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.
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?
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!
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 a Thursday night, OpenHack night at Technocopia downtown at 44 Portland Street. The space is alive with activity, laughter and conversations. Before I interview Kevin, he stops to chat for five minutes with another member. He asks the member’s advice for a student he met that day at the fab lab at Quinsigamond Community College. The member offers to help the student who wants to make an exoskeleton for his hand that has no strength by printing and manufacturing his own upgrades. So, this is what a makerspace is all about – to make things, to share tools and ideas and to create community together. Technocopia is a big tool workshop that is a collectively shared resource.