Reimagining Worcester, Part 2: Academic Retention

By Jim May

First, just a few comments from the feedback I’ve received. Respecting the Blackstone River in Part 1 was also about the need to reconnect with it mentally to better understand how the City was shaped by it over the centuries. Worcester isn’t going to build some kind of inland waterway garden zone if the water’s not clean first. There can be no Canal Project without a water project of some magnitude. And when you’re thinking about Boston pipeline disaster that happened this week, it should be well noted by Worcesterites that we own our water supplies. There’s value to clean water. We take it for granted, and we shouldn’t.

Second, the Worcester sewer plant (aka Upper Blackstone Abatement Plant) is in violation of the Clean Water Act. The City is in danger of a losing big in a lawsuit for polluting the Blackstone River, Narragansett Bay and several towns and cities along the way.

Thirdly, I probably won’t be using anymore cuss words in these articles. It’s not my style anyway, but I dunno maybe. So don’t get me pissed off.

There’s good news, Worcesterites. In light of the recent, excellent conference by Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser, at the MassPharm facility on “Investing in Urban Resurgence: Transportation and Infrastructure,” I wanted to make sure that this week’s column picked up on some of the comments Glaeser made.

Professor Glaeser studied the impact of what makes a city successful in the post-industrial, post-1980 era. Some successes were obvious: Boston, San Francisco and New York City. Some cities succeeded because of their location in the Sun Belt. The older cities had head starts in the early years of our country because of their proximity to transportation, mainly ocean access. Cheap transportation brings international trade, commerce and a broad mix of cultures. But two common factors in what makes a city successful in the post-industrial era are Academia and Research.

Academia and Research provide the idea centers for hot bed, super cool urban places like Silicon Valley. Worcester isn’t making Royal Corsets and barbed wire anymore, but in just the last century, we’ve brought the world birth control pills, rockets that launch ICBMs and lots of DNA research. Throughout our history, we’ve been the sort of place dreams germinate. What I have discovered is that:

A revisualized downtown Worcester can rely on our past geography to recreate the old Worcester with a 21st century flair, a city jam packed with new people, new cultures and new ideas. Worcester is already laid out pretty well for this resurgence. Growth industries (biotech, healthcare and the pharmaceutical) are here too. The design of Old Worcester would be a good model to start from.

Go back to Front Street, circa 1950. One of the most intriguing aspects to me about the Galleria Mall is that the architecture of Old Front Street is what we want NOW. The old streets and the the old buildings with the massive first floor windows, tin ceilings and granite brick streets are exactly the informal look being built in cities across America and in malls everywhere for office space, restaurants and residences. Replicating that sort of warmth and familiarity –to locals and to internationals alike –won’t be as hard for Worcester.

If Worcester ever has dreams of international stardom, it has to put away with the parochialism and the small minded thinking that comes with it. Immigrants make up a full 20% of Worcester residents. Did you know that? I didn’t. We may not even realize it, but there are a lot of people that are not like us in our immediate surroundings. People with different religions, ideas, food habits and languages.

“Parochial thinking” versus “Internationalism” calls to mind the sort of post 9/11 thinking that makes dismissing every Muslim one encounters acceptable behavior. Parochialism calls to mind the ethnic wars fought Worcester-style: Irish vs WASP, Irish vs French Canadian, Catholics vs Swedes, etc. Parochialism influences the “town vs gown” wars some politicians like to play, too.

When a politician turns up the heat on college students, the message to the entire academic community is clear: Worcester doesn’t want you. I wonder sometimes if our politicians want us to choose ignorance over acceptance. It is parochial thinking that holds Worcester back.

Internationalism promotes multiple “bodegas”, different religions, traditions and food markets. Internationalism would see the Catholic churches that are emptying quickly filling up with various faiths from around the globe.

In an International Worcester, train transportation to Boston would have to be rapid. We’ll worry about our airport in another decade so therefore let Massport “own” it now while we work on re-building our urban core in this decade.

Even if we had a hip, new downtown that specifically focused on young people making $80K+ coming out of WPI, Umass and massPharmacy, we would still be a mecca for the less fortunate too. There would be excitement, value and energy brought with this mini population explosion. Everybody wins.

There would be noise and traffic. [But there might be less traffic if, for a long term goal, we promote pedestrian power over petroleum power; moving sidewalks, aerial trams and “greenpaths” are things I’ll talk about in POINT 3. So get ready.]

Professor Glaeser’s theory is that population density and urban success have to be “idea centers.” To me, in order to have ideas really flourish, you have to allow these places to have the ability to express ideas without prejudice or artistic repression. You can not have intellectual freedom without having artistic freedom.

Now let’s bring this back to Worcester.

My urge for writing this urban sketchbook for Worcester was back in January, 2010 when I responded to a blog writer who criticized the Canal Project for a supposed lack of housing for lower income people. I responded to the critic that while I found the criticism laudable, the whole point of the canal Project is to jumpstart the City’s “coolness” factor and bring in the affluent 20somethings. That critic just didn’t get it. Young people –and us old folks too—will flock to these hip urban areas when given a chance.

You see, until then, I was blinded by how I felt about the Canal Project. The water’s dirty, and I’ve been opposed to the misuse of the TAPR/federal stimulus funds. Every time I hear another use of those funds, I am reminded that it’s like trying to balance a family’s monthly budget on the 18 year old’s credit card. The interest rates are high, the burden is unfairly on the young and the benefit goes to the older generation– people like me. So far the local dispersion seems to be municipal unions of some sort or to Bob Kraft (Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, like he needs anymore dough!) for Patriot Place in Foxborough.

But when I took a different approach to the Canal Project and saw how it worked with the other Great Truths I‘ve learned about Worcester and urban design, I saw things start to click. My mind started churning the links and the how-tos on a strong, vital and exciting downtown once I saw a downtown loaded with affluent young people and an open attitude to immigrants. I already know these types of young people from renting apartments I own in the WPI area. They’re intimidated sometimes. We Worcesterites don’t make it easy for them.

What started as a snowball rolling downhill accumulating speed, weight and power became a thunderous avalanche. That’s when I called Rosalie Tirella and told her what I wanted to do. I know most Worcesterites don’t have the kind of personal relationships that I have with foreign students. It has opened my eyes.

The Canal Project can be thought as Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Paris in the 1920s, San Francisco in the 1960s. Bohemia on the Blackstone, if you will. Those kinds of places came out of super successful economic environments, creativity flourished and so did the dollars.

If the north end of the dense urban village is packed with apartments and condos retailing at $250-300K, the affluent young will have a chance to walk—yes, walk—to the hip urban zone, packed with all the inexpensive restaurants on the south end, Kelley Square.

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