Worcester: Dying Mill Town, news at 11

Reading most stories about Worcester’s downtown is a bit like watching too much MeTV: just as the latter tends to be oversaturated with life insurance and pain-free catheter commercials, the former cannot help but use phrases like “gritty”, “mill town”, and “commuter rail.”

I hesitate to write too much about Worcester’s downtown — on this blog, it’s a bit of preaching to the choir that’s already heard the sermon half a dozen times — but indulge me in the same way that the Globe editorial board indulged in the latest “Olde Worcester Village, mill town of a thousand broken dreams” article.

Anyone who’s familiar with the WBDC’s track record in improving downtown foot traffic might be forgiven for not recognizing the new WBDC: a benevolent non-profit whose primary focus is getting people out of their offices and walking around downtown.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think the WBDC dropped a dime to the Globe to make the city administration look bad.

I was shocked that the article never mentioned the need for residential units downtown, and I was pleased to see that Paul McMorrow of Commonwealth Mag took note of that key component.

But I suppose I was more shocked that no one quoted in the article gave me any good reason to live in Worcester.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t like about the article, and I suppose it’s because I didn’t recognize the Worcester described.  (And not just because of the “six-lane highway to reach downtown via Front Street” from Union Station.)

I live in Worcester.  If you’re reading this, chances are you live in Worcester, too.

Is this really a city of 200,000 tortured souls just looking for a way out?  Can it really be that the vast majority of us are just waiting for the perfect listing in Shrewsbury so that we can pay that town’s incredibly low tax rate?

We could spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.

Actually, if we’re Worcesterites, we will spend the rest of our lives talking about what’s wrong with downtown.

Worcester’s problem is not that downtown sucks, or that our tax rate is not conducive to new business.

That’s not to say that those are not problems, but those are not the problem.

The problem is that we — and I include residents, elected officials, and the administration in that “we” — do not have a full understanding of what the long haul is for Worcester’s downtown.

If we did, we wouldn’t allow anything into CitySquare that isn’t part of the original “vibrant, mixed-use” vision.  That includes CitySquare’s two new buildings (Unum and St. Vincent Cancer Center) that “have not brought street-level businesses” because they never built any.

Too often we mistake the preliminary phase of a 20- to 30-year-long process as vision.  Witness the accolades Tim Murray continues to receive for advocating tearing down the mall.  The trick isn’t finding the wrecking ball, it’s focusing a generation’s worth of energy on building up a neighborhood that was ravaged by years of urban renewal and bad decisions.

Despite what the Globe article says, Worcester is not a former center of manufacturing looking to reinvent itself.

That’s what we were 45 years ago, when our forefathers decided that the way forward — at least where downtown was concerned — was to demolish the densest part of the city and focus on urban renewal (which, in Worcester’s emphasis on car-based travel, was essentially urban suburbanization).

And that suburbanization, the creation of buildings that are only accessible by car and streets that are impassable by foot, is what we’re now up against.

Worcester has never lacked for great beginnings.

What it has lacked is a consistent vision and willingness to carry out that vision.

That’s how we ended up with a convention center with no space for additional hotels next to it (though it conveniently has a hospital across the way), a rail yard in the middle of downtown, and a theater that folks thought would magically create spinoff.

We — all of us — need to always have the long-term in mind.

So when we hear that there are tiny apartments being renovated for current college students, we need to make sure that we’re also creating larger apartments that those students can use when they graduate and continue to live downtown. 

When there’s another CitySquare building proposed, we need to make sure it has street-level retail and residential units.

When there’s a proposal to replace a building with street-level retail with a glassed-in theater, we need to ask why we can’t just use the theater the city forced to close.

So, Worcester, we’ve got a lot to do in the next thirty years.

And I certainly don’t want to answer my grandchildren’s questions about why we screwed everything up in the downtown once again, do you?

When the Boston Globe misses the mark yet again, it’s just annoying.

When it’s generations of Worcesterites missing the mark, it takes decades to repair.

4 thoughts on “Worcester: Dying Mill Town, news at 11

  1. Gabe says:

    “WE NEED TO MAKE SURE” This is it entirely. We, the tax payers, need to make sure. This is my beef that most people say is misdirected when things like the hockey rink or the casino come up. We as a citizenry need to have as much ire at Worcester’s total urban planning failure as we have over the above mentioned plans. Until that happens we will get more of the same. We will only get from the city what we demand, and as a citizenry there has not been a majority demand for a nice, walkable, mixed use, urban Worcester. Until that happens there will be more of the same.

  2. gayle says:

    Nicole ,please keep posting (organizing) articles written about problems with Worcester past and how it shows up in the present plans ( even if you don’t agree with them) -the articles at least try to focus on what they think is the problem on why Worcester is so behind the times when it has so much to offer already (this city should be ahead of the game because of what it already has and IT isn’t).
    I liked the article ,it points out lack of leadership and focus. I agree with Gabe that the citizenry need to be involved and hold the city accountable with the total urban planning . And I do mean total urban planning and not just a few blocks of downtown. Each councilor has a strip of commercial blocks in the inner city . They should be held accountable for the short and long range urban planning of their own innercity neighborhood?

  3. Jessica Hawkins says:

    I just want to see one really cool movie, book or TV show that is based in Worcester. In my spare time I dream about because most people outside of this area can’t even pronounce it. I have my own thoughts on this, as I know the key to making my first $100mil is a dynamite horror flick, and New England has all the ingredients for this.

    Secondly, Boston has long smothered the rest of MA–esp the central and western areas with its pomposity (as personified with genuine windbags like John Kerry), imperial attitudes and tax mongering. They have choked and smothered the creativity out of the rest of us the rest of us with their one party government–groupthink-ology.

    Too many Worcesterites think the key to success–i.e. to grow Worcester–is to emulate Boston. But as that Globe article shows, as soon as Worcester gets “uppity”, the Brahmin ballbusters will be more than happy to shoot us down and regurgitate that old “mill town” description again and again.

  4. It appears that, while the Globe article focuses on taxes and retail, you seem to agree with its general assessment that the city lacks true leadership that can see long term goals. I would love to hear your take on the current exhibit at Worcester Historical Museum, which deals with urban renewal and recreating downtown into what we know today.

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