In honor of urban theorist and activist, Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday last May 2016, Joyce Mandell dusted off her computer keyboard, stretched out her typing fingers and opened up a Squarespace account for a new website that she named, “Jane Jacobs in the Woo”. Her commitment was to blog for one full year about her home city, Worcester, Massachusetts. Here were some driving questions: How would Jane Jacobs view Worcester’s development from our past choices of action to our potential future course? What would the ghost of Jane Jacobs say or do if she arrived by train at Union Station? And how can Worcesterites collectively engage in conversations and actions to build an organic, lively, people-centric, inclusive city inspired by the building blocks outlined so well by Jane Jacobs?
But Somerville had all the basic bare bones to emerge someday as one of the most livable cities – 1) It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with almost 79,000 people jammed tight into about 4 square miles. (Compare that to our sprawling Worcester with 182,000 people spread out in about 39 square miles) 2) Its extensive public transportation network of subways, trains and buses, allow easy access to Boston, Cambridge and surrounding suburbs. 3) It’s incredibly walk-able with short blocks. The housing stock of predominantly closely packed multiple family dwellings are within easy walking distance to commercial squares where one can find everything from restaurants to service businesses.
We community organizers have never found an answer to the potential negative consequences of giving “power to the people”. Even Saul Alinsky, the modern day founder of American community organizing, witnessed the group he formed, the Back of the Yards council in Chicago, use their newfound power to exclude people of color from their neighborhood. This is not just an irrelevant or academic question. What if the people elect a leader who denigrates women or whips up hate against Muslims or wants to build a wall to keep out the damn foreigners? Is “the demos” always right? And who judges what is right anyway? And what are we going to do, throw away the ideal of community-driven planning or democracy because the people might make wrong, racist, mean, non-inclusionary choices? I still don't have the answers. It's 2016 and again, I'm in a time warp, the same dilemma I found myself in what I once believed to be the accepting neighborhood around Ashford Street.
This post discusses toilet cleaning as a feminist, political act and advocates our teaching our children to partner with us in house cleaning, especially toilet scrubbing. What could this possibly have to do with revitalizing our city? Then, I got to thinking about Jerry Powers who spends a weekend cleaning out invasive weeds in Coes Pond or all the dedicated people who join the Regional Environmental Council for annual Earth Day clean ups. I was thinking about my friend who carries a garbage bag and wears heavy rubber gloves to pick up trash on her daily neighborhood walks. Going beyond the literal meaning of “cleaning”, I began to think of all the Worcester citizens who take the time to join boards or sit on city advisory committees or volunteer to be docents for Preservation Worcester or to run the café at the library. They too are taking responsibility for “cleaning up”. In this way, I see even more the importance of cleaning at home as the foundational building block to encouraging our cleaning out in the street, the neighborhood, the city and beyond. So, yes, I’ve now decided to share this mini-essay. It’s relevant.
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!