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.


The Market Basket Case

If you don’t live in New England, you undoubtedly missed out on the story of the summer for regional news outlets: the Market Basket saga of 2014. Whether “Greek tragedy” or “war of attrition” is overblown to describe the corporate troubles of a regional supermarket chain depends on your perspective. It’s a great story to make fun of, but it also offers some takeaways that people in other regions might find interesting but would have no reason to know about.

Market Basket is a cheap regional grocery store with some fanatic devotees. For many years the chain has been owned by the Demoulas family, which has struggled behind (and in front of) the scenes to wrestle control of the store from one another. The antagonists in this particular saga are cousins Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthur S. Demoulas, AKA Artie T. and Artie S (for full comic and dramatic effect one should read this in a Boston accent, IE, AH-tee).

Artie T. was pushed out by his cousin in June from his role as CEO of the stores. During his time as CEO, Artie T. had built up a substantial following for his penchant for personal relationships with employees (remembering names, attending birthdays or funerals) and more generous benefits, wages, and opportunities for advancement than other supermarkets.

The Arthurs. Can you guess which one is cast in the role of folk hero, and which is conniving corporate exec? Source:
The Arthurs. Can you guess which one is the folk hero, and which is conniving corporate exec?

Soon after the news of Artie T.’s firing broke, truck suppliers struck, Market Basket workers took up protests outside their workplaces, and supporters of all stripes enforced a customer boycott of Market Basket stores. The media picked up on the story enthusiastically during a slow news summer and a lackluster Governor’s campaign, playing out each testy meeting of the Demoulas family and reporting the newest reports of lost earnings like juicy celebrity gossip. After about 6 weeks of protests, the Arties agreed on a sale allowing T. to come back as CEO, buying the company from the rival faction.

Source: Portland Press-Herald
Source: Portland Press-Herald

Unless you just love the bizarre drama of the story (I can pretend to be above it, but there’s some pretty good lore – like apparent fistfights, switched allegiances, and surveillance wires) it has a couple interesting takeaways.

The first is the role of personality and likeability in corporate governance. There have been debates about how much one can generalize from the outcome of the MB saga, but one thing is for sure: there was a fanatic devotion to Artie T.’s controlling role. In an age where most people working for large companies have no idea who works two steps above them, a vast majority of employees had enough familiarity with their corporate executive to put their jobs on the line for him. The demise of the protests were predicted many times over the course of the strike, but the protesters got essentially everything they wanted – Artie T’s reinstatement. Beyond their belief in the leadership style of their old boss, they have no reason to expect personal gain.

It’s surely not a straightforward morality tale, but it’s hard not to side with the workers, especially when some columnists so helpfully fulfill the role of Ebenezer Scrooge by insisting that the protesters “go back to work” and that companies do not “have to dance to mob rule”.  To me, it’s a small sign that workers are not entirely powerless to improve their work environment, even if it was ultimately a symbolic issue.

Second, the entire affair was orchestrated by non-unionized labor. In a world of dwindling union membership and resources, the protests could be seen as a hopeful note for labor or a depressing death blow, depending on your perspective. This Globe article even raises the possibility that the very non-unionized nature of the workforce may have created greater possibility for success: managers and low-level workers could all work together to achieve their goals. In unionized workforces, managers and workers are usually prohibited from taking labor action together. The downside is that unions can help workers hang together during a strike, for example by helping pay a fraction of their paychecks.

If anyone – for or against unions – is predicting that this heralds a new age for labor, I don’t think they’ve thought this one through clearly. Certainly if Market Basket had been a national chain in the McDonald’s or Walmart model rather than a family owned company, the protesters would be begging to go back to work now – the deep pockets and diffuse governance structures of multinational corporations would probably make a protest untenable on the national level.

If you choose to see a morality play at work you can. I think there are more interesting questions to answer. Is the changing structure of the economy closing down the possibility of another Market Basket? How and why did employees (and shoppers) attach to the good Artie vs. evil Artie narrative so easily? Could other CEOs or workers’ rights advocates use this to their advantage, or is Market Basket is a unique case in a unique area? Whether this could even happen in a place with a less than religious zeal for its grocery chains is an open question. You’d better believe, though, that the saga of Arties T and S will be the talk of New England business school seminars in the years to come.

Introduction: Visiting the Gateway Cities

What comes to mind when you think about New England? I have to admit that before moving here, my view was almost cartoonish. I expected Massachusetts would be about evenly divided between the high-tech, prosperous Boston metro and idyllic colonial towns and pastureland. As it turns out, that view is very wrong. Although Massachusetts has education rates and income levels that other states drool over, success on some measures obscures the fact that there are huge gaps within and between cities in the Commonwealth.

In Massachusetts ,”Gateway Cities” are some of the places that don’t fit within that binary. Gateway Cities are a legal classification of city developed in the last decade to focus attention on neglected parts of the state. Part policy response and part branding push, the Gateway Cities cover 11 midsized post-industrial Massachusetts cities outside of the Boston metro area (although the number has since expanded to 26, including some high poverty areas right outside Boston).

Gateway Cites

The 11 original Gateway Cities. For some background on “Gateway Cities,” you can read the MassINC/Brookings Institution paper that created the concept.
Source: MassINC

Massachusetts’ prosperous reputation does have some basis in fact. The state generally and Boston in particular post some impressive numbers in almost every metric of economic growth. But the fruits of this prosperity are spread very unevenly. In terms of jobs, personal income, and economic diversity, Gateway Cities have been lagging for decades: in aggregate, the number of private jobs in these cities is the same as it was in 1960. Industrial legacies have acted like a millstone around the neck of growth and economic diversification. Unsurprisingly, they are also the areas that have the largest reputational problems to overcome. At the same time, Gateway Cities contain some of Massachusetts’ richest historical, cultural, and even economic assets, and were each at some time in their history places alive with people, ideas, and trade.

As a series on the blog, I plan to visit the 11 original Gateway Cities in Massachusetts and write about what I see in each. My goal is to provide just a bit of context on each economy, community, and region. I’ll be trying to answer some basic observational questions (What does this city say they want? Are they following through on it? Is it working?) from a skeptical but contextualized viewpoint.

I want to do this for two reasons. First, the current coverage is bad. If you follow the major urbanism or placemaking websites, you know when Boston, San Francisco, or DC wins a major victory or starts an interesting new experiment but no one really knows what’s happening in the struggling communities down the road. The media gap is especially pronounced in these small cities, which usually have a single, nationally-owned news outlet hanging on by the fingertips. The drive to come up with a positive strategy becomes doubly important because without constant forward progress, these places cannot sustain the press’s attention. If reputation matters to economic success, it spells trouble for these places. In the age of the internet, there are no information vacuums – only empty repositories yet to be filled with negativity.

Second, the problems in Gateway Cities get at a timely and fascinating question in economic development: “What economic strategy will help small- to mid-sized cities, especially those with a strong industrial heritage, move forward?” Do they focus on tech? Cultivate a class identity? Plan to shrink? Though big cities are popularly seen as being in resurgence, no one thinks that the way forward is clear for smaller rust-belt cities. Don’t get me wrong, bigger metropolitan areas have huge challenges – they struggle with inequality, gentrification, and suburban retrofitting in ways that smaller cities don’t – but big metros have at last started to get some of the attention they deserve.

By contrast, small-to-mids like the Gateways face a wide array of challenges. They don’t have the same heft to force state and national governments to pay attention. Their problems are controlled by such local circumstances – sometimes as local as a single company – that orthodox economic development strategies aren’t helpful. There’s no Mayor Bloomberg to command headlines or Ed Glaeser to relentlessly champion small cities as a class. Well-meaning leaders in small cities sometimes just try to copy what’s going well in the big cities, rather than try something bold and original that could move the region forward but poses a high risk of failure.

Although I think most Gateways get an unjustified bad wrap, I don’t mean to suggest that what I write will be relentlessly positive. Exposure and growth can come from acknowledging an area’s shortcomings. I hope by personally visiting them I can get across a better understanding of the gap between their rich history and the present, and try to find a little bit of what’s work is left on their path to success.

What is Thickly Settled?

The two words emblazoned on the familiar yellow diamond raise more questions than they answer. What does it mean? Is the thickness of this settlement an idle observation, or should I take note? Who “settles” anywhere anymore? Am I in some kind of colonial reenactment guilty of horrible anachronisms? Spotting one raises out-of-town eyebrows, but locals barely notice the ubiquitous sign: it’s a kind of visual background noise in the urban and suburban areas around Massachusetts. The sign is equally baffling to outsiders from Connecticut to California, and in true Massachusetts fashion, it makes no attempt to explain itself. It might as well be four syllables of esoteric, publicly-displayed poetry.

I love thinking about how communities can remain quirky, diverse and strong while building an economic fabric to match. They may not offer much traffic guidance, but these ambiguous signs point me towards questions about how places and people work best together. To me, they represent a hidden-in-plain-sight aspiration to be a more inclusive community, thick with the connections that human settlements need to survive. They’re a constant background reminder of the desire to be a place that cares for its unique assets and tolerates different ways of being in the world. That’s probably not what the Massachusetts legislature had in mind, but I don’t put much stock in authorial intent anyway.

This blog is primarily about economic and community development, with occasional digressions into the culture, politics, and history that surround those topics. I want to focus especially on the struggles and successes of places still on the path to becoming Thickly Settled. They could be metropolises, small industrial cities or even rural towns (I believe a place can be spiritually Thickly Settled) with an interesting story to tell. In some small way, I’d like to amplify the stories that come from under-championed place and never leave, or at least to try to understand their experiences as part of the community development process.


About Me

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I spent a few years as an Indiana Hoosier and am now (thickly) settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. I work in economic development and also have a passion for the historical, cultural, and interpersonal threads that make each place unique. This blog is a way to work through thoughts about places and connect with people who care about them. Comments are much appreciated, and I’m always glad to talk to someone with similar interests. You can get a hold of me at hfields32 (at) gmail (dot) com.

A note on the ideas in this blog: the thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own, and do not reflect the opinions of my employer. I write in my personal capacity only.