Sipping Iced Tea on Front Porches

So, if Putnam's research is correct, what does a decline in social capital have to do with front porches?  On my daily long walks in my Worcester neighborhood, I've been thinking of how this rise of individualism and fall of community ties and civic commitment is strongly correlated to the favoring of private back decks and side patios over the public life of front porches.  So, I am wondering if we could somehow shift back to kindness, neighborliness and trust if we returned to sit on front porches.  What if we slowed down, sat with chilled glasses of iced tea and a stack of books to greet the outside?  Could our streets where we live, the city, even the world become a gentler place?  What do you think?

From Slummerville to Somerville Sundays

But Somerville had all the basic bare bones to emerge someday as one of the most livable cities – 1) It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with almost 79,000 people jammed tight into about 4 square miles.  (Compare that to our sprawling Worcester with 182,000 people spread out in about 39 square miles) 2) Its extensive public transportation network of subways, trains and buses, allow easy access to Boston, Cambridge and surrounding suburbs.  3) It’s incredibly walk-able with short blocks.  The housing stock of predominantly closely packed multiple family dwellings are within easy walking distance to commercial squares where one can find everything from restaurants to service businesses.  

The Skybridge to Nowhere Worcester

This past month, a Superior District court judge ordered our city to pay for the immediate construction of an elevated footbridge linking the Hilton Garden Inn, the Major Taylor Parking Garage and the DCU Worcester Convention Center.  The city made the commitment to build this bridge years ago and may very likely be legally bound to honor that obligation. Could we have had more foresight back then?

It’s true.  Pedestrians are at a disadvantage in walking this area. I’ve tried to cross Major Taylor Boulevard, waiting for the lights to change and then dashing across the “highway” of Major Taylor Boulevard to get to the other side.  It can be scary! The answer for pedestrian safety remains in the redesign of the main street not the overpriced construction of a skybridge.

If a tree falls in the forest and no person hears it, does it even make a sound?

If an outsider visits our city and never actually hits a Worcester sidewalk, was he or she really HERE?

Here are the consequences when we make it easy to escape our streets: lack of economic spin-off to surrounding businesses and continued deadened street life around this single-use mega project complex.

An elevated bridge will enable visitors to drive, park, stay at the hotel and go to the convention center without ever actually being here.  We missed a major opportunity this past summer during the resurfacing of Major Taylor Boulevard to make it a complete street, accessible to walkers, bicyclist as well as car drivers.  With some paint and planters, we could have made that street into something incredible for just a tiny fraction of the projected $10 million dollar cost to construct an elevated footbridge. 

 

Major Taylor Boulevard: A Wasted Opportunity

These days, we practically live at the orthodontist's office on MLK Boulevard or at least that's what it seems to me.  There are broken brackets to be fixed, sanitizing mouthwashes to be picked up, frequent adjustments to be made.  Consequently, I'm driving my teenager there fairly often and have had a chance to experience personally the street changes on Major Taylor Boulevard in the past couple of months.  When the pavement was stripped of its top, we had the bone chilling, bumpy rides on the way to and from home.  Sometime in August though, the road sported its new asphalt.  If I really, really wanted to and if no one were looking and if the road as it sometimes is, were free of other moving vehicles, I could now gun my Toyota RAV4 SUV up to 50 miles per hour as only a cool suburban mama can do!  Shh... Don't tell anyone.  That road is so smooth and just so enticing that I yearn to put the pedal to the metal.

A Cuppa with... Andre Leroux

It's a hot, sunny August morning and I've dragged my children out of the house early to take the heart-to-hub 8 am train to Boston.  Less than a ten minute walk away from South Station, we arrive at the offices of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.  We're here to have an in-depth discussion with  the Executive Director, Andre Leroux about the recent changes in Massachusetts zoning laws, new economic development legislation, the importance of mixed income neighborhoods and ways we can create vibrant urban spaces.  As a Worcester native who spent his formative years in our city, Andre especially has some keen insights for us.  

What's Next For Jane Jacobs In The Woo?

It's been four months since Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday celebration on May 4th and the inauguration of this blog.  Jane Jacobs in the Woo has envisioned the sixteen weeks as an intensive online community-based urban studies seminar.  We have turned to a variety of disciplines -- history, sociology, urban design, planning -- to understand why Worcester has emerged as an auto-centric, sprawling suburbanized city. If you missed them, you can re-read and share the most important, enlightening, revolutionary posts.

The Battle Over the Directional Heart of the Canal

The writer of this blog has no vested interest in the Canal District.  This writer does not live there, does not run a business there and does not own property there.  Jane Jacobs in the Woo sees what is happening though and sees how huge mega-box developments with adjacent parking complexes have served to deaden our streets and sidewalks especially in our downtown.  A big hope for a different path has been in the Canal District. So when Jane Jacobs in the Woo sees the encroachment happening there, she gets mad.  An outsider will scratch her head, “Why does Worcester make the same mistake over and over and over again?”  Wake up! We need to prioritize the kind of mixed use, high density, home grown successful development projects that are being showcased so beautifully by Dino Lorusso at Crompton Place.

Ode to the Worcester Parking Garage

We have already demonstrated in this blog how our emphasis on building "park and enter" mega projects cum parking garages has resulted in a deadened street life.  It's time for some real soul searching here.  Do we want to continue to be an auto-centric, sprawling suburbanized city or do we want to stop, rethink and envision a different path?  

Report Card on 50 Years Worcester Urban Development: It's Robert Moses Time

 In the post World War II suburban and automobile age, cities had a choice between two urban development paradigms. From the very first groundbreaking of the Salem Square Development and the Worcester Galleria Mall, Worcester chose the urban renewal path of automobile-centric, single use, low density mega-projects cum parking garages.  We chose an urban landscape designed for cars and not for people.  Therefore, fifty years later, it should come as no surprise that our streets are filled with cars, our sidewalks demonstrate little "street ballet" and foot traffic and our residents hunger for open, spontaneous public meeting spaces that are lacking.  The question is: can we learn from these past development mistakes? Can we turn this around?

On Kindness and Blogging

So, here are some questions:  Could real kindness draw a growing audience?  And can we disagree with our fellow Worcester neighbors and still be present in respectful conversation and debate?  Jane Jacobs in the Woo is pointing out the mistakes in Worcester’s urban development agenda for the past fifty years but she will never yell or denigrate.  Indeed, there may be two competing paradigms for what makes a thriving Worcester.  Even though we may have different methods and visions, we can all come together on the same goal.  We all want Worcester to be a vibrant, healthy and active community to live. 

City Living, It's Not All Kumbaya

We community organizers have never found an answer to the potential negative consequences of giving “power to the people”.  Even Saul Alinsky, the modern day founder of American community organizing, witnessed the group he formed, the Back of the Yards council in Chicago, use their newfound power to exclude people of color from their neighborhood.  This is not just an irrelevant or academic question.  What if the people elect a leader who denigrates women or whips up hate against Muslims or wants to build a wall to keep out the damn foreigners?  Is “the demos” always right?  And who judges what is right anyway?  And what are we going to do, throw away the ideal of community-driven planning or democracy because the people might make wrong, racist, mean, non-inclusionary choices?  I still don't have the answers. It's 2016 and again, I'm in a time warp, the same dilemma I found myself in what I once believed to be the accepting neighborhood around Ashford Street.

It's Time To Clean The Toilets, Kids

 This post discusses toilet cleaning as a feminist, political act and advocates our teaching our children to partner with us in house cleaning, especially toilet scrubbing.  What could this possibly have to do with revitalizing our city?  Then, I got to thinking about Jerry Powers who spends a weekend cleaning out invasive weeds in Coes Pond or all the dedicated people who join the Regional Environmental Council for annual Earth Day clean ups.  I was thinking about my friend who carries a garbage bag and wears heavy rubber gloves to pick up trash on her daily neighborhood walks.  Going beyond the literal meaning of “cleaning”, I began to think of all the Worcester citizens who take the time to join boards or sit on city advisory committees or volunteer to be docents for Preservation Worcester or to run the café at the library.  They too are taking responsibility for “cleaning up”. In this way, I see even more the importance of cleaning at home as the foundational building block to encouraging our cleaning out in the street, the neighborhood, the city and beyond.  So, yes, I’ve now decided to share this mini-essay.  It’s relevant.

WooVoice #9: Eve Rifkah, Poet

Eve Rifkah once wrote a poem for me about her giving a gift to a friend who says she wants nothing. She gave me, the friend who wished for nothing, a set of beeswax candlesticks she had found at a craft fair. She often inspired me to put my own pen to the paper. Since she arrived in Worcester in 1983, Eve was an active member of the Worcester County Poetry Association before co-founding the Poetry Oasis, Inc. with her husband, Michael Milligan in 1998 for its seven year run and the literary poetry journal, Diner, in 2001. The public accessibility of the arts – poetry, music, theater – is a key ingredient to building a vibrant city. Eve has published two poetry volumes,Outcasts: The Penikese Island Leper Hospital, 1905 – 1921, chronicles the true life stories of leprosy patients cast out from the mainland to a secluded island off of Massachusetts. Her second novel of poetry, Dear Suzanne, describes in lyrical verse the life of the Impressionist artist, Suzanne Valadon. She has yearned for recognition as an artist. In our free flowing question session, we asked the underlining question: what if you lived a whole life and no one knew your gifts? Can you be happy with the gifts you have even if they are never recognized by anyone? If someone writes a beautiful poem or paints a startling canvas or writes a blog and no one knows, did it ever really matter? Or is the reward of getting lost in the zone of creativity enough of reward?

The Last Minyan of Shaarai Torah East, Conclusion

I’ve been a follower of Buddhist dharma long enough to know viscerally that the one thing we can be sure of is that everything is impermanent.  Flowers grow, smell sweet and then fade away until another season.  People, buildings, communities even civilizations have their time in the sun and then die.  The suffering comes when we try to hold on too long and deny the inevitable changes.  So, how are we going to live?  There’s a choice here, you know, zoog.  We can stay locked up in our rooms, afraid to live and get hurt. We can wallow in a nihilistic, existential funk, sitting on the sidelines of life, thinking, “what the hell is the point?”  Or just maybe, we can take a chance to love deeply and to live life to the fullest, juiciest end.  We can skin our knees, pick ourselves up and then move on to the next adventure. Here is my truth: I will never regret that once I fell in love with a building and that an old man named Jack became my dear friend.

The Last Minyan of Shaarai Torah East, Part 1

From 1996 to 1999, I dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to save Shaarai Torah East, the last remaining synagogue on the East Side of Worcester.  During that process, I got to know all the old men who were members of the last minyan there.  By the time I met them, they could barely make a quorum of ten needed to pray.  In time, I listened and recorded the stories of each man in that last minyan.  All the quotes peppered throughout this narrative come directly from those oral history transcripts.  In 1999, I wrote an unpublished book, The Last Minyan: A Lovesong to the Broadway Boys based on those final years of Shaarai Torah East.  It’s impossible to condense this whole story and convey the nuances of each man’s story in one little blog post. So, let me boil it down to this:  Once a beautiful building bewitched me and almost everyone who entered its doors.  I got to play a part in fanning the last flames and sparks of a dying community.  Most importantly, I got to make a good friend and his name was Jack Pearl.  Here is the story. It’s as “readers digest” as I can get!

How the Sole Destroys the Soul on Highland Street

So, we've reviewed the two major planning paradigms this past week and we have traveled to Boston to see how those models manifest in the North End and the former West End.  Now, it's time to tiptoe back to Worcester.  Let's see how these two models compare right here at home.  We're traveling down Highland Street towards downtown. 

North End or Former West End: Where Would You Rather Live or Visit?

In the last blog post, we outlined two urban planning models "duking it out" in cities across the country in the age of automobiles and suburbs after World War II.  What should our cities look like?  What are the ingredients to building a thriving urban ecosystem? Sometimes it's easier to understand the differences between the two models if we take a step away from Worcester and go somewhere else.  Today, let's head to two very distinct neighborhoods in Boston. Please observe the two photos down below carefully.  Here is question #1: One photo is an example of the Robert Moses Urban Renewal model of development.  The other photo highlights the Jane Jacobs Neighborhood Rejuvenation ideal.  Can you guess which is which?  Question #2:  Choose your preference.  Where would you rather live or visit?  

A Tale of Two Urban Planning Paradigms

In this blog, we are attempting to answer some of our questions:  Why are there not more walkable neighborhoods in Worcester?  How can we develop more open, spontaneous public spaces in our city?  There is plenty to do here but why does it seem like there is nothing to do?  Why do we travel to Boston, Providence, even Northampton for the kind of urban vitality that we crave?  Why does this city feel so, so, so…. suburban!? A way to unpack these answers is to compare two competing urban planning models fighting it out since the 1950s and 1960s. To understand how this urban planning war manifested in cities across the country, let’s go to New York City where in the 1960s, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs wrestled aggressively over the vision of what “Gotham” should be post WWII in the age of automobiles and new suburbs

Worcester, What Could We Do With A Can of Paint?

With an aggressive, cut-through-bureaucracy style of a Robert Moses and the values of a Jane Jacobs, Janette Sadik-Khan changed the streetscape of New York City when she served as Mayor Bloomberg's Commissioner of the Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013.  During her tenure, she built one of the largest bike share programs in the country, created a network of 400 miles of dedicated bike lanes and over 50 pedestrian plazas.  In her book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, she lets us in on a little secret.  These major street changes don't have to be expensive.  All you need is some paint and planters to make major changes in how our city streets are used.