Worcester 2.0: A Jane Walker's Woo-Reflections

by Kaner Atakan Turker, PhD candidate, Graduate School of Geography, Clark University

Jane Jacobs in the Woo had the pleasure of getting to know Kaner Atakan Turker during Jane Week.  Kaner was a regular participant on many of the Jane Walks and attended the film screening at the Worcester Public Library as well as the final Jane Award ceremony at Crompton Place.  Please feel free to dig into this long and deep piece that analyzes Worcester, where we are now and where we are heading.  Kaner's questions are important for all of us as we work towards the renaissance of our city.  He asks, "Where will people of color and/or lower income be within the revitalizing/renewing Worcester? How much will they be incorporated to this transformation? What will their role be?"

Now, here are Kaner's thoughts:

 

  Standing in front of the former Shaarai Torah East synagogue on Providence Street. The Jewish East Side tour was just one of the Jane Walks that Kaner joined during Jane Week.

 Standing in front of the former Shaarai Torah East synagogue on Providence Street. The Jewish East Side tour was just one of the Jane Walks that Kaner joined during Jane Week.

Right after Jane Jacobs in the Woo series during which multiple meetings and walks were held to celebrate Worcester’s history as well as Jane Jacob’s legacy, I walked into a bar to buy myself a beer. Checking my Turkish passport, the bartender asked: “Among every place around the world, why come to Worcester?”

I guess the bartender is not alone in his surprise. I have had countless conversations with people who are born and bred in Worcester as well as those who moved here later. The common theme is a skepticism about the trajectory of Worcester and a strong desire to leave the city—the sooner, the better.  

I am Kaner. I moved to Worcester from Istanbul (Turkey) three years ago for my PhD studies, and cities constitute one of my biggest academic interests. Contrasting the conversations above, I love Worcester. I do not know how many times I have wandered its streets only to get distracted by the amazing architecture of its brick buildings and old factories. I was shocked, when I first moved here, by how much it can possibly snow. I have had quick lunches in its parks with my dates or taken long nighttime walks in its empty streets when my heart was broken. I have had great beers in Worcester’s bars and breweries, and collected so many great memories on its streets—funny and scary. I have had great food in its high- and low-end restaurants. I always look forward to the weekends, when I hit the road to have breakfast in a Worcester diner, and then head to a café to study.

In Istanbul I was drowned in the city—its events and activities—while in Worcester I have to dig in to reach it. It certainly took me a while to overcome my longing for the crowds, but learning to live with fewer people and quieter streets has transformed me. In Istanbul, a machine of 15 million, I always felt disposable and replaceable. But I feel more significant in Worcester.

Worcester feels almost counterintuitive. Why, in spite of the sprawl culture of America, haven’t more people moved to Worcester, but instead prefer to live in Boston, a city that many cannot afford? Or take the neighborhood that I have lived for three years now, whose reputation reached me even before moving to the United States. Why does a pedestrian experience around Main South, the neighborhood of Clark University, contrast so sharply with the neighborhood of Becker College and WPI—despite the significant improvement achieved in terms of neighborhood security, planning, and design during past decade?

Worcester may not be not the industrial powerhouse that it used to be; but if it is New England’s second biggest city, it should be providing a certain level of shelter, security, and economic opportunities to its residents. On a warm day, take a walk from Clark University to downtown, for instance, and check the shops to the right and left of the street. Maybe we don’t notice them but they are there: old restaurants serving food from all types of cuisines, bakeries, hairdressers, clothing shops, and wacky small shops where you can buy everything—umbrella, watch, perfume, and chewing gum—while sending money internationally.

 Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Russell Street, Worcester”

Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Russell Street, Worcester”

I observe that Worcester is changing, and started to believe that there is a certain discrepancy and tension between what Worcester is and what Worcester should be. In other words, people have different approaches regarding what Worcester is and what Worcester should be and this complicates the task in our hand: transforming Worcester. This transformation can be very productive, if we create a Worcester that is inclusive of everyone, while it can also be very destructive, if we create a Worcester that is exclusive for the higher end of socioeconomic status—like a private members’ club.

Jane Week: What Worcester is

During Jane Week, I attended six events (other than the closing ceremony, to which I will return later) that gave a glimpse of what Worcester is. Five of these were walks around Worcester—its downtown, Canal district, Shrewsbury street, old Jewish east side, and Main South. Another was held at Worcester Public Library where we watched a 45-minute documentary produced in 1971 on the reconstruction of Plumley Village back then, and held a discussion on what the socioeconomic impacts of revitalization/renewal projects are in Worcester.

Jane Week has reminded that Worcester is a city of immigrants and working class, as Joyce Mandell reemphasized in the closing ceremony,  asking the city to commit to these roots. Although I was partly familiar with it, I was amazed when I saw the history that Worcester contains. I didn’t know that the Declaration of Independence was read in Worcester—first of Massachusetts Bay Colony—because Boston was considered unsafe. Although I walked and biked around it hundreds of times, I had also never noticed that the first settler of the city rests in Worcester Common. I certainly knew that contraceptive pill was invented in Worcester, but I didn’t know that some of the bravest women, such as Abby Kelley Foster, who fought for anti-slavery and women’s rights, lived in Worcester. I couldn’t believe the controversial story of anarchist Emma Goldman—believed to plot the assassination of the manager of Carnegie Steel Company in her ice-cream shop at the corner of Winter and Grafton streets. I learn on a tour that Goldman was also supportive of homosexuals—highly unexpected for anyone living in late 19th and early 20th century—while we stand across the corner where her shop was supposed to be, and only 1-2 minutes of walking distance from Worcester’s oldest gay bar (also on Grafton street).

I didn’t know that the Union Station was designed to impress and transmit the image of an industrial powerhouse that it was back then, and that it welcomed thousands of workers and immigrants from several destinations each day—something that I still fail to imagine given that it is always so empty when I am there. Nor did I know that the famous Canal that connected Worcester to Providence worried residents of Boston that they would be reduced to a fishing town while Worcester would explode to an industrial giant. The joke’s certainly on us!

 Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Union Station”

Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Union Station”

I knew that Shrewsbury Street welcomed Italian immigrants, and I enjoyed the buildings there. But I didn’t notice that they followed a certain pattern as several of these used to be automobile galleries and showrooms. We have always rushed to a have a cheeseburger at Boulevard Diner after having drinks and dancing, but I didn’t know that its name came from the earlier European design of Shrewsbury Street which had a boulevard in the middle. We cracked when we heard that some were involved in illegal wine-making, or fights at the corner of Mulberry and Shrewsbury Streets. While we wandered around the east side which formerly accommodated the Jewish immigrants, several participants—saying that they frequently passed by this neighborhood—were surprised that they didn’t notice the mikvah and synagogue, despite their standalone architecture in the neighborhood, which are currently under residential use.

Concerns on what Worcester should be: Change for Whom?

In past three years, Worcester has changed—albeit slowly. There is a flourishing restaurant and brewery scene in the city, for instance, to the point that you may need to wait 40 minutes to take a table and grab good food. There is a vibrant arts scene too, which fascinates with its contemporary as well as historical selections. We see that old factories are recycled for residential and/or commercial purposes. These and other projects that are initiated in Worcester or imported here seek to blow away the cobwebs of this post-industrial city. Obviously, more is to come—framing a particular perspective of what Worcester should be. And the question is whether this approach and the redevelopment it designates will be inclusive or exclusive.

During Jane Week, we learn that hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private funding has been spent to give life to downtown. One of our guides mentions that downtown has been redesigned for the health sector—already prominent in the city of Worcester. Residences and hotels are being constructed in the area, and some of the floors will be used for commercial uses like restaurants. Franklin Street will also accommodate new amenities, including a new open space to enjoy beers. Another plan is underfoot to add a new entrance to the Worcester Public Library from the direction of Worcester Common. Everyone was excited to hear that the City wished to extend downtown towards the Canal district. The same crowd remained silent when the tour arrives at Notre Dame church, which may be torn down in near future.

A couple of minutes later someone talked: “You know what we need in downtown? A grocery store!” Several others agreed and were happy to learn that there were discussions involving the historical Worcester Market, which sits at the corner of Main and Madison streets. I was a little bit surprised with their enthusiasm, however, given that there is a supermarket on next block across the road (664 Main Street, “Compare Foods”) and only a couple of steps away from the corner where the historical market sits. This was one of the moments that I felt the discrepancy between approaches regarding what Worcester is and what Worcester should be most intensely.

As a student who lives in Main South and observes the presence of immigrants and people of lower socioeconomic strata in the city, I wonder how they will be integrated to the upcoming transformation of Worcester. While there might be an abundance of short-term or project-based jobs—for example, for the ongoing construction—which will certainly provide an income for many, the long-term implications remain more complicated. The health sector requires a specific labor force that has requisite skills, and it is probable that the trained and qualified labor force (doctors, nurses, etc.) might be imported from elsewhere, rather than relying on the local labor force in Worcester. (Some of the training programs offered at Worcester Technical High School may mitigate this effect, although it only can train a portion of the kids who might benefit.) Or let’s think about the hotels, residences, and restaurants that will be constructed in downtown. Do I sound too cynical if I ask who will be the customer of these amenities and who will be the workforce?

 Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “St. Vincents at Sunset”

Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “St. Vincents at Sunset”

My purpose here is certainly not to alienate the actors like political representatives, large capital, and business entrepreneurs who work hard to improve the living standards and lifestyle opportunities of Worcester residents. When I go to a concert at Mechanics Hall or when I visit Worcester Art Museum, for example, I know that these events and projects are possible, at least partially, with their contributions. My concern lies elsewhere: urban transformation projects like those ongoing in Worcester, name it revitalization or renewal, have generally come with not only economic benefits but also social costs. And here is the trick: while it was generally held that economic benefits would trickle down, history has so far proved us wrong; because it was rather the social costs, not the benefits, that have trickled down. In other words, in countless examples elsewhere, the negative repercussions like unemployment and displacement has hit the lower socioeconomic groups and communities most severely.

In the closing ceremony to Jane Week, Crompton Place was awarded the first Jane Week award for following the principles of Jane Jacobs by aiming to creating a community in their neighborhood. Given the high quality of services Crompton Place and its tenants provide, I believe that this is a very well-deserved award; and I hope there will be more businesses like it in Worcester. But during the ceremony, I remembered a conversation with a friend of mine: After spending a couple of hours in Crompton place and its neighborhood, we were preparing our backpacks to head back to Main South, and she suddenly asked: “Do you notice who is missing in these buildings and streets?”

I found this question very staggering, since it is highly relevant for not only the case of Crompton Place but all of Worcester. Let me reframe the questions then: Where will people of color and/or lower income be within the revitalizing/renewing Worcester? How much will they be incorporated to this transformation? What will their role be?

What does Worcester need?

Although creating an inclusive Worcester will certainly be a laborious task, during Jane Week I had the opportunity to meet so many people, who love this city and long for its improvement, that I cannot be anything but hopeful for its future. In this regard, there are a couple of suggestions that I would like to make in order to take part in and contribute to discussions about Worcester’s transformation. These suggestions mainly evolve around my observations during Jane Week (as well as my personal observations over the past three years).

 Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Dream Big Dreams”

Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Dream Big Dreams”

First, if Worcester is to give weight to sectors like healthcare which require high and specialized human capital, we need to think carefully about how we will incorporate the local labor. Instead of giving priority to import doctors, nurses, and physicians (which will happen to a certain degree) from other states and cities, the residents of Worcester need to be provided affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that will help them to integrate smoothly to the renewed economy of Worcester. They need to achieve a fair share of economic distribution, and this can be partly attained if they have access to develop the necessary human capital to work in such sectors—instead of being obliged to jobs that don’t need more than unskilled and low-skilled labor. We also need to ease access to funding and credit, which will give momentum to new businesses that support Worcester’s economy. These financial opportunities should be extended to already existing businesses too, as this will help them to upgrade their businesses if they want to, instead of being displaced by others.

Secondly, the cost of living in Worcester will potentially constitute a serious subject in the short to medium term. One of the consequences of urban revitalization/renewal projects is that it raises the price per square foot, which leads to expensive goods and services—as rent constitutes a major cost for businesses—and housing. And hence, less affordable cost of living. On the other hand, during Jane Week we have come across with several projects that aim at providing affordable housing. For instance, Kilby-Gardner-Hammond Neighborhood Revitalization Project, of which Main South CDC is a partner, has successfully provided affordable housing, in the form of ownership or rent, after renovating apartments and buildings. In another, we toured a renovated factory which has a certain fraction of its units under rent regulation. While our guides were uncertain how long these projects can be sustained under current funding opportunities as well as the political climate, we should encourage the City to prioritize such housing projects throughout Worcester and its downtown. Through financial assistance and tax cuts, commercial use of downtown can also be opened to not only large capital but also small businesses.

As I mentioned before, during Jane Week, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with amazing people who are concerned about Worcester. While we walked around Union Station and listened to its glorious history, one of the participants contrasted the current transportation network of Worcester to its past. According to her, one of the major problems of Worcester was its lack of connectivity to other towns. While I certainly agree with her argument, this problem is not limited to the lack of transportation networks between Worcester and other cities but also transportation within Worcester. Worcester needs more bus lines, more frequent lines, and incentives to use public transportation such as free access with student IDs. The city needs to be more bicycle-friendly too—with more connected bicycle lanes and through actively encouraging its use. Transportation is key for citywide integration, as I will discuss briefly below.

 Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Layaway”

Photo Credit: Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie, “Layaway”

Another participant, who mentioned that she moved to Worcester more than 20 years ago, was disappointed with the loss of history in the city. It’s true that several buildings, which are clearly historical monuments even if they are not officially labelled so, have managed to survive. As I mentioned before, some of these are under residential and/or commercial use while others await their destiny. But at the same time there are many others that have been already torn down—only to be replaced by another building or leave the plot vacant for future use—which is a very sad loss for Worcester. We need to create participatory and/or representative mechanisms for the decisions regarding how to save the remaining historical urban architecture in Worcester. And it isn’t enough to have our voices being heard, but we also need to make sure that our approaches as the dwellers of Worcester are incorporated to the city plans.

And lastly, while the current focus on downtown is not surprising as many believe that it constitutes the showcase product of the city, these projects—be it a revitalization/renewal project or an art show/festival—should be integrated at the city level. There are two issues that we need to keep in mind. First, if the projects mainly focus on downtown, Canal district or Shrewsbury Street, it will lead to a sharp imbalance of economic distribution and harm the rest of the city which lacks the financial opportunities to which downtown has access. As mentioned before, there is no guarantee that the economic benefit trickle down—in this case from downtown to the rest of Worcester. Besides, the investment going to downtown may lead nowhere, as the rest of the city can’t keep up with its upgrade and be a source of the economic activity that is necessary for its maintenance. Therefore, integrating the projects all over Worcester, as our guide from the Main South CDC suggested, is not only a good idea. Indeed, it is a necessity if we seek investment returns. (Needless to say, it is unfair to spend the public and private funding primarily on a certain area, not others.) And secondly, integrating the projects are important as it will intensify the urban connectivity. Compare an art show that happens all over Worcester to another one that happens only in downtown, Canal district or Shrewsbury Street. In the former you will visit different places in Worcester if you want to keep up with the show—and also generate an economic activity in them—while in the latter you will only visit places that are already “hip”. In the former you will get acquainted with the entire Worcester while in the latter you will enjoy places that you are already familiar with.

During the closing ceremony, Joyce Mandell gave an inspiring speech and set an agenda that rested on four themes. She asked for 1) a vision for Worcester, 2) streets that we can walk, 3) review processes for city design suggestions, and 4) room for participation. If we pursue Worcester’s development and envision a future following these themes—particularly the latter two in my personal perspective—in our plans and designs, we have the potential to create a Worcester of which we all would love to be a part.

However, we need to keep in mind that these themes also give a very important responsibility to all parties that wish to be involved in this process. If we want to be seen, we need to speak up and participate. If we want to see, we need to learn how to look. Time to roll up our sleeves, and start working.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Deborah Martin (Professor of Geography, Clark University), Joyce Mandell (founder of the Jane Jacobs in the Woo), and Mukadder Okuyan (PhD student, Social Psychology, Clark University) for their encouragement, comments, and feedback. Photography is courtesy of Meaghan L. Hardy-Lavoie Photography, "Streets of where I am from" Project (http://hardy-lavoie.com/). ■