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.
A couple of months ago when I began to discuss the idea for this blog, an acquaintance of mine asked me if I ever read Nicole Apostola’s blog. He was a big fan of hers and thought we would have similar opinions on Worcester’s urban development landscape. Actually, I had never heard of Nicole, mostly because prior to this current experiment, I simply have not lived my life online. Now, my world is exploding with new found connections and like-minded fellows. I “friended” Nicole on facebook and sent her a fan message, asking her if she would be open to talk. Even though she wrote me that her writing is more proficient than her speaking, I convinced her to meet for a phone conversation. (By the way,Nicole, you are just as prolific voice- to- voice as you are with your pen!) On a Friday night, we talked for almost two hours, our conversation meandering over so many topics – her husband teaching Irish (Gaelic), Jeff Barnard,the wormtown taxi blogger who died in 2010 as her inspiration to become a blogger herself, city politics and crazy stories.
This collage was compiled in honor of Dante Comparetto (WooVoice #6) and all he has done to promote a locally grown economy in Worcester. Locally owned businesses keep dollars and profits circulating in our local economy. The owners of locally owned businesses are our neighbors and friends who live here and often know our names. Unlike national chains, locally owned businesses offer Worcester original flavor, personality and flair.
Yesterday, my son and I went an another urban adventure, visiting the Providence Children's Museum, heading to College Hill for a lunch of Korean bibimbap and then descending to downtown to hunt for the life sized puppets at the Big Nazo Lab on Eddy Street. Some people like to attribute a big revival of Providence's downtown to the Providence Place Mall and Waterfire. I've not been to Waterfire yet but I can say this about the mall. I have absolutely no interest in it. Please explain what is special and revivifying about a mall where all the action is inside and you have to drive and park to get there? You can see all the signs from the highway advertising the national chain tenants, making the mall into an Anytown, USA. However, in trying to find the Nazo Lab, we stumbled upon Providence's cozy art district and I felt I had gone to urban heaven. The whole area screamed out at us, "Get out of your car! Come and explore!"
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.
Maybe this is no coincidence: This June, two of our iconic, historic Worcester churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Mulberry Street and Notre Dame des Canadiens in downtown, are pending hearings for their immediate demolition. At the Worcester Historical Commission meetings, the petitioners, the Catholic Diocese of Worcester for Mt. Carmel on June 9th and the developers of City Square for Notre Dame on June 30th, are requesting waivers from the one year waiting period for demolition orders. Their goal: Tear down right away. The Diocese is arguing that Mt Carmel poses a safety hazard, the building’s façade potentially crumbling onto drivers on closely adjacent route 290. The City Square developer claims that there is no economically viable reuse for Notre Dame and that its presence becomes a barrier to the successful on-time completion of the City Square project.
The downtown of Worcester has always struggled to be a happening place, at least since I moved here in 1995. Was there a golden time when the downtown was alive with activity? I figured the best way to learn about Worcester before the urban renewal changes of the 1950s and 1960s, would be to go to the Worcester Senior Center on Vernon Hill. The women’s knitting group extended me an invitation. I could join them at one of their marathon sessions on a Wednesday afternoon. On a cold, snowy April, I brought in a slide show of old photographs of a downtown “Worcester that is no more” to stimulate the flow of memories. As the women knitted scarves, gloves and blankets, they strung together memories of what life was like in downtown Worcester before the downtown mall and highway changed this fabric of life.
During a series of public performances at Worcester State University in April, CitySpeak, an innovative theater performance at Worcester State University, gave Worcesterites a chance to hear voices of those not usually heard in the public sphere. As an arts- and research-based approach to urban planning and community development, the CitySpeak Project was based on the interviews of over fifty Worcester residents representing almost every zip code of the city. Students from the Department of Urban Studies at Worcester State University, interviewed residents they met through the networks of its partner organizations including Girls Inc., Oak Hill CDC, Worcester Common Ground, African Community Education, Parent/Professional Advocacy League and Worcester’s NAACP. Students from Visual + Performing Arts used anonymous transcripts of the interviews to create a public performance piece that stimulated dialogue on the issues raised – racism in the city, lack of adequate transportation networks , inability to get trash picked up to name a few. All were stories of connection, disconnection, and non-connection from each other, City Hall, and the city in general.
A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them...If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction....