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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
What do you say, Worcester? Could we turn Mill Street or even Major Taylor Boulevard into this? Check out what I found in Cambridge.
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.
Who exactly is Dan Burden and why is he going for a walk with us here in downtown Worcester? Dan is not an engineer. Dan is not even a professionally trained urban planner, architect or designer. So, who is Dan Burden and why are cities all across the country asking him to give advice on how to design walkable, livable urban streets? As a former professional photographer for National Geographic Magazine, Dan developed a keen eye that has been able to observe what makes a city thrive. He has traveled to cities around the world and even made a solo bike trek from Alaska to Argentina. He rarely slows down now, visiting cities across the country to design streets for people and not just for cars.
There is no such thing as “retirement” for Jerry Powers. After a long career as an engineer, Jerry has found his current passion in making Worcester a better place to live. His civic activism manifests in many forms – organizing his local neighborhood association near Columbus Park, dredging out tons of invasive weeds in Coes Pond through the Coes Zone group and attending public hearings to shape street designs that support walking and biking in the city. He had a dream of bike paths crisscrossing the city. When he met Karin Valentine Goins, another walk-bike advocate, about six years ago, they naturally became a team to create the advocacy group, WalkBike Worcester. The group has grown through word-of-mouth to over 150 members. 15 to 25 people on average attend WalkBike’s monthly meetings to plan how to make Worcester more accessible for walkers and bikers.
Imagine a huge bulldozer clearing out whole urban neighborhoods. Imagine that the federal government has primarily paid for this bulldozer. The “urban renewal” goal in the 1950s and 1960s was to clear out “slums” to rejuvenate our cities. But who defines what is a “slum”? Real people lived in these neighborhoods slated for destruction. Real people had homes and businesses, went to school, fell in love and had families in these neighborhoods. If you want to understand how “urban renewal” worked in cities across the country, you don’t have to go farther than the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood in Worcester.
It’s a typical Wednesday spring evening in downtown Worcester. I’m off to pick up some books at the main library in Salem Square. At 7:30 pm, the weather is still warm, no need to wear a jacket. What a perfect evening to be out and about for a walk! Yet, less than a handful of people are walking the street as I drive past city hall. Stores are predominantly closed. Even in the library, there are few patrons, the librarians congregating around the information kiosk discussing the latest movie. Downtown Worcester after office hours is mostly dead. In this blog, we will be analyzing in great detail the city’s development decisions that have resulted in this sorry state. Today, let’s step back even further to understand the federal policies and spending priorities that shaped the explosive growth of auto-centric suburbs and the implosion of cities across the country. Worcester was just one city that became a casualty in this larger national shift.
By now, many Worcesterites have seen the six minute online video created by the WBDC and the Worcester Idea Lab that depicts their vision of Worcester in 2020. Future blog posts will analyze the planning paradigm behind the video. Today, we will focus on the eye- rolling dig against the Midtown Mall in that video. Why all the venom and disgust thrown the way of this unpolished jewel of downtown? Could it be that the building is in need of maintenance, repairs and updating? It’s true that the structure needs work. The barricaded escalator looks like it hasn’t worked in years. Who knows the condition of the heating and electrical system! Could the condescending comments be the result of some empty, underutilized storefronts especially on the basement level of the building? Hmm… Well, there are many downtown buildings with higher vacancy rates. I just want to throw out this last hypothesis, that the little digs barely disguise pronounced classist and even racist attitudes of what “fits” with the documentary producers’ vision of a downtown that works. The Midtown Mall doesn’t have yoga studios, fancy juice or cappuccino bars, artisan boutiques or anything that caters to the tastes of West Siders. Here is the important question: Who “owns” the acceptable aesthetic?
It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning and the Midtown Mall is coming awake with activity. Pedestrians walk through to go from Front Street to Mechanic Street. A young woman stops in front of the window of the clothing store with prom dresses. She is waiting for the store to open. Already, a line of customers are queuing up in front of the Ahenfie (meaning “palace” in Twi, one of the languages of Ghana) Barber Shop. After almost five years in business, George Opoku has a loyal customer base. His place is hopping and he says he rarely can sit down. He never stops working. After he shuts the doors of the barber shop, he follows his other love for music. He works as a disc jockey, spinning music at parties and hosts his own international music radio show broadcast from Los Angeles and reaching all the way back to his native Ghana.
This post is predominantly a love song to the library. One of my family’s favorite activities almost every week is to take a trip there. Over the years, we have developed real relationships with the librarians, especially the ones in the children’s section. Fourteen years ago, my daughter began her weekly jaunts to the library at the singing and story time with Mr. Frank. She has since graduated to the young adult section of the library. We cried when Bob Caldwell died and we still miss Ms. Terry who retired several years ago. We cheered on Dita, an immigrant from Albania when she received her citizenship and when her daughter married the owner of the NuCafe.