Gateway City #1: Worcester

To the visitor the first impression of the mid-State metropolis will be one of tremendous activity, commercial and industrial.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. First up, Worcester, the biggest little city in Central Massachusetts.

When people say that a city is weird, they mean one of two things.

There’s the good kind of weird, meaning “quirky” or “unique”. This is the kind of weird that people want to keep Austin and Portland. “Good weird” places make life interesting for residents and spawn great artists or innovative ideas. Then there’s the bad kind of weird, meaning confusing, disorienting, or frightening. Lagos’ traffic jams are bad weird, in that it’s difficult to tell whether it is rush hour or Armageddon.

Worcester, my new home, is hopelessly weird. But which type are we talking here? A heaping helping of both.

First Impressions

Unfortunately, a lot of what’s bad weird in Worcester is the first stuff you see.

The city is scattered in a devil-may-care development pattern over seven hills, combining the sensible, straightforward roads of a 15th Century European city with the politeness and regard for pedestrian comfort that reigns in New England (if your sarcasm detector isn’t registering any activity, I’d recommend you skip this article). While I’m no believer that cities must follow a perfect and predictable grid, certain cities do “disorganized” much better than others. Usually those who do it well have much more robust public transit and walkability than Worcester.

The overall effect of a confusing layout without easy navigation is to make distances longer, public areas less accessible, and areas of town feel artificially cut off from one another – a disadvantage in an era of renewed interest in cities and downtowns. The city is developing an interesting and much needed city street/district rebranding and signage effort to help people understand where they are as they move around downtown – a good first step, though it certainly won’t change the underlying facts. The disorienting and spread-out pattern create the distinct feeling of needing a tour guide.

Kelley Square: you can really only pray.
Source: Chris Markman [Flickr profile]
Just when you feel like you start to get a handle on things, “Woo-town” will throw you another curveball. It’s the type of place where the Canal District hasn’t had a canal for 120 years. It’s the type of place where 4 major streets and a freeway on-ramp collide so nonsensically that there are bumper stickers for sale and a YouTube series for people to share their war stories from the intersection.

If this seems harsh, I’m just trying to convey most people’s first impression: this city is bewildering, and at times downright uninviting. In many ways, I’m very lucky to live here, because as I become more accustomed to the city I discover more elements of the good kind of weird. Although the exterior can be hostile and difficult to navigate, Worcester has more good weird than it knows what to do with.

Buried Beauty

According to Google Maps, the Worcester Superintendent’s Office.

The built environment creates the first crack in the uninviting exterior. The buildings, like many midsized New England cities, are often breathtakingly beautiful.

City Hall
Source: MA Office of Travel and Tourism on Flickr

The wealth that came out of the industrial era still has a very tangible impact on the city. Worcester probably has more and better colleges than any other city its size. Clark, Worcester Polytechnic, UMass Medical School, and Holy Cross are institutions most metros of less than 1 million would kill to have. Worcester has 10 colleges, each with different strengths and focuses, within the limits of a city of less than 200,000. The Worcester Art Museum is another incredible institution hidden in plain sight.

Triple Deckers. OK, some look a little weird.
Source: Holy Cross
Worcester Memorial Auditorium
Source: User cmh2315fl on Flickr

It’s not just major landmarks, either. The triple-deckers that dot the city are highly functional and beautiful. A distinctive New England form, thousands of triple-deckers were erected to cheaply and compactly house immigrant families working in the factories. Today their access to natural light, compact nature and affordability make the housing stock one of the great assets the city gained from its development history.

There’s beauty in more than the buildings: most of the people I’ve met are remarkably warm and friendly (when not driving). Perhaps because of its relatively cheap housing, integration is a strength. Racially and economically diverse communities live side by side in a way they don’t in many larger Northern cities. Worcester has growing immigrant and minority populations – as pointed out in a previous post, Worcester has a higher population percentage of Albanians and Ghanaians than anywhere else in the US, along with substantial  groups from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Lebanon, and many African countries. In ideal circumstances, these groups are included in the local economy and enrich the culture of the small city.

I have never really felt unsafe in town, despite an undeserved reputation for crime. There are certain neighborhoods that have issues with gangs and violence – the impact of which almost always falls on the young people that live there – and a rash of drug overdoses has brought significant attention to the opiate addiction problem in the region. These problems serve to prove that poverty and violence are issues as enduring as they are in other cities Worcester’s size, rather than to prove that Worcester is an especially dangerous place.

Slow and Steady Advances

Worcester is unfailingly described as the “second biggest city in New England,” (which I interpret as just a bit of a dig at Providence, RI) and the economy, simply by dint of its size relative to the other Gateways, is more diverse than other struggling areas. Unlike in Providence, government seems effective and non-corrupt – although perhaps less effective because of a bizarre two-headed city council setup. Worcester’s economic strategy seems to be something like: focus on strategic areas of town and assets, provide effective governance, and don’t get flashier than you can handle.

The overriding concern for critics is that this strategy has created achingly slow progress. Work on City Square, the city’s centerpiece of redevelopment transforming an abandoned mall in the heart of downtown into usable housing, offices, and shops, has been glacial. The project started in 2004, and has struggled to reach the final stages. From the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in August of 2013:

In 2010, plans were revived with the backing of a new investor, the Hanover Insurance Group Inc. The investment arm of Worcester-based Hanover bought more than half of CitySquare and quickly signed two tenants: Unum Group and Vanguard Health Systems Inc. Unum signed a lease for a new office building in CitySquare, and Vanguard, the operator of St. Vincent Hospital, bought land to construct a new cancer-treatment center there.

Most of the former outlet mall and parking garage have been demolished, Front Street was extended and employees of Unum and St. Vincent moved to their new buildings this year. The changes, made possible with $120 million in private investment, have brought more bodies to the downtown. But they don’t represent new jobs for Worcester — rather, the jobs were relocated from other parts of the city.

Hanover and its partners have been trying to bring new businesses to the mix. Interest, they say, is strong — stronger than it was a couple years ago. But they’re tight-lipped about how many developers are interested in CitySquare, and what kind of projects interest them.

Source: User Andrew Wertz on Flickr

City officials would undoubtedly say that Worcester has to learn to walk before it can run, but this slow progress after many major roadblocks have already been cleared can be frustrating to residents. The question remains whether competent governance and the advance of small goals is enough to sustain economic growth, much less excitement. Perhaps it’s best that Worcester continues to pursue the incremental approach rather than invest more than it can handle, but if the slow and steady approach causes residents to lose interest, Worcester will be hard-pressed to sustain the gains it has made in recent decades.

I don’t envy Worcester’s leaders: it seems like for every outstanding asset, there is a corresponding problem to be solved. Many of the beautiful buildings, perhaps because their impressive structures require high upkeep, are underutilized. The economically and culturally diverse community puts greater strain on schools, hospitals, and social services than the systems of rural and suburban Massachusetts.

The Competitive Advantage: Weird and not Boston

All in all though, Worcester has a great set of competitive advantages to build on. The city needs to harness all its energy to push forward on its development plans, which seem to be well thought out and earning broad support. It also needs to work on building its brand (I hate that phrase so, so much) as a friendly, affordable and unique city with good access to the urban centers of New England.

 – A (Relatively) Affordable Urban Experience

People from the West Coast, where distances are longer, would be shocked to know that Worcester still retains its independence despite being only 40 miles as the Google flies to one of the biggest urban centers in America. It’s just the way things work out here – for economic, historical, and traffic reasons, Worcester is more than just a big suburb of Boston.

That said, Worcester obviously can’t design an economic strategy without considering the long shadow of its neighbor. A tech incubator here has to answer the obvious question “why not live in Cambridge or Boston, where a bunch of other companies are doing the same thing?” You can start with cost of living – a no-brainer – but the strategy can’t end there. Worcester also needs to be an opportunity to live in close proximity to people of diverse backgrounds and amazing urban amenities at a significantly cheaper cost than Boston, all while being minutes away from the big city when you need it. These are great advantages, but the city needs to prioritize access, transport, and equal opportunity in ways it has not historically for this plan to work.

Worcester is devoting less energy than other cities to the maniacal pursuit of Millenials (one of the creepier aspects of economic development these days) although they are frantically trying to get college graduates to stay in the city. “Millenials” are not that different from other people. They also want to live around nice amenities and not pay too much. Worcester offers them a decent and improving chance to do so.

The missing element for this part of the strategy: design and accessibility. The city has some issues that it needs to start facing head-on, specifically walkability and the number and diversity of business establishments. My house is a mile from downtown – probably the flattest mile from downtown, too – but the poorly cared for sidewalks make it feel uninviting to say the least. As the city grew, it just wasn’t designed with walkers in mind, and that has to change.

Shrewsbury Street

Downtown has some unique businesses, but the high cost of renovation and property is slowing this process. Shrewsbury street, the busiest commercial road in town, is gaining a critical mass of interesting establishments but still suffers from a lack of natural foot traffic and a layout designed for cars. The space between businesses seems to be a bit too far to support walking between establishments, and so tends to fill with cars instead.

With the modern focus on entrepreneurship, Worcester could build a niche as a friendly place for small business owners, but it cannot just operate as a mini-Boston. The city does have some fantastic technology and healthcare strengths in its local universities and institutions but the market is just too competitive to survive on “eds and meds” or technology alone. Worcester has to harness the creativity of the different ethnic groups, immigrants, people of all income levels – not just as workers but as leaders, artists and entrepreneurs. Executed well, this strategy can be a more inclusive way to improve economic conditions for everyone in a way that has eluded Boston and other high-growth cities.

– More Good Weird, Please

Believe it or not, people also don’t want to live in an area that’s like every other place. That’s great for Worcester, which has eccentricity in spades. Worcester can and should preserve its unique character while keeping the cost of living low and promoting greater non-car movement. These characteristics – accessibility, affordability, historical character – are often presented as tradeoffs: many places in Massachusetts have rapid traveled the path from disrepair to gentrification, foremost among them the urban playground formerly known as Slummerville. While Worcester will have to plan carefully where it is headed, gentrification is still a pretty distant concern citywide.

The city’s eccentricity should be channeled into a community that celebrates difference, connectedness and creativity in a way that the stereotypical New England city – cold, professional – doesn’t. The unique immigrant and industrial history, the built environment jamming up the beautiful cheek-by-jowl with the absurd, the self-deprecating but still hopeful civic character – all should be conscious elements of a city that isn’t and doesn’t want to be like any other. The place is a combination of historical accidents unlikely to be replicated anywhere else. For God’s sake, the place is pronounced “Wuhster”. Nothing will ever be normal about this place, but that can be a good thing.

Turtle Boy. This probably seemed like a fine idea at the time.

There is a statue in town that perfectly sums up every aspect of the city’s weirdness. “Turtle Boy” is a quirky and beloved Worcester monument. If I can get your mind out of the gutter for just a moment, how can you not love a place whose iconic sculpture is a boy riding a turtle? While the untoward statue is definitely worth a chuckle – a chuckle that Worcesterites will join you in – I think many residents would defend Turtle Boy as representing the city’s ambition towards quirky creativity and imagination. Sure, it doesn’t get it quite right. But maybe it’s better to get it sort of right and be able to laugh about the results than to take yourself too seriously.

Worcester, build on your strengths and natural beauty, and hold yourself to high standards. At the same time, listen to what Turtle Boy is trying to tell you: it’s ok to leave the gravitas to other towns. Weird suits you just fine.


Must Read: “Dividing Lines” in Milwaukee

Milwaukee 2012
Almost 60% of metro Milwaukee voters lived in a ward decided by 30 points or more in 2012.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released an incredible piece of journalism in May in its multi-part series “Dividing Lines”. It examines political polarization through the lens of Metro Milwaukee, on most measures the most polarized and segregated urban area in America. It will really get you thinking about what the future holds and the cost of political polarization.

Polarization gets out the vote

I have been proceeding under the assumption that polarization makes everyone sad, and as a result they stay home from the polls. What if this is all wrong? What if polarization drives turnout? What if wider ideological gulfs are, in a certain sense, “good for democracy”?

From Part 3, “More polarized, more energized“:

In fact, Wisconsin’s festival of discord mobilized people on a massive scale, generating one record-breaking turnout after another.

In the last presidential election, Ozaukee County had the highest turnout of  voting-age citizens — 84% — of any county with more than 50,000 residents in America… Milwaukee had one of the highest turnouts of any big urban county in America (74%).

The suburban city of Brookfield (population 38,015), where Republican Mitt Romney won two-thirds of the vote, achieved something close to universal turnout: 90% of voting-age citizens went to the polls…

What happened to voter fatigue?

Segregation doesn’t go away on its own, and the different types of segregation driving us apart are mutually reinforcing

Which comes first, ideological or cultural isolation? Does racial segregation drive political segregation? Do they each cause each other? If this knot is tied as tightly tied as it seems, how can a place like Milwaukee break out of the cycle? In Milwaukee, we get a glimpse into what the future may hold in many American communities.

From Part 1 “Dividing Lines“:

Walker got 1% of the vote in 2012 in neighborhoods with the highest share of African-Americans; Obama got 99% in his race five months later. In metro Milwaukee’s whitest neighborhoods, the president won about a quarter of the vote and the governor won more than three-quarters. Obama won every ward in the metro area that was less than 70% white, every ward that was at least 30% Latino and every ward that was at least 15% black. The average metro Milwaukee ward carried by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was 1% black and 3% Hispanic.

That is just insane. 99% of the vote? You could invent a machine that dispenses free ice cream and donates puppies to charity and it wouldn’t get 99% approval.

There’s no clear way forward, and no political incentive for a different path

Also from Part 1:

In the combined counties of Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Milwaukee, Gov. Scott Walker has a  91% approval rating among Republicans and a 10% approval rating among Democrats over more than two years of in-depth polling by the Marquette Law School. President Barack Obama has a 93% approval rating among Democrats and an 8% approval rating among Republicans.

These levels of disagreement are beyond political differences. Even if inner-city Milwaukee and Waukesha County residents were sitting around the dinner table sharing their opinions (they aren’t), it would be difficult to see what they could talk about that would make much sense. Politics is informed by worldview. Divides like these point to cultural differences as stark as any two places in America, but down the street from one another.

Percentage of U.S. voters living in one-sided counties

The voters in metro Milwaukee literally cannot understand where the other side is coming from. To me this seems an unambiguously bad thing, never worth the “trade” of higher turnout. Assuming we agree on that point, what can be done to move us off of this path?

The gulf is widening and with no people or organizations to bridge that gap, there will soon be little common reality to agree on. Just because you don’t live in Milwaukee, you shouldn’t ignore it: these issues will start to see pop up in more places as our “Big Sort” continues. Enshrining the right to never have your opinions challenged is more than a passing concern. It threatens the foundation of democracy.

Robots, Labor and Leisure

There'll be flying boats, condos with moats 
Cultivated oceans, flying cities in the sky 
Hangin' underneath our bubble 
No more toil and trouble 
Singin' bout that sweet ol' by and by  
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Turn of the Century"

This is a sentence that has never been said before: you can really miss out by skipping the appendix of an academic paper. This delightful chart is an excerpt from work in Carl Frey and Michael Osborne’s paper “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?”, which predicted the likelihood that a particular profession will be automated in the coming decades. A 1 equals a 100% chance of automation.

Likelihood of Automation (low to high)

0.0028 Recreational Therapists  
0.0039 Lodging Managers  
0.004 Choreographers
0.0081 Clergy
0.021 Fashion Designers
0.035 Lawyers  
0.1 Animal Trainers  
0.13 Dancers
0.13 Urban and Regional Planners
0.27 Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels The authors disappointingly fail to predict the likelihood of robo-pirates.
0.35 Flight Attendants  
0.4 Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates I’m amused by the image of human lawyers pleading their case before robot judges. “OBJECTION DOES NOT COMPUTE.”
0.43 Economists Interesting… economists predicting an almost even shot at their own demise.
0.54 Embalmers  
0.6 Slaughterers and Meat Packers  
0.66 Pest Control Workers  
0.68 Boilermakers Sorry Purdue. You’ll have to rework your freaky mascot into an even freakier cyborg.
0.77 Bartenders  
0.8 Barbers  
0.89 Bakers That handles Butchers and Bakers – presumably Candlestick Makers have already been automated.
0.91 Tour Guides and Escorts  
0.94 Accountants and Auditors  
0.94 Budget Analysts  
0.96 Gaming Dealers  
0.98 Models Wait…what?
0.99 Watch Repairers  
0.99 Insurance Underwriters  
0.99 Telemarketers Few tears will be shed. Until you realize that robo-telemarketers are actually even worse.

This is a very partial list: there are hundreds more in the paper.

These numbers might bring to mind a dystopian wasteland of unemployment and human misery (is your profession near the bottom of the list?).

Frey and Osborne’s work adds to a mountain of evidence that laborers and unskilled workers will continue to lose out in the next decades. Even if only jobs with a score of .90 or greater are eliminated by robot workers, millions will lose out on their jobs – excluded in the table above are dozens and dozens of semi-skilled professions in the 80s and 90s, meaning they are much more likely to be automated than not. Service people in some sectors will become increasingly marginal as automated systems get more sophisticated.

Automation Distribution

Whither Humans?

Although common sense would seem to dictate that human workers will face struggles as a result of automation, macroeconomists battle over what the overall impact on society will be. To be sure, workers who can be cheaply replaced with a robot will not get laid off one day and waltz into a new position the next. The “techno-optimists” point out that technological innovation has historically always delivered more employment in the long term. For example, the loss in assembly line jobs over the course of the 20th century was offset by an increase in management, technical, and IT jobs that paid more and were safer.

In one of the great marketing coups of modern academia, adherents of this viewpoint describe their opponents as believers in the “Luddite Fallacy” that productivity gains necessarily eliminate jobs. No one wants to be a Luddite.

Luddites Raging Against the Machine

Worriers, Neo-Luddites, and many economists argue that this time is different. Unlike the looms of yesteryear that threatened only textile jobs, computer automation affects a huge swath of human endeavors. The Luddites accuse techno-optimists of making huge leaps of logic in their certainty that more jobs will be created over the long term.

Techno-optimists are right to point out that new forms of work have always trended towards less back-breaking labor. I am glad my children will not be weavers or coal miners, much less subsistence farmers.

It’s not very satisfying, however, to rest your argument on the idea that we cannot predict what future jobs will look like and that it will all balance out in the long term. How long is the long term, and will the benefits to society accrue evenly among individuals? Cities with a legacy of manufacturing industries may have fewer dangerous, back-breaking jobs, but technology and software jobs haven’t rushed to fill the void. These cities became so dependent on industry that they have fewer jobs, period. With the lower-skilled workers that have already been replaced by machines, you see declining workforce participation, not a smooth transition to the tech economy.

Manservant – the tech job of the future?
Source: manservants_co on Instagram

The types of jobs that are resistant to automation are ones that require high interpersonal or creative skills. Assuming people who currently hold to-be-automated jobs do not have those skills, their best possible outcome is low paid, unstable work. It’s plausible that as work becomes more automated the remaining human jobs in a field will follow the trajectory of “adjunctification” familiar in higher education, becoming unpredictable, with low salaries and no hope for advancement.

Assuming the techno-optimists are right, what will “new jobs” even mean in the context of a more service-oriented economy? Will the bottom 90% have to become masseuses or manservants (this is real) to the upper classes? Button pushers? Bullshit job-holders? Our conception of what work is “highly skilled” is transitory, based on Frey and Osborne’s predictions: today’s accountants and doctors, stereotypically stable and skilled professions, may be easily replaced in certain settings.

When is it Good to Have Less Work?

If wringing your hands over the inevitable march towards human irrelevance and poverty isn’t your idea of fun – weirdo – you may be wondering if there’s anything to  look forward to in our robotic future. For most of recent history, machines were supposed to save us labor in ways that would make our lives far more comfortable. Arguably, Ludditism has always been the fringe movement – the easy living of technology-enabled work has more often been a source of hope than despair. Keynes famously said that by 2030 we would all be working a few hours a week with the rest of our time spent on leisure – in short, that our “economic problem [would be] solved”. In the Jetsons, the most mainstream view of the future possible, George finds anything more than his one hour a week shift pushing a button to be hard labor. So if machines really are replacing so much of the work we do, why aren’t we all getting closer to the Jetson workweek?

The standard theoretical explanation is that we found “more things to spend money on” making the “choice” to work fewer hours less palatable. This may be partly true – iPhones appear to have become a base level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – but this response has always bothered me, relying as it does on a conception of labor freedom that has never really existed. Maybe it looked likely from the 1930s, but we are as far away from it now as we have ever been. The problem is far more systemic than the “we wanted more things” theory gives credit for.

First, there are factors that make people reluctant or unable to have the “labor mobility” predicted by Keynes. First and foremost among these is tying health insurance to working a certain number of hours at your job. This is essentially a historical accident: during World War II wages were capped, so companies started to use health insurance as a sweetener to attract the best workers. After the war, a series of federal rule changes solidified the connection between work and health insurance, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. The Affordable Care Act’s Employer Mandate is the most recent reinforcement of that forced marriage. The system makes people less likely to leave their jobs or cut back hours if they want more leisure time. It also creates enormous incentives for companies to hire part-time workers without benefits or only allowing full-timers to work 40 hours a week (if I pay their health insurance, I want to get the maximum amount of value).

An even more fundamental problem is that no worker can really “decide” their work hours in our current system. Imagine an interview where you told a prospective employer, “I’m extremely passionate about CorpTech’s mission. I do want to let you know that I’ll only be working 15 hours a week, which will meet my family’s needs and gives me time to work on my hobbies, spend time with my family, and volunteer.” I would love to see an estimate of the percentage of positions that offer meaningful flexibility in number of hours worked and would be shocked if it was greater than 5%. If you’re working ten hours a week in this country, it’s usually not by choice and too unpredictable or low paying to allow you to meet your needs.

The US needs to take a long hard look at what we need to change about the system to make sure people can earn enough to survive and have schedules that will allow them to have meaningful lives. These questions are fascinating to me, and in an upcoming series of posts I’ll continue to look at various policy and philosophical approaches to establishing a better balance between working and living.

If Frey and Osborne are at all correct, it adds a bit of urgency to the calculation, because soon there will be less work and more leisure to go around. In this way, computerization could be both a crisis and an opportunity for rethinking the system. It seems obvious that the incremental reforms – bringing up the minimum wage indefinitely, providing health care through employers – won’t get at this fundamental question.