Can the Green Island neighborhood come back?

By Maureen Schwab

The old J.J. Nissen Baking Company building that was located at 75 Quinsigamond Ave, near Brosnihan Square is gone – we all remember it fondly. The brick building, which went up in 1920, met the final blow of the wrecking ball Friday, January 20, 2012. Growing up a few blocks from the bakery, I can still remember the wonderful smell of baking bread in the air; a scent that still gives me a sense of peace and happiness. For 53 years, Green Island residents enjoyed the sweet aroma of baking bread, until the last batches were baked and the ovens turned off for the last time in May 1998. The bakery thrifty store, where one could buy bread, cakes, pies and cookies at a fraction of the supermarket price, closed in 2010.

The smell of baking bread may not be high on the list of what makes a neighborhood great, but as far as I am concerned, it was a treasured asset. My neighbors at the northern end of Green Island at Kelley Sq. can still enjoy the smell of pies baking in the Table Talk ovens, and every once in a while I can catch a whiff of sweet, delightful pie as I walk or drive through Kelley Sq. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Widoff’s bakery on Water St. For many years, my Mom would drive down to pick up a dozen hot bulkies on Sunday morning. The hot yeasty aroma of a hot bulkie would hit you in the face as soon as you opened the paper bag to grab one while it was still hot. These days, it’s the raisin and cinnamon babka, and Tiramisu cake that keeps me coming back.

Everyone has an opinion about what makes a neighborhood great. Urban theorist, Richard Florida, tells us that a good neighborhood is one that you have a high degree of emotional attachment to. He found that two factors were critical to developing this attachment; first was finding a community that treats all of its residents fairly; ethnic minorities, new immigrants, rich, poor, young, old, families, working folks, students and artist, and the most important factor; the quality of the neighborhood itself. Does it have trees and open space, are historic buildings and homes preserved? Does it have some kind of physical beauty?

Green Island has many dedicated residents and several active resident groups that are bringing new life and good ideas to our little corner of Worcester, people who have made the emotional attachment and want to see Green Island flourish. The establishment of a tenet-landlord association could be the first important step in improving the quality of our neighborhood. Currently, approximately 75% of Green Island housing is renter occupied. Some properties are beautifully maintained and others are nothing but dumps that no one cares about; including the landlords! Many of the three deckers that line the streets of Green Island are 100 years old. These are historic buildings that should be preserved, and can be if people start to appreciate their value and beauty.

Along with our historic three deckers, we have the history of Green Island and its role in the Industrial Revolution and the building of the Blackstone Canal. According to Richard Florida, neighborhoods that are exciting, that are great, have a long history behind them. We also can boast about our diversity, everyone who comes to live here is accepted and welcome, and diversity, according to Florida, also leads to a higher rate of emotional attachment to a neighborhood.

What Green Island is lacking however, and always has, is social and economic status. We have history and diversity; true, but status; not so much. Our incomes and education levels are lower than those who live in the more affluent neighborhoods in the city, and because of the high number of renters, our population is more transient and less likely to become involved in organizations and projects that upgrade the neighborhood and our quality of life.

The most desirable neighborhoods, according to Richard Florida, look increasingly similar no matter where they are. They are safe, they have good schools, and they are filled with families as well as singles. The current economic crisis has taught us the hard way, states Florida, that we need to live within our means, to forestall debt; it’s made us understand that we don’t have to define ourselves in terms of material goods, that we can achieve a more meaningful and sustainable way of life that is not based on income alone.

Recently, a Worcester Firefighter died while putting out a fire that started in a three decker on Arlington St. The property had multiple code violations and is owned by a woman who lives in Newton. Why in the world would someone come from wealthy Newton to buy three deckers in Worcester and then rent out poorly maintained apartments to people who are probably struggling financially? In my opinion owning property you wouldn’t live in yourself is unethical and a seriously pathetic way to make a buck.

Let’s not let anything like that happen in Green Island, I hope people will take a fresh look at this neighborhood, and see all of the good things we have here. In a way, its back to the future; 100 years ago people bought and maintained homes in Green Island that gave then a meaningful and sustainable way of life; and I believe it can happen again.

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