Do you remember the walking man on Salisbury Street? More than five years ago when I brought my son to daycare at the Jewish Community Center, I saw him, a middle aged man who dressed in a starched business suit and swung his briefcase during his fast strides. He carried an umbrella in the rain. He wore heavy boots in the snow. For two years of day care morning drop-offs, he was a regular fixture on the street, heading in the direction of downtown. One morning, I slowed the car down, opened the window and called to him to ask about his story. He confessed walking an hour each way to his downtown office and relished the fact that he didn’t need any gym membership. He was in the best shape of his life and loved taking it hare-like down Salisbury as everyone else fast-pedaled. Is he still walking now years later? I no longer have a reason to go down Salisbury during rush hour.
If you go to the Sociology section of the “new release” shelves at the Worcester Public Library, you may find the book I just returned entitled This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. Exploring the “lost art of staying put”, author Melody Warnick ponders how the place where we live can become a place where we are rooted to stay. How do we feel connected to the towns and cities where we reside? How do we shift from living in a particular place to making a commitment to staying? Warnick is obsessed with these questions of “place attachment” because she herself never felt settled in any one city or town to want to make a permanent home. There was always the hope in the next move for a better locale where the weather would be perfect, the cultural life rich, the nature abundantly lush and beautiful, the people fascinating and welcoming. After all her moves to what she believed would be the “perfect place”, Warnick comes to think she was all wrong. Maybe there is no perfect place but just maybe one can learn to stay still long enough to love the place where one is.
Malden is one of the most diverse small cities in Massachusetts. In the Indian restaurant where I ate home-cooked dal and rice, one of the patrons there told me that students at the local high school hail from over thirty different countries and speak over twenty different languages. Twenty percent of the population is Asian, primarily from China and Vietnam. I passed by at least ten Asian restaurants and juice bars on my walk. An Indian grocer directed me to that Indian restaurant around the corner. I saw women walking down the streets in hijab. I saw other women in saris.
In honor of urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday this past May,” Jane Jacobs in the Woo” formed to inaugurate a full year of community conversations and actions about building a vibrant Worcester, Massachusetts. Jane Jacobs in the Woo is pleased to nominate Crompton Place, a locally owned, mixed-use development in Worcester’s up-and-coming Canal District neighborhood for Strong Towns' Best Infrastructure Project. Listed on the national historic register in 1980, this property was the site of Crompton Loom Works famous for its textile and invention of an innovative power loom.
So, if Putnam's research is correct, what does a decline in social capital have to do with front porches? On my daily long walks in my Worcester neighborhood, I've been thinking of how this rise of individualism and fall of community ties and civic commitment is strongly correlated to the favoring of private back decks and side patios over the public life of front porches. So, I am wondering if we could somehow shift back to kindness, neighborliness and trust if we returned to sit on front porches. What if we slowed down, sat with chilled glasses of iced tea and a stack of books to greet the outside? Could our streets where we live, the city, even the world become a gentler place? What do you think?
But Somerville had all the basic bare bones to emerge someday as one of the most livable cities – 1) It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with almost 79,000 people jammed tight into about 4 square miles. (Compare that to our sprawling Worcester with 182,000 people spread out in about 39 square miles) 2) Its extensive public transportation network of subways, trains and buses, allow easy access to Boston, Cambridge and surrounding suburbs. 3) It’s incredibly walk-able with short blocks. The housing stock of predominantly closely packed multiple family dwellings are within easy walking distance to commercial squares where one can find everything from restaurants to service businesses.
This past month, a Superior District court judge ordered our city to pay for the immediate construction of an elevated footbridge linking the Hilton Garden Inn, the Major Taylor Parking Garage and the DCU Worcester Convention Center. The city made the commitment to build this bridge years ago and may very likely be legally bound to honor that obligation. Could we have had more foresight back then?
It’s true. Pedestrians are at a disadvantage in walking this area. I’ve tried to cross Major Taylor Boulevard, waiting for the lights to change and then dashing across the “highway” of Major Taylor Boulevard to get to the other side. It can be scary! The answer for pedestrian safety remains in the redesign of the main street not the overpriced construction of a skybridge.
If a tree falls in the forest and no person hears it, does it even make a sound?
If an outsider visits our city and never actually hits a Worcester sidewalk, was he or she really HERE?
Here are the consequences when we make it easy to escape our streets: lack of economic spin-off to surrounding businesses and continued deadened street life around this single-use mega project complex.
An elevated bridge will enable visitors to drive, park, stay at the hotel and go to the convention center without ever actually being here. We missed a major opportunity this past summer during the resurfacing of Major Taylor Boulevard to make it a complete street, accessible to walkers, bicyclist as well as car drivers. With some paint and planters, we could have made that street into something incredible for just a tiny fraction of the projected $10 million dollar cost to construct an elevated footbridge.
These days, we practically live at the orthodontist's office on MLK Boulevard or at least that's what it seems to me. There are broken brackets to be fixed, sanitizing mouthwashes to be picked up, frequent adjustments to be made. Consequently, I'm driving my teenager there fairly often and have had a chance to experience personally the street changes on Major Taylor Boulevard in the past couple of months. When the pavement was stripped of its top, we had the bone chilling, bumpy rides on the way to and from home. Sometime in August though, the road sported its new asphalt. If I really, really wanted to and if no one were looking and if the road as it sometimes is, were free of other moving vehicles, I could now gun my Toyota RAV4 SUV up to 50 miles per hour as only a cool suburban mama can do! Shh... Don't tell anyone. That road is so smooth and just so enticing that I yearn to put the pedal to the metal.
It's a hot, sunny August morning and I've dragged my children out of the house early to take the heart-to-hub 8 am train to Boston. Less than a ten minute walk away from South Station, we arrive at the offices of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. We're here to have an in-depth discussion with the Executive Director, Andre Leroux about the recent changes in Massachusetts zoning laws, new economic development legislation, the importance of mixed income neighborhoods and ways we can create vibrant urban spaces. As a Worcester native who spent his formative years in our city, Andre especially has some keen insights for us.
It's been four months since Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday celebration on May 4th and the inauguration of this blog. Jane Jacobs in the Woo has envisioned the sixteen weeks as an intensive online community-based urban studies seminar. We have turned to a variety of disciplines -- history, sociology, urban design, planning -- to understand why Worcester has emerged as an auto-centric, sprawling suburbanized city. If you missed them, you can re-read and share the most important, enlightening, revolutionary posts.
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.
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.