In honor of urban theorist and activist, Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday last May 2016, Joyce Mandell dusted off her computer keyboard, stretched out her typing fingers and opened up a Squarespace account for a new website that she named, “Jane Jacobs in the Woo”. Her commitment was to blog for one full year about her home city, Worcester, Massachusetts. Here were some driving questions: How would Jane Jacobs view Worcester’s development from our past choices of action to our potential future course? What would the ghost of Jane Jacobs say or do if she arrived by train at Union Station? And how can Worcesterites collectively engage in conversations and actions to build an organic, lively, people-centric, inclusive city inspired by the building blocks outlined so well by Jane Jacobs?
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?
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.
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.
I first met Dante in 2011 in the CityLab of the urban studies department at Worcester State University. At this time, I was teaching and he was a WSU student, passionate about learning how cities work so he could be a more effective change maker in Worcester. We both bonded over our work as community organizers. Dante is what social network theorists might refer to as a “hub”, a main source of connection and communication for those working to make a better city. Who has over 2500 facebook “friends”? A troubled adolescence led him to his deep commitment to community work including his efforts in reaching out to youth-at-risk. He has worn many hats in his active career – political consultant and campaign manager, neighborhood organizer for the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network, founder of Worcester Local First and now co-owner of a juice bar with his partner, Martha Assefa. He makes me a juice. We sit down and talk for several hours interrupted at times by his serving customers who enter the store.
John and Mary Lou Anderson were once our neighbors with whom we shared occasional meals and guard duty when either of our families went on vacations. We had each other’s house keys and I knew how to water their marigolds the way they liked. They have lived in this same house near Bancroft Tower for almost forty years, but we have long since moved away to another neighborhood off of Flagg Street. As I started to ponder questions about the history of the building of Route 290 and its impact on East Side neighborhoods, I knew John was the one to call to get some answers. Was the rumor true that the powers-that-be at the time wanted to break up those thriving immigrant neighborhoods emerging as a power threatening voting block? No, that was not true, John assured me, but he explained in great detail how the highway impacted each neighborhood. John gives us true wisdom derived from his being a lifelong Worcester resident, a historian with a particular expertise in Worcester history and a shaper of public policy during his twenty- two year career as city councilor (1975 – 1997). He even served as mayor in 1986. In this conversation, he reflects on his public service contribution to the city.
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.
Chris Sawyer has not had a vacation in five years. For his day job, he travels up and down the east coast and Chicago to design the store windows for over twenty Ralph Lauren stores. For the past five years, he has returned to Worcester during his precious vacation time to donate his energy to beautifying the store windows of the Denholm building downtown at 484 Main Street. He does whatever it takes to maintain the beauty he remembered during his youth, anything from washing the windows to creating intricate design stories for all to see on Main Street.
Bram Yoffie’s truck sits outside his parents’ home on the west side of Worcester. In February, he returned from an eighteen month wheat growing and bread baking immersion experience in a two hundred person village in France. Now, he is hoisting his motorcycle on his truck and filling up the cab with stores of canned tuna fish and almonds for his upcoming 6000 mile journey cross country. His goal is to reach the west coast, anywhere from northern California to Oregon, find a farmer who can grow wheat from polycultures, establish a stone grinding mill and then start baking fine loaves of artisanal bread. His dream is simply to recreate the paradise of a bread culture he found in France. Along the way, he plans to meet farmers, millers and bakers to share the vision of farm-to-table natural bread. We were lucky to catch him before he left.
There is no better way to initiate a series of “WooVoices” than to hear the wise words of a Zen master. Ordained as a Soto Zen priest, Melissa reminds us that “what we have here is what we get to work with” in this present moment and that we can cultivate a true appreciation of the Worcester we live in right now, not the Worcester we wish it to be. She and her husband, David Dae An Rynick, Roshi are resident teachers at the Boundless Way Temple on Pleasant Street.