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.

Symbol #1 of how the car took over Worcester: Route 290 completed in 1970 symbolically towers over Union Station!  In his book, The Worcester Account, S.N. Behrman described how Union Stations was the locus of activity and hub of incoming and outgoing train trips especially during World War II when soldiers left and returned home.  By 1974, the station was closed to passengers and fell into disrepair until its renovation in 2000. Yes, the train station was closed for over twenty five years!  Route 290 completed finally in 1970, promoted the use of private automobiles and won the day in the transportation competition.  

Symbol #1 of how the car took over Worcester: Route 290 completed in 1970 symbolically towers over Union Station!  In his book, The Worcester Account, S.N. Behrman described how Union Stations was the locus of activity and hub of incoming and outgoing train trips especially during World War II when soldiers left and returned home.  By 1974, the station was closed to passengers and fell into disrepair until its renovation in 2000. Yes, the train station was closed for over twenty five years!  Route 290 completed finally in 1970, promoted the use of private automobiles and won the day in the transportation competition.  

Towards an auto-centric nation

The choices we are able to make on how we will get around today (will we drive, walk, take the bus or train?) were impacted heavily on June 29, 1956, the day that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway and Defense Act, legislation funding a trust to build over 47,000 miles of highways nationwide.  This largest public works commitment funneled over 70 billion dollars to build roads with only one percent, less than 1 billion dollars going to sustain neglected rail lines. This bias in American transportation funding favoring automobiles and trucks over public transit was due in large part to the increasingly powerful role of the lobbying of automobile manufacturers.  In 1943, the American Road Builders Association funded primarily by General Motors, became one of the largest lobbying groups in the country advocating for massive highway construction.  Indeed, Lucius Clay, a board director of General Motors, actually chaired the committee appointed by Eisenhower to shape the 1956 Interstate Highway legislation.  

This was not the first time that automotive corporate interests choked out competition from public transportation.  In the 1920s, over 85% of urban residents nationwide used streetcar lines for transportation. In the subsequent decades, the lines grew less profitable, and private companies relinquished ownership to municipalities. By 1946, General Motors and eight other automobile manufacturers had bought and were dismantling streetcar lines in eighty cities, replacing them with their own manufactured buses.  The scores of newly built suburbs post World War II were also designed to promote the use of private automobiles.  Suburbs zoned for single use (residential, commercial, retail, industrial uses separate from each other) required the daily use of road vehicles to go to work or shop and return home.  In the suburbs, if one does not have access to a car, one experiences a bit of a “social death”.

Let’s ponder what this all could mean.  Perhaps urban dwellers at the time wanted their own patch of grass in the suburbs and a car with roads to get them there.  Or, perhaps, corporate profit-making interests of the automotive industry shaping federal spending priorities, promoted a physical landscape where a car became a necessity just to live and function. Compare the development agenda in Europe post World War II where spending was directed to re-building compact, highly dense cities with heavily funded public transportation systems including light rail, subways and bus lines.

The bias in transportation spending impacts our choices today.  Worcester has been retrofitted for the car. Worcester buses no longer leave every 15 to 20 minutes to bring you to your destination.  Bike lanes are few and far between.  Rail service to Boston has been slow to ramp up in terms of increasing round trips and direct, faster routes.  This month is a hopeful time as we initiate the first “heart to hub” ride bringing passengers into Boston in an hour.  What if we invested in train and bus service as much as we subsidize the use of private automobiles in the form of road maintenance, subsidized parking and low gas taxes?

Symbol #2 of the automobilization of Worcester:  The Worcester Center Galleria completed in 1971, greeted train passengers with a HUGE parking garage. Now, there was no pedestrian access from Union Station to the core of downtown.  The mall was ringed by Foster Street widened into a four lane "highway" that was almost impossible to cross.  The message was clear:  This city was now going to be designed for cars, not pedestrians or train goers.  The mall also helped kill the street life in the rest of downtown.  Now, people could drive, shop and then leave without ever stepping foot on a downtown outdoor sidewalk.

Symbol #2 of the automobilization of Worcester:  The Worcester Center Galleria completed in 1971, greeted train passengers with a HUGE parking garage. Now, there was no pedestrian access from Union Station to the core of downtown.  The mall was ringed by Foster Street widened into a four lane "highway" that was almost impossible to cross.  The message was clear:  This city was now going to be designed for cars, not pedestrians or train goers.  The mall also helped kill the street life in the rest of downtown.  Now, people could drive, shop and then leave without ever stepping foot on a downtown outdoor sidewalk.

Investing in suburbs, divesting in cities

Shifting from a nation of cities to a nation of budding suburbs was also driven in large part by federal spending priorities.  One of the models of this new suburban landscape was postwar Levittown twenty five miles outside of New York City.  Built in 1947, this “garden community” featured carbon copy, mass produced cape-style houses on small lots.  These houses, beginning to sprout up nationwide, were affordable and available especially for World War II veterans.  The population shift from the cities to suburbs was subsidized by the federal government in the form of low interest loans.  For less than $500 down, a returning veteran could have access to a piece of the American dream – a deed to a three bedroom house, a patch of lawn and a car in the driveway in a newly built suburb.  

Levittown, the classic prototype of growing suburbs post World War II, provided little houses of ticky tack for the mass exodus of predominantly white people leaving the cities.

Levittown, the classic prototype of growing suburbs post World War II, provided little houses of ticky tack for the mass exodus of predominantly white people leaving the cities.

However, the most important and little told fact about these government loans through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) is that racial discrimination was embedded into the government’s lending practices, directly leading to the “white flight” to the suburbs and the “browning of the cities”.  Even though technically illegal after 1948, the FHA continued to uphold the practice of racially restrictive covenants that prohibited people of color from buying properties in newly developed suburbs.   Additionally, the FHA used race and ethnicity as a variable for decisions to extend FHA-backed mortgage insurance, primarily denying mortgages to people of color during this key time period. White residents of newly built suburbs were able to benefit from the investment of public infrastructure: roads, new sewer systems, new public schools and libraries, electrical lines.

As this huge exodus was occurring post World War II, the cities and the residents who remained there saw their neighborhoods crumbling.  As the eyes of lenders were looking towards the newly built space in the suburbs, they simultaneously disinvested from neighborhoods in the urban cores.  Banks marked off whole urban neighborhoods as areas for bad investment so that residents could not get access to credit for anything from home purchases to home improvement projects or small business loans.  Many of these neighborhoods that banks redlined were neighborhoods of color, a double dose of racially discriminatory lending practices directly explaining the emergence of “white wealthy suburbs” and “poor inner city”.  Jane Jacobs pointed out how “city people finance the building of suburbs” (309).  When banks refused to extend mortgage credit to residents of the Chicago Back-of-the Yards neighborhood made famous by Upton Sinclair’s expose, The Jungle, in 1953 the residents organized and threatened to close down bank accounts in over thirty banks to highlight and protest the unfair lending practices.  These banks were taking the deposits of neighborhood residents to fund development elsewhere, most likely in the suburbs. After this organized resident action, banks agreed to consider loan requests and within three years, residents had the credit to rehabilitate over 5000 homes in the area. The importance of access to credit is a key determinant to neighborhood stability and rejuvenation.

There is no telling how many city districts have been destroyed by blacklisting… A drought of conventional money inexorably enforces deterioration.
— Jane Jacobs

Urban Renewal, Urban Destruction

Here are some key ways to kill an urban neighborhood.  First, lending institutions deny credit access to residents so that housing stocks and commercial districts wither.  Secondly, planners (and developers hungry for the land) define an area as “slum” in need of “urban renewal”, forcing that neighborhood into a limbo state where any potential investors fear making a commitment to the space.  In 1949, Title 1 of the American Housing Act was passed, providing federal funds for “slum clearance” and the building of new public housing projects and non-residential mega-development works.  

The question is: Who defines what is a “slum”?  Urban redevelopment authorities had the power of eminent domain, taking privately owned properties to make room for projects they deemed more important for the community.  The urban renewal craze hit this country especially in the 1950s through the 1970s.  Whole neighborhoods were razed to build towering, mass produced housing towers, urban malls, cultural centers or to make room for new highways or highway extensions.  The neighborhoods that were destroyed were often the kind of neighborhoods that provided the teeming, vibrant city life that Jane Jacobs described – mixed use, human scaled designs, crowded and dense, busy sidewalks during the day and night, mix of old and newer buildings.  Indeed, Jane Jacobs’ neighborhood of Greenwich Village was deemed a “slum” and it is only because of the active organizing efforts to fight off the city and the developers that this neighborhood stands today.  Most neighborhoods did not survive clearance.

The urban renewal wrecking ball hit Worcester with a vengeance beginning in the 1950s.  Worcester chose the path of urban renewal over neighborhood rejuvenation.  However, the temptations were large at that time to go down this path: The federal monies available through such mechanisms as the American Housing Act in 1949  and the 1954 Interstate Highway and Defense Act, were available to change drastically the physical landscape.  Worcester was not the only city that jumped on board that gravy train.

The history of automobilization, suburbanization, white flight and crumbling cities is too complex to explain fully in a blog post.  I highly suggest that if your interest in piqued, you continue your reading.

Suggested readings:

Boehm, Lisa Krissoff and Steven H. Corey. America's Urban History. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014. Print.

Holtz Kay, Jane. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back.  California:  University of California Press, 1997. Print.

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

Kunstler, James Howard. Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Print.