worcester’s oldest gay bar, MB Lounge), we learned that Goldman was also supportive of homosexuals — highly unexpected for anyone living in late 19th and early 20th century.

Concerns on what Worcester should be: Change for whom?

In the past three years, Worcester has changed — albeit slowly. There is a flourishing restaurant and brewery scene in the city to the point that you may need to wait 40 minutes to take a table. There is a vibrant arts scene, too, which fascinates with historical and contemporary selections. Old factories are beautifully recycled for residential and/or commercial purposes. And obviously, more is to come to blow away the cobwebs of this post-industrial city — framing a particular perspective of what Worcester should be.

My question here is whether this future designated for Worcester will be inclusive or exclusive.

During Jane Week, we learned that hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private funding have been spent to give life to downtown. A guide mentions that downtown is redesigned for the health sector and that residences, restaurants and hotels are being constructed in the surrounding area. Franklin Street will also accommodate new amenities, including a new open space to enjoy beers.

Everyone was excited to hear that the city wished to extend downtown toward the Canal District. The same crowd remained silent when the tour arrived at Notre Dame de Canadiens Church, which may be torn down in near future.

A little later someone talked: “You know what we need in downtown? A grocery store!”

Several agreed and were happy to learn that there were discussions involving the historical Worcester Market at the corner of Main and Madison streets. I was a little bit surprised with their enthusiasm, however, given that there is a supermarket, Compare Foods, on the next block across the road. Indeed, this was one of the moments that I felt the tension between approaches regarding what Worcester is and what Worcester should be most intensely.

Observing the significant presence of immigrants and lower socioeconomic strata in Worcester, I wonder how they will be integrated to the upcoming transformation. For instance, while there might be an abundance of short-term jobs that will certainly provide an income for many (e.g., for construction), long-term implications remain more complicated. The healthcare sector requires a labor force that has requisite skills, and it is probable that the qualified workforce (doctors, nurses, etc.) might be imported from elsewhere rather than relying on the local labor force in Worcester.

Or let’s think about the hotels, residences and restaurants that are constructed in downtown. Do I sound too cynical if I ask who will be the customers and who will be the workforce?

Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie

“St. Vincent’s at Sunset”

I don’t intend to alienate political representatives, large capital, and business entrepreneurs who work hard to improve the living standards in Worcester. When I go to a concert at Mechanics Hall or visit Worcester Art Museum, for example, I know that these events are possible, at least partially, with their contributions.

However, urban revitalization/renewal projects like these ongoing in Worcester have generally come with not only economic benefits, but social costs.

And here is the trick: While it is held that economic benefits would trickle down, history has so far proved us wrong. It was rather the social costs, not economic benefits, that have trickled down. Negative repercussions, like unemployment and displacement, have hit the lower socioeconomic groups most severely.

During Jane Week’s closing ceremony, Crompton Place was awarded the first Jane Week Award for following the principles of Jane Jacobs and creating a community in their neighborhood. Given the high quality of services Crompton Place and its tenants provide, I believe that this is a very well-deserved award.

But during the ceremony, I remembered a friend’s question after we spent a couple of hours in Crompton Place and its neighborhood: “Do you notice who is missing in these buildings and streets?”

I find her question very staggering and highly relevant for the entire city: Where do people of color and/or lower income stand within this revitalizing/renewing Worcester? How much are they incorporated into this transformation? What are their roles?

What does Worcester need?

Although creating an inclusive Worcester will be a laborious task, during Jane Week I met so many people who long for its improvement that I cannot be anything but hopeful for its future. And there are a couple of suggestions that I would like to make that evolved from our conversations during these meetings, as well as my personal observations over past three years.

Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie

“Dream Big Dreams”

If Worcester is to give weight to healthcare jobs, which require highly specialized human capital, we need to think carefully about how the workforce will be incorporated to these plans. Instead of giving priority to imported doctors, nurses and physicians, Worcester residents need to be provided affordable and accessible education/training opportunities that will integrate them smoothly into Worcester’s renewed economy — instead of being obliged to working low-paying jobs that don’t need more than low-skilled labor. We also need to ease access to funding and credit, which will give momentum to new businesses that maintain Worcester’s economy and support already existing ones that wish to upgrade — instead of being displaced by others.

The cost of living in Worcester will also constitute a serious subject in the near future.

Urban revitalization/renewal projects raise the price per square foot, leading to expensive housing, goods and services. During Jane Week, we came across several projects that aim to provide affordable housing — such as the Kilby-Gardner-Hammond Neighborhood Revitalization Project that successfully provided affordable housing (ownership or tenant) after renovating buildings.

Yet our guides were uncertain how long these projects can be sustained under the current funding opportunities and political climate. We should encourage the city to prioritize such housing projects throughout Worcester — including downtown.

While we toured Union Station, a participant contrasted the current transportation network of Worcester with its past. Accordingly, one major problem of Worcester was its lack of connectivity to other cities. While I agree with her, this problem is not only limited to the city’s connectivity to others: Worcester also needs more bus lines, more frequent stops, and incentives to use public transportation. The city could be more bicycle-friendly too, with more connected bicycle lanes and encouragement of their use. Increased transportation increases connectivity and integration within the city.

Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie

“Layaway”

Another participant mentioned how disappointed she was with the loss of history in the city.

It’s true that several buildings that are historical monuments (officially or not) have managed to survive. Some of these are under residential and/or commercial use. But there are also many others that have been already torn down, which is a very sad loss for Worcester. We need to create participatory and/or representative mechanisms for the decisions regarding how to save the remaining historical urban architecture in Worcester. We need to make sure that our approaches are incorporated into city plans.

Lastly, current focus on downtown, the Canal District and Shrewsbury Street is not surprising, as they constitute the showcase products of the city. Yet Worcester’s events and projects — be it a revitalization/renewal project or an art show/festival — need to be integrated at the city level.

If the events mainly focus on downtown, for instance, they will lead to a sharp imbalance of economic distribution. In such a case, current investment may lead to nowhere, as the rest of the city can’t keep up and be a source of economic activity that is necessary for its maintenance. Also, integrating the projects will intensify the urban connectivity.

Compare an art show that happens all over Worcester to another one that happens only in downtown, Canal District or Shrewsbury Street. In the former, you will visit different places in Worcester — get acquainted with other parts of the city and generate economic activity there — while in the latter you will only visit places that are already “hip.”

From these aspects, integrating the projects all over Worcester, wished by one of our guides, is indeed a necessity.

During the closing ceremony, Joyce Mandell, founder of Jane Jacobs in the Woo and lead organizer of Jane Week, asked for a vision for Worcester, streets that we can walk, review processes for city design suggestions, and room for participation. If we pursue Worcester’s development following these themes in our designs, we have the potential to create an inclusive Worcester.

However, we need to keep in mind that these themes also give a very important responsibility to all parties that wish to be involved in this process. If we want to be seen, we need to speak up and participate. If we want to see, we need to learn how to look.

Time to start working.

Kaner Atakan Turker is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Deborah Martin (professor of Geography, Clark University), Joyce Mandell, and Mukadder Okuyan (Ph.D. student, Social Psychology, Clark University) for their encouragement and feedback. Photography is courtesy of Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie photography (http://hardy-lavoie.com/). An earlier and extended version of the article can be found on the blog Jane Jacobs in the Woo.

3 thoughts on “Worcester 2.0: An outsider’s inside look at the city’s developing future

  1. Worcester is clearly divided into the haves and the half not.
    The Haves leave in one side of Park ave, have wide streets, own big homes in areas with no crime and have white collar jobs. Make up 99% of the City committees and pay leap service to “integration”, “minority community”, “Poor and disadvantage” .
    The Have not are Black, Latino, Vietnamese, Usually rent in Main south , have mostly menial jobs, live in separate high crime neighborhoods and a few own small store fronts.
    The city was designed that way and it mostly remain the same. You might be able to find a few exceptions but they are the exceptions rather than the rule .
    I do not like it either, have tried to change, but generally remains the same

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