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