By Sue Moynagh
Recently, I was watching a local news program covering property values in downtown Worcester. As the camera focused on a section of storefronts along Main Street, I could not help but notice the low number of pedestrians making their way to and from these establishments. This is nothing new: Worcester’s downtown is like downtowns in most old industrial cities. Businesses have moved out to the suburbs leaving a pathetic remnant of what was once a thriving heart of the city. Now we are all hoping that City Square will accomplish what the Galleria and Fashion Outlet malls could not, create a bustling revitalized downtown for Worcester.
The groundbreaking ceremony for Phase I of City Square took place in September 2010. Eventually, about 20 acres of mixed- use development will transform a portion of downtown Worcester. There will be medical and life science facilities, office and retail space. There will also be residential units and entertainment venues, such as clubs and restaurants. The goal is to revitalize downtown by bringing people in to live, work, shop and dine. More people mean more business and thus more needed revenue for the city.
I am one of the long- time city residents who can remember Worcester’s downtown as a beehive of activity. People did live, work, shop and dine in our city’s center. My earliest memories from the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties are of throngs of people strolling along the sidewalks, patronizing the numerous businesses, entertainment spots and restaurants. Downtown was the primary destination for shopping and entertainment for Worcester, and there were connections to the neighborhoods and other business areas such as Shrewsbury, Pleasant, Green, Highland and Water Streets. Parking was not really an issue because most people walked or took buses.
Everything was available downtown to meet your needs. Department stores such as Woolworth, Kresge, Grants, Denholm and J.J. Newberry provided everything for consumers from clothing to cutlery. There were specialty shops for stationary, uniforms, athletic goods, hats and shoes. If you collected stamps or coins, you could find them downtown. Books, houseplants, art supplies and toys were readily available. You could pay bills downtown, buy pets and pet supplies, visit the beauty parlor, and even buy furniture.
For many families, weekends meant going to the Warner, Loew’s Poli or Capitol theaters for a good show. You paid your admission and sat there half of the day. I remember going down to see the classic Disney films with my mother, aunt and cousins. We sat entranced through “Sound of Music,” “The Birds,” and “The Ten Commandments.” There was even a bowling alley where older kids used to go for fun. The Science and Art Museums were nearby. My cousins and I would get roasted peanuts or a bag of hot, buttered popcorn from one of the vendors and walk over to see the exhibits. There were great restaurants such as the Eden, but we also enjoyed a good meal at one of the five and ten counters. When we were older, there were dance spots such as the Comic Strip.
Things have changed over the years. Quite a few of the schools such as North High, Commerce, Classical and the trade schools are long gone or have moved far from downtown Worcester. I went to Ascension Catholic High School on Vernon Street and many of us used to walk down to see a film or shop for the latest clothes, records, and cosmetics. Many of these teenagers got their first jobs in downtown establishments. Others took driving lessons at schools located on Main Street. These kids brought vitality to downtown.
There were many locally run banks in Worcester at that time; Worcester County National, Worcester Five Cents Savings Bank, Mechanics National Bank to name a few. Workers on breaks thronged throughout the stores and restaurants. People were encouraged to patronize these banks. Remember the free gifts if you opened an account? They also had Christmas and Vacation Savings Clubs that encouraged young people to save.
The Galleria, opened in July 1971, was an attempt to revitalize Worcester. All shopping done under one roof! I thought it was a great place to shop. The stores served a variety of customer needs. I spent most of my time in the pet store, the bookshop and in the Weathervane. Next came the upscale Worcester Common Fashion Outlet store in 1994. Parking was a big issue. Why pay for parking downtown when you can drive to any other mall and park for free? Now we have to pin our hopes on City Square.
The plans for this project sound promising. If people live and work downtown, they will need places to shop and entertain themselves. There are other good developments within Worcester, such as the northern Gateway Project and the Canal District revitalization. Efforts to draw in people to downtown such as the festivals, farmers’ market, and music on the common series are successful. I hope that more positive steps will be taken to develop outside of the City Square site.
There are several opportunities that are being opened up at present. The Telegram & Gazette building on Front Street has received a grant to do asbestos cleanup at the site. The Worcester Public Library parking lot is being suggested as a site for a skating rink. Notre Dame Church, a magnificent building, is no longer used for worship. I hope the decision makers in Worcester think carefully about future uses for these sites. Here are some things they should consider. How can we best serve as many people as possible? Worcester has a diverse population of all ages and income levels. I would like to see wealthy people come in to live, invest, work and enjoy Worcester, but don’t forget the rest of us. Please consider how developments will connect the neighborhoods to downtown. We also need free and safe parking, and bus service that covers weekends and later evening hours. Please don’t forget our youth. They brought vitality into downtown in years past, and can do so again. Most important of all, do what you can to create jobs for as many people as possible, with all levels of education and skills.
Worcester’s downtown thrived throughout most of its history, and I hope it can do so again. I know we can’t go back in time. It won’t be the same as the downtown of my youth, but it can still come back as a place that attracts and welcomes people who see this as the destination in our City. I see positive signs with the City Square project. Let’s hope this serves as the catalyst to bring our downtown back to life.