Editorial: Coincidences or culture shift?

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Cultural shifts can happen in two ways, deliberately or accidentally.

A person or group can set out to affect change and find their message resonates with a much larger population. It’s also possible an independent series of events share a theme, a common thread that over time stitches together that which becomes a movement.

Worcester's downtown skyline, slightly askew

Wikimedia Commons

Is Worcester in the midst of reinventing itself … yet again?

Since the beginning of the year five seemingly disparate things have occurred in the city of Worcester. We believe these developments do indeed at least share a theme and that together they portend a larger shift in how city residents view their environment and their ability to control it.

Item: In early January, with sufficient votes based on the ousting of two incumbents in the November election, the School Committee votes 5-2 to forego a national search to replace departed Superintendent Melinda J. Boone. Rather it opts to consider internal candidates only. Four applicants emerge, and in March the committee selects South High Community School Principal Maureen F. Binienda.

Item: In late January the Worcester Community Labor Coalition makes public its wishes that a new Tax Increment Financing [TIF] policy being considered by the City Council’s Standing Committee on Economic Development contain requirements not only for a $15 minimum wage but also language requiring businesses seeking such deals from the city to employ city residents. The policy, still being debated, includes guidelines, but not requirements, for a $15 minimum wage.

Item: In mid-March, Councilor at-large Morris A. Bergman and District 1 Councilor Anthony J. Economou propose the city adopt a home-rule petition to exempt Worcester from certain provisions of the Dover Amendment, which allows religious and educational institutions to site facilities without adhering to certain zoning laws. “The current law basically says nonprofits can set up anywhere in any municipality. … [W]e want to make our own law and make these agencies have to go through zoning,” Bergman told the Sun.

Item: In late March, Councilor at-large Michael T. Gaffney requests from City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. a report detailing the salaries and benefits paid to members of Augustus’ executive management team who live outside the city. Gaffney points to a 1995 ordinance requiring members of the city administration to live in the city.  He tells the Telegram & Gazette: “I’d like to get the data to see if those costs are significant. Then we can have an honest discussion about our ordinance and in particular the enforcement of our ordinance. I find it sometimes interesting that we have a lot of ordinances that we don’t enforce. Either we’re going to have an ordinance, or what’s the point?”

Item: In late March, District 3 Councilor George J. Russell puts before the council five items to address what he believes is a major problem: absentee landlords. Russell told the Sun: “The underlying issue is, looking back at the shooting a few days ago, and you think about what would be the one thing that would help overall, and the only thing that keeps coming to mind is having as many owner-occupants as you can,” Russell said. “When people live in the units that they own, they’re there all the time and it makes a big difference.”

From schools to tax policy to zoning policy to residency requirements and absentee landlords, the common theme in these cases is that either when left to their own devices or presented a choice, that choice, backed by public support, is for an option that demonstrates local independence or local self-reliance.

While we acknowledge Worcester has long had an independent streak, we believe current events support the conclusion that local independence or local self-reliance is becoming, if it has not already become, the de facto default position of its residents.

Catherine Tumber, a senior research associate at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, told the Sun in a recent interview; “There is a sense that if people are going to live, work and play [in Worcester] they are masters of their own destiny and not the object of distant forces that they have no control over or they don’t have any participation in.”

She continued: “I’m not sure I would call them self-reliant moves, because that suggests that kind of tradition that comes out of American individualism. But anyway, yes, all the things … suggest there’s a culture change.”

Asked why this type of change is occurring, Tumber said, “because there has been a shrinkage of revenues on the state level. The municipalities can’t depend on the state to support local aid. … So I think it’s true of all localities, not just these small, these middling cities.

“I do think that it’s especially important for these sizable populations, former regional economic centers, to do what they can to rely more on their own resources,” she said.

The tangible benefits of these moves notwithstanding, we believe that greater independence and self-reliance bode well for the city because they foster a greater sense of community and shared purpose.

It has been said that Worcester is a city that constantly reinvents itself. If it does so this time with a true sense of community and purpose, we are all better off.

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