Editorial: Worcester, a place that works

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Worcester’s nothing fancy. It’s a midsize stop on a map, you might say, a city of stable opportunity whose resource is its people — and a pretty lucky place to land.

For many, now and in history, Worcester is where better lives are built.

That makes it worthy of the difficult work facing today’s leaders and residents: How, despite changes and challenges, do we keep Worcester’s legacy alive and make it the best home it can be?

Stirring our musings is that the city was the setting of an article in the New York Times Magazine last week. It also served as the interesting main character.

As vividly brought forth in the piece by Adam Davidson, “unlovely” Worcester has quietly and consistently provided the right ingredients to diverse generations of workers and strivers. Especially during the United States’ 100-year heydey of busy local factories and an economy that produced affordable goods as it expanded and empowered the middle class, Davidson writes, Worcester was a place where those who worked hard could create some success for themselves and pass it on.

For the author’s ancestors and for countless others — behind the doors of three-deckers and prized apartments, in kitchens where immigrants practiced English or children learned lessons — one generation’s achievements churned further opportunity. Family after family, and company by company, progress inched ahead, hand-in-hand with the educational opportunities that are especially rich in this city.

What happened to Worcester?

The question is also the title of Davidson’s lengthy article, and it’s not quite answered among his stories, interviews and statistics.

But when it comes to the future, the answer seems clear: It’s up to all of us to decide what happens to Worcester.

The article suggests, and we agree, that the city still maintains its underlying fibers of strength, even though factories have closed over the last few decades or been consolidated elsewhere.

We believe, too, that Worcester’s fundamental strengths — its work-centered core, mixed-bag of industries and opportunities, numerous leading schools and labs, and middle-class nimbleness and gumption — persist to be tapped.

But problems persist, too. Unemployment here is relatively high, the business climate encountered by entrepreneurs is not always friendly, and other roadblocks of modern urban life have eroded optimism over the years.

Meanwhile, the changeover to a technology-based society and attendant demands for a more educated workforce have made it harder to simply work for all one’s worth and pull oneself “up by the bootstraps,” the way things could happen during Worcester’s industrial past.

Worcester, the article states, “was an engine for betterment until the middle of the 20th century, a magical place that transformed lost and impoverished lives.”

That sense of “magical” has, maybe, been left in the past. But the magic word in Worcester remains: work.

Our self-made city merits our efforts to restore and/or maintain it as a place of opportunity and reward — a place that works.

Worcester became an industrial powerhouse because of the ingenuity of the people in it not because of the natural resources under it, and it can do so again.

The New York Times Magazine story hinges on a house on Pleasant Street, a home purchased by Davidson’s great-grandparents that would go for about $200,000 now, the article states. Like so many things Worcester, the author points out, that price is right in the middle; it’s the median price of a U.S. home today.

For Davidson’s forebears, that home with its child-filled yard was a triumph. It is central to the family’s lore, a collection of tales with interweaving themes of poverty, trouble, travel, virtue, perseverance — and Worcester.

In the late 1800s, for instance, a Lithuanian ancestor who arrived with $18 and several children rose from rag peddler to fruit peddler, enough progress to begin creating a solid difference for his family. Enough progress, for instance, to point one trail of the family tree to Pleasant Street, where Davidson writes that having risen from abject poverty to somewhere in the middle, his great-grandparents “Bumpa” and Narny” had achieved “the goal of a good life.”

That goal certainly still lives today.

As diverse as Worcester is and as much as it has changed — the arrival of the medical school in the 1960s, for example, helped forge healthcare and biotechnology as top career paths, a counterpoint to the many low-paying jobs in the Worcester of today — the “goal of a good life” is as strong as ever.

Davidson visited a little tailor shop near the silent, once-mighty Heald Machine factory in the northeast part of the city.

He spoke to a refugee whose life had been politically tumultuous in Iraq. In Worcester, where Ahmed Yusef met and married an Iraqi woman, he runs the shop in addition to covering several weekly shifts as a tailor at another job.

He, like thousands of his new neighbors with all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances, is living the goal of a good life.

Yusef emphasized to Davidson that he has been elsewhere but loves — not likes, loves — Worcester. “I have a future,” he said. “New York is for dreams. Worcester is for working.”

Worcester is for working. If we can remember that, and work on that, we’ll be OK.

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