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 In 1999, I wrote an unpublished book, The Last Minyan: A Lovesong to the Broadway Boys based on those final years of Shaarai Torah East.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!
In this blog, we are attempting to answer some of our questions: Why are there not more walkable neighborhoods in Worcester? How can we develop more open, spontaneous public spaces in our city? There is plenty to do here but why does it seem like there is nothing to do? Why do we travel to Boston, Providence, even Northampton for the kind of urban vitality that we crave? Why does this city feel so, so, so…. suburban!? A way to unpack these answers is to compare two competing urban planning models fighting it out since the 1950s and 1960s. To understand how this urban planning war manifested in cities across the country, let’s go to New York City where in the 1960s, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs wrestled aggressively over the vision of what “Gotham” should be post WWII in the age of automobiles and new suburbs.
Imagine a huge bulldozer clearing out whole urban neighborhoods. Imagine that the federal government has primarily paid for this bulldozer. The “urban renewal” goal in the 1950s and 1960s was to clear out “slums” to rejuvenate our cities. But who defines what is a “slum”? Real people lived in these neighborhoods slated for destruction. Real people had homes and businesses, went to school, fell in love and had families in these neighborhoods. If you want to understand how “urban renewal” worked in cities across the country, you don’t have to go farther than the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood in Worcester.
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.
John and Mary Lou Anderson were once our neighbors with whom we shared occasional meals and guard duty when either of our families went on vacations. We had each other’s house keys and I knew how to water their marigolds the way they liked. They have lived in this same house near Bancroft Tower for almost forty years, but we have long since moved away to another neighborhood off of Flagg Street. As I started to ponder questions about the history of the building of Route 290 and its impact on East Side neighborhoods, I knew John was the one to call to get some answers. Was the rumor true that the powers-that-be at the time wanted to break up those thriving immigrant neighborhoods emerging as a power threatening voting block? No, that was not true, John assured me, but he explained in great detail how the highway impacted each neighborhood. John gives us true wisdom derived from his being a lifelong Worcester resident, a historian with a particular expertise in Worcester history and a shaper of public policy during his twenty- two year career as city councilor (1975 – 1997). He even served as mayor in 1986. In this conversation, he reflects on his public service contribution to the city.
Maybe this is no coincidence: This June, two of our iconic, historic Worcester churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Mulberry Street and Notre Dame des Canadiens in downtown, are pending hearings for their immediate demolition. At the Worcester Historical Commission meetings, the petitioners, the Catholic Diocese of Worcester for Mt. Carmel on June 9th and the developers of City Square for Notre Dame on June 30th, are requesting waivers from the one year waiting period for demolition orders. Their goal: Tear down right away. The Diocese is arguing that Mt Carmel poses a safety hazard, the building’s façade potentially crumbling onto drivers on closely adjacent route 290. The City Square developer claims that there is no economically viable reuse for Notre Dame and that its presence becomes a barrier to the successful on-time completion of the City Square project.
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.
A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them...If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction....