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 the last blog post, we outlined two urban planning models "duking it out" in cities across the country in the age of automobiles and suburbs after World War II. What should our cities look like? What are the ingredients to building a thriving urban ecosystem? Sometimes it's easier to understand the differences between the two models if we take a step away from Worcester and go somewhere else. Today, let's head to two very distinct neighborhoods in Boston. Please observe the two photos down below carefully. Here is question #1: One photo is an example of the Robert Moses Urban Renewal model of development. The other photo highlights the Jane Jacobs Neighborhood Rejuvenation ideal. Can you guess which is which? Question #2: Choose your preference. Where would you rather live or visit?
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?
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.