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. 

A Worcester Walking Workshop with Dan Burden

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.  

WooVoice #8: Jerry Powers, Walk-Bike Advocate

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.

Urban Renewal as "Negro Removal": Before Plumley, There was Laurel-Clayton

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.

The Root Reason Downtown Worcester Died (It's Not What You Think!)

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.

Midtown Mall as a Diamond in the Rough: Let's Stop the Patronizing Attitude

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?  

WooVoice #7: George Opoku, Barber at Midtown Mall

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.

Worcester Library Redesign: A Recipe for Enlivening Downtown

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. 

Nicole Apostola: Let's Learn from Our Mistakes, Worcester

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.  

A Collage Celebrating Our Locally Grown Businesses

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.  

Lively Downtown Districts the Providence Way

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!" 

WooVoice #6: Dante Comparetto, Activist and Co-Owner, Pure Juz

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.