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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a Thursday night, OpenHack night at Technocopia downtown at 44 Portland Street. The space is alive with activity, laughter and conversations. Before I interview Kevin, he stops to chat for five minutes with another member. He asks the member’s advice for a student he met that day at the fab lab at Quinsigamond Community College. The member offers to help the student who wants to make an exoskeleton for his hand that has no strength by printing and manufacturing his own upgrades. So, this is what a makerspace is all about – to make things, to share tools and ideas and to create community together. Technocopia is a big tool workshop that is a collectively shared resource.