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.
We have already demonstrated in this blog how our emphasis on building "park and enter" mega projects cum parking garages has resulted in a deadened street life. It's time for some real soul searching here. Do we want to continue to be an auto-centric, sprawling suburbanized city or do we want to stop, rethink and envision a different path?
In the post World War II suburban and automobile age, cities had a choice between two urban development paradigms. From the very first groundbreaking of the Salem Square Development and the Worcester Galleria Mall, Worcester chose the urban renewal path of automobile-centric, single use, low density mega-projects cum parking garages. We chose an urban landscape designed for cars and not for people. Therefore, fifty years later, it should come as no surprise that our streets are filled with cars, our sidewalks demonstrate little "street ballet" and foot traffic and our residents hunger for open, spontaneous public meeting spaces that are lacking. The question is: can we learn from these past development mistakes? Can we turn this around?
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.
By now, many Worcesterites have seen the six minute online video created by the WBDC and the Worcester Idea Lab that depicts their vision of Worcester in 2020. Future blog posts will analyze the planning paradigm behind the video. Today, we will focus on the eye- rolling dig against the Midtown Mall in that video. Why all the venom and disgust thrown the way of this unpolished jewel of downtown? Could it be that the building is in need of maintenance, repairs and updating? It’s true that the structure needs work. The barricaded escalator looks like it hasn’t worked in years. Who knows the condition of the heating and electrical system! Could the condescending comments be the result of some empty, underutilized storefronts especially on the basement level of the building? Hmm… Well, there are many downtown buildings with higher vacancy rates. I just want to throw out this last hypothesis, that the little digs barely disguise pronounced classist and even racist attitudes of what “fits” with the documentary producers’ vision of a downtown that works. The Midtown Mall doesn’t have yoga studios, fancy juice or cappuccino bars, artisan boutiques or anything that caters to the tastes of West Siders. Here is the important question: Who “owns” the acceptable aesthetic?
A couple of months ago when I began to discuss the idea for this blog, an acquaintance of mine asked me if I ever read Nicole Apostola’s blog. He was a big fan of hers and thought we would have similar opinions on Worcester’s urban development landscape. Actually, I had never heard of Nicole, mostly because prior to this current experiment, I simply have not lived my life online. Now, my world is exploding with new found connections and like-minded fellows. I “friended” Nicole on facebook and sent her a fan message, asking her if she would be open to talk. Even though she wrote me that her writing is more proficient than her speaking, I convinced her to meet for a phone conversation. (By the way,Nicole, you are just as prolific voice- to- voice as you are with your pen!) On a Friday night, we talked for almost two hours, our conversation meandering over so many topics – her husband teaching Irish (Gaelic), Jeff Barnard,the wormtown taxi blogger who died in 2010 as her inspiration to become a blogger herself, city politics and crazy stories.
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.
CONSIDER THESE QUESTIONS:
1) Do you want a Worcester that is more biking and walking centered? Do you believe in building more bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and better public transportation options in the city? Do you wish you didn’t have to use a car as much to get around town?
2) Do you believe in the importance of maintaining, restoring and re-inventing our historic architectural infrastructure? Do you support the model of the Crompton Collective, for example, to create new and innovative uses of our old buildings?
3) Do you agree that bustling urban neighborhoods must combine a variety of mixed uses – residential, retail, industrial, cultural? Do you believe in the importance of high density over urban or suburban sprawl?