There’s little doubt that Worcester is on a roll these days when it comes to reshaping its downtown, with multiple projects aiming to raise the city’s profile and enhance its quality of life.
Witness the ongoing transformation wrought by the $565 million CitySquare development. Worcester’s 20-year, $104 million urban renewal plan to revitalize dozens of properties in a 118-acre swath of downtown is worth cheering. The Hanover Theatre expansion, several new hotels, an infusion of college quarters and recently launched non-stop commuter rail service between Union Station and Boston are also commendable points of progress.
But all of that shiny infrastructure loses its patina — and purpose — if potential visitors, workers and residents don’t feel safe on our downtown streets.
To put it more bluntly: Why does it seem most other cities’ central attractions are essentially free from strife or personal danger, while Worcester seemingly can’t get a handle on violence, literally, at its very core?
The most unnerving recent example was the sight of Hanover patrons, arriving for the family-friendly show “Shrek the Musical,” scrambling for cover as gunshots pierced the air near the world-class theater less than two weeks ago. Whether it was fallout from a repeat of violent confrontations at the Latin American Festival on the nearby Common is beside the point — new-to-Worcester visitors attending either of those events will rightfully think twice about spending any more of their time — or money — in our city.
That’s just one recent instance of downtown chaos. On Aug. 9, an habitual offender’s hourlong crime spree in the area of Mechanics Hall brought separate carjacking, armed robbery and rape-at-knifepoint charges. A few weeks earlier, the vehicles of a feuding couple careered through central streets and resulted in a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother (both of whom thankfully survived) being run down on a sidewalk in front of Saint Vincent Hospital.
All in downtown. All in broad daylight.
In a personal note sent to the venue’s patrons after the shooting incident, Hanover Theatre President and CEO Troy Siebels lamented, “it is a shame that one instance of violence can negatively affect the experience and perception of the thousands of people in downtown Worcester … here to peacefully and joyfully participate in the festival, attend a performance, visit a restaurant or otherwise enjoy our vibrant downtown.”
While noting that, overall, violent crime in the city has fallen in recent years, Siebels conceded that the Aug. 20 acts of violence “do hurt our downtown … by generating a negative perception of public safety.”
Until the city steps forward, that perception is bound to become more of a reality.
We’re not being Pollyannas about immediately ending violence in a gateway city that draws a melting pot, among them the dispossessed, and many of whom are looking to better their lives. City leaders and our police force have done yeoman’s work in maintaining Worcester’s basic livability.
But, beguiling structures aside, no city can thrive if would-be downtown visitors are apprehensive about their safety.
Glances to our east and west offer promise: Big brother Boston certainly has its share of violent crime, but how often do you hear of gang shootings, sexual attacks and related mayhem along its downtown Freedom Trail, Theater District, Common/Public Gardens or within the always bustling Faneuil Hall Marketplace?
To the west, Springfield faces an even larger hornet’s nest of crime, drugs and gang activity than Worcester. But, as with the Hub, we’ve always felt safe and comfortable visiting its main tourism draw (aside from the Basketball Hall of Fame): The Springfield Museums complex and Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden, perched in the heart of the struggling city’s downtown.
In Worcester, by contrast, incidents of violence in the City Hall area through the years have almost become rote; as has the drug activity during disquieting walks through the Common.
Just as we’ve continuously backed the city’s (hopefully ongoing) dialogues on race that grew out of the violent summer of 2015, it’s time for Worcester to talk as one about making downtown safety a top priority.
With so much of a physical transformation underway, the time is right to ensure that the downtown’s new edifices — and the restaurants and entertainment venues that follow — are able to thrive by settling in a city center that is safe for all patrons.
Reaching out to other cities for successful strategies is one path; requesting and analyzing feedback from Worcester hotel, museum and theater- and sporting-event attendees might be another. A more robust police presence throughout the city’s center should certainly be up for debate.
By committing many millions of construction dollars, businesses such as Unum, MCPHS and others obviously consider Worcester’s center a great investment. But the “if you build it, they will come” payoff won’t happen until every downtown driver, stroller and all others seeking to enjoy the area’s amenities can place their fears of possible violence in the rear-view mirror.
Siebels is up for that challenge, informing patrons that “we refuse to allow this incident or others like it to impede our progress and momentum in making Worcester a vibrant downtown with a wide variety of activities for people of all ages and interests.”
Will the rest of us follow?