Sina-cism: Of Worcester and Brattleboro, a tale of downtown destiny

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If you drive a couple of hours northwest of Worcester and cross into the People’s Republic of Vermont, the first big town you run into is Worcester.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

OK, not literally. The actual name of the place is Brattleboro, and it’s much smaller than the Heart of the Commonwealth. But in many respects, it’s the same.

Both communities date to Colonial times. The Massachusetts General Court voted in 1723 to establish a fort on the site of what is now Brattleboro so as to defend Massachusetts Bay Colony against the Abenaki warrior Gray Lock. Back then, Vermont did not exist, but was claimed by New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.

Both Brattleboro and Worcester have many hills (theirs higher and more numerous), several colleges (ours more prestigious), and an industrial history that – founded on waterpower, mills and railroads – is today dependent upon education, health care, and a mix of professional and business services.

Worcester calls itself a Gateway City, a tribute to its immigrant influxes, while Brattleboro calls itself the Gateway to Vermont.

Both communities have an undercurrent of counterculturalism.

The face of comrade and first citizen Bernie Sanders is ubiquitous at Everyone’s Books on Brattleboro’s Elliot Street, where many volumes are devoted to Marxism, social justice, environmental sustainability and other causes of the left, far left, and whatever’s left beyond that. A similar ferment can be felt in Worcester’s coffeehouses, night spots and college campuses.

The parallels between the two hubs extend to architecture. Brattleboro has a fair number of the triple deckers that are common in Worcester. And there is a good deal of discussion about how to sustain each community’s downtown.

Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont

Wikimedia Commons

Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont

While enjoying a vegan mushroom burger at the organic café beside Whetstone Falls, I perused the weekend edition of the Brattleboro Reformer, whose cover story was headlined “Uphill challenge facing Vermont downtowns.”

Good headline, but the story wasn’t quite up to it.

Other communities were mentioned – including Barre, Randolph and Vergennes – but the bulk of the story concerned Brattleboro’s Brooks House.

The Second Empire-style structure was designed by E. Boyden and Son* architects of Worcester – yet another tie between the two – and built in 1871. It was for many years a luxury hotel and destination for many visitors from throughout the Northeast, including President Rutherford B. Hayes and author Rudyard Kipling, who married a woman from Brattleboro.

[*Editor’s note: Eldridge Boyden was born in Vermont but grew to prominence, and later died, in Worcester, having designed Mechanics Hall, the Cathedral of Saint Paul and two schools among many other educational, religious and residential structures in and around the city.]

Five years ago, though, the building’s upper floors were heavily damaged in a five-alarm fire. Engineer Bob Stevens determined the building, while sustaining heavy smoke and water damage, was salvageable. He eventually purchased the property, spent $23 million on renovations, and put together a patchwork of loans and grants that led to its reopening in the fall of 2014.

Today, Brooks House has numerous tenants, including two colleges, residential apartments, and several fine restaurants. While time has brought many changes to the interior, it remains a grand building, and Brattleboro wouldn’t be the same without it. But if the downtowns of New England are to thrive, they will need much more than one building, or one commercial project, to do so.

Public-private partnerships and grand visions can do only so much.

Worcester’s latest initiative for revitalizing its downtown, a $104 million, 20-year plan under the aegis of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, will target 24 underutilized and vacant properties.

Property owners are being notified that if they do not attempt to rehabilitate and develop their properties, they could be subject to eminent domain – but only if the city has lined up a developer for the property in question.

That’s a relief – no one wants the city to be sitting on a bunch of unused and unwanted real estate – but a long time will have to pass before we know whether the WRA can make a difference with any of these 24 properties. In the meantime, the city will hardly be standing still, any more than Brattleboro would be had Brooks House burned to the ground five Aprils ago.

The real and enduring strength of a community lies in organic growth – and I’m not referring to the selections in the many fine restaurants in Worcester (and in Brattleboro).

I mean growth that develops through the initiative and imagination of the private sector, driven by those who live, work and invest in communities – and are able to do so because local and state governments are wise enough to create the conditions necessary for economic growth, and doubly wise in refraining from dictating the exact type, pace or direction that growth takes.

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