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.
In its heyday, downtown Worcester could have rivaled New York City in its glamour and hubbub, they asserted. Downtown was the place to be, especially if you were young and getting out of school for the day. Jobs for high schoolers were plenty. One woman remembered with pride her $15 weekly pay in a brown envelope when she worked at Kresge’s. Even if one did not have a job, downtown was the locus of all activity. Denholm and McKay was a key anchor department store but the knitters recalled the others as well – Richard Healy’s where the tall girls could get fitted, Filene’s, Lerners, Easton’s, Kresge’s, Ulians. Woolworth’s and J.J. Newberry’s were just around the corner on Front Street. One could promenade up and down the streets, window shop or get a frappe at Easton’s on the corner. “Everyone went to the Mayflower”, said one knitter who remembered drinking coffee there.
Another knitter declared that all three of her brothers were registered at the men’s shop, Ware Pratt. When their birthdays rolled along, they all got apple pies. In between the anchor department stores was a plethora of specialty shops – hat stores, women hosiery shops, jewelry shops, bookstores, shoe stores, toy stores. Everything you could ever need or want was downtown. If one didn’t shop, there were plenty of other fun activities – bowling, movies and theater, roller skating. Rovezzi’s Italian Restaurant and the dining room at the Bancroft Hotel were favorite places to have a real sit-down meal. Wednesday nights were the nights to be downtown, the only evening when all the stores stayed open until 9 pm. In those days, no one was afraid to be out late at night. During the Christmas season, the extensive lights and bright store window displays brought everyone out in the cold and dark.
Plenty of people lived downtown especially off the side streets. One woman who had her home on the corner of Pleasant and Main in 1963 recalled how she never had to leave downtown. Even her family doctor, Dr. Hagopian, had his office right on Linden Street. Even if one didn’t live there, downtown was easily accessible by foot, bus or trolley. Many walked downtown from adjacent neighborhoods. Trolleys crisscrossed out of the central core. One trolley even carried people up Providence Street past Worcester Academy. Buses leaving every twenty minutes could easily transport someone downtown from far flung Worcester neighborhoods and even outlying suburbs. In the 1940s and 1950s the knitters recalled that few people drove to downtown, in part because not everyone owned a car and in part because downtown was so easily accessible by public transportation. Downtown was a place for walkers not drivers. One knitter gushed, “We did everything with walking and it was wonderful! To go from one store to another just to look what they had!”
What was surprising was that downtown was the locus not just of retail activity but also of manufacturing. One knitter described how her mother, who had dropped out of high school, got a job pressing shirts and sewing at a “sweatshop down on Commercial Street.” Others remembered that there were offices – lawyers, doctors, dentists, insurance – all downtown.
Come and hear the smattering of memories the knitters pieced together this afternoon:
“It seemed like downtown was the hub of everything. In high school (this was in the middle 1950s), we would get out of school. I went to St. Stephens on Grafton Hill. When we got out of school, we would get on the bus and go downtown, go and get a lime rickey and sometimes a root beer with ice cream in it. You just sit there and chit chat, socialize. It was wonderful. Then you would meet kids your own age from other schools from other parts of the city. The kids don’t have that these days. They are on their phones. We interacted a lot.”
“When I was in high school (I graduated in ’59) my 4 years in high school, the big thing was to go to record hops. DJs would come and play all the popular songs. We would walk from my house near St. Stephens Church. We would walk down the hill to Our Lady of Mt Carmel on Friday nights for the record hop. And it lasted until 11 pm and we would walk back up the hill, home. Never had a thought that anything… even our parents didn’t worry. It was so different then.”
“My dentist used to be on Main Street farther on down towards the court house. So I even had to go downtown to go the dentist. I used to go after school and take the bus.”
"My first job in hairdressing was at Barnards. It was a department store kind of like Denholms. There was even a beauty salon there."
“Remember the elevators? We had gentlemen in the elevators who would open and close the doors (she laughs) Remember that? In Denholms?”
“Yes, they would call out, ‘hosiery, third floor’. They would always tell you what was on that floor.”
“Yes, they always had the elevator man!”
“Those were the good old times, as they say!”
I am able to wax nostalgic about the “good old times” in Worcester with the group of knitters. I too crave to live in an age of such innocent, happy times. At heart, I always remain a skeptic and know full well that no time is ever nirvana. Post World War II through the 1960s, our country still faced major macro social challenges including racism and homophobia. We were a country racially divided and prejudiced and a culture where middle class women and men had very fixed and constricting gender roles. “Ozzie” may have been heading out the door to the office but “Harriett” was stuck in the kitchen, unless she took the bus from outlying suburbs to downtown Worcester to shop. But please let me not spoil the party here! Let’s ponder what the memories of downtown Worcester the knitters painted on that April afternoon and what lessons we can learn.
The knitters described Worcester as a thriving hub, a center comparable to the vitality of New York City when they were growing up in the 1940s through to the early 1960s. Here are the “Jane Jacobs” elements that made downtown function well at that time:
- Mixed Use: Downtown Worcester was truly an eighteen hour location of activity. Retail, residential, recreational, cultural, even light manufacturing were interwoven together throughout the area. The downtown did not empty out at the end of a work day since people actually lived there, worked there as well as shopped there.
- Pedestrian centered: Downtown Worcester was a place for walkers! Public transportation was so available, easy and inexpensive that few people brought cars downtown in need of parking. In this way, the streets served as a plaza for public space where people could meet and mingle.
So, what happened? The knitters had some theories about the demise of the golden times of downtown Worcester:
Competition from newly built malls in and out of the city
“One of the main reasons the stores downtown went downhill was when the Auburn Mall opened up with indoor parking and indoor shopping. Then Denholms moved down there too.”
“First, they had the galleria and that kind of closed. Then, it turned into those outlets.”
“How was that?”
“Lousy. It flopped just like the Galleria flopped.”
Rise of the automobile-centric society
“People are so used to jumping in their cars, stopping in front of the store to go shopping. Even if they were to rejuvenate downtown, there would need to be parking because people don’t walk anymore.”
“And now people are shopping online.”
“Downtown malls had a parking problem. Once the malls opened up (in the suburbs) and there was free parking there… and a lot more people had cars. Instead of having one car or no car, families had two or even three cars. Everything now is in the suburbs, of course.”
Division of the city after Route 290 was built
“I don’t think you could ever get the feeling of what it was like in those days before 290. I don’t think so. It was a different era.”
“290 divided the city! It went right through Columbus Street.”
“So, what do you miss most of downtown that you loved?” I asked the knitters.
“Downtown!!” one woman shouted out and laughed, “because it’s no shopping town. You just have to go out of town now. I mean there are stores but it’s not like it used to be."
As the knitters pondered how to give advice on how to bring the downtown back to life, some shrugged their shoulders.
“I don’t know what it will take to get downtown back on its feet. The public library still brings people downtown.”
“I wish we could help you out as to how Worcester can turn around!”