Life in Green Island: we have hope

By Maureen Schwab

Several years ago, I was asked by a Green Island business owner, “How can you stand to live here?”

The “here” in this inelegant question was the Green Island neighborhood where I live, and where he, continues to this day, to run a business and earn a living. At the time I was questioned, I simply shook my head and mumbled I don’t know, but today, if he were to ask me the same question I would answer, “because I have hope.”

Walking through Green Island on a humid Sunday morning, one can imagine what it may have felt like to walk upon the damp and steamy soil when this neighborhood was nothing more than a swamp, later drained to build the Blackstone Canal in 1828. Or perhaps later in time, what it was like to be an Irish immigrant escaping the horror of the Great Potato famine of 1845 and to settle in Worcester’s first Irish neighborhood.

For close to 200 years, Green Island has been home to a diverse blend of people who inhabited the three deckers that lined, and still stand proudly on the streets of Green Island. Many of these beautiful homes have fallen victim to the wrecking ball and only some have outlived the original purpose of providing “walk to work” housing for families that usually had several members working in the factories that surrounded the neighborhood.

As a child, I would fall asleep to the lulling sounds of the giant steel press at the Wyman Gordon plant, the gas tanks that sat at the corner of Quinsigamond Ave and Lafayette since 1852 served as a landmark where I would meet friends for an afternoon of exploring and adventure. Today, the sounds of the press have disappeared, as have the huge silos that held gas and the factories that men and women walked to, to earn a decent wage that would pay the mortgage on a home of their own.

Green Island has never been home to a prosperous class of people, and the real estate has been and still is consider some of the least desirable in the city. If you live here, you can be labeled as anything from modest to lowly to just plain poor. The factory jobs are gone, and if you work, you probably drive yourself to and from your job. Millbury Street once considered Worcester’s second Main Street is struggling with closed and empty properties. Any resemblance to the thriving commercial street I remember as a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s is long gone. But I still have hope!

Our current President, Barack Obama, defines hope as “nothing more than every individual reaching and striving to achieve his or her goals, and a society reaching and striving to be just and fair so that all may have the opportunity to do so”. Green Island has suffered over the past 40 years from a lack of leadership that ignored opportunities that could have led to neighborhood growth and development instead of a neighborhood wasting away.

Families moved out, Lamartine Street school closed, a strip club was allowed to open and operate at the corner of Lafayette and Southbridge, and businesses closed one right after another including a bank that many of our elderly residents relied on for check cashing and banking services. Real estate was sold by families to absentee landlords who could care less about the condition of property and behavior of tenants as long as the rent checks came in.

At the bottom of this mess, we have the collapse and closure of the Green Island CDC (Community Development Corporation). Without a CDC, deals are made, and plans such as the WRTA bus maintenance facility and the Dept. of Transportation garage are allowed to move forward and on to Quinsigamong Ave without the input from the neighborhood residents.

This type of exclusive community development loosely parallels trickle down economics which gives those in control the power to start and expand businesses and services which may or may not benefit a neighborhood.

In contrast we have bottom up economics; everyone is encouraged to work hard, educate themselves and to be their most productive, to be given the opportunity to participate; in the words of our President, ordinary people allowed to do extraordinary things when given the chance.

The Blackstone Canal Feasibility Study was presented to the public in a series of public meetings in 2003. At that time, the information contained in the plan was overwhelming and confusing to me. Eight years later, I see that parts of the plan are exactly what the Green Island neighborhood needs to transform itself into a valuable historic and residential section of the city; a walkable neighborhood with open space, a link to the Blackstone River Bikeway, a dog park, a replica of the Mill Brook which once surrounded the Green Island neighborhood and beautifully restored three deckers.

A study of prosperous economies produced the following conclusion, it was found that colonies that were settled by people who stayed raised families and made homes in these areas were far more prosperous than colonies that were simply used for trading and never settled as homes. We can say the same for our neighborhoods, while some absentee landlords do a good job and have responsible tenants, the majority do not and only add to the “ no body in this neighborhood cares” attitude.

Green Island is a treasure in the heart of the city. It is our responsibility as citizens to take care of our environment , and our neighborhood, and to be thankful for the good things to be found here, and more importantly to work hard for more. We have a wonderful new swimming pool at Crompton Park, world famous Diners, Pernet Family Services which provides help to residents, summer programs for children and ice skating in the winter. Food and clothing for those in need are available at the Green Island Community Center on Canton St. We have a monthly crime watch, and community Police Officer to help with neighborhood crime issues.

The Polish community still has its heart and soul here, Our Lady of Czestochowa Church, St. Mary’s school ,the PNI club, and several European delis on Millbury Street. The Ghanaian church on Lafayette St and Haitian church on Ellsworth St are a welcome addition to Green Island. According to urban designer Kurt Culbetson, churches are major element of sustainable neighborhoods.
We can become a better neighborhood when we as individuals decide to do something. We can clean up a Brownfield and turn it into a beautiful park instead of a pollution producing parking lot. While I walked through Crompton Park on a steamy summer morning, I noticed that the one broken swing we have at the park had been repaired and was ready for use,…..I have hope .

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