By Lorraine Michele Laurie
Take a ride or walk up Harrison Street to where it intersects with Providence Street. Look at the parking lot on the corner with the black cyclone fence. On it is a large green sign with” City of Worcester” printed at the top in white letters. Underneath it in larger letters are the words “Union Hill Revitalization Project.” Below that it says “Housing Rehabilitation, Streetscape Improvements, Commercial Investment, Public Safety.” Now, look around Providence and Harrison Streets and see what it says on the sign gradually becoming a reality in the surrounding neighborhood.
The program was the focus of a press conference and brief tour held on the afternoon of August 17 in the Worcester Academy Alumni House parking lot at 51 Providence Street. According to Mayor Joseph M. Petty “The Union Hill neighborhood of just two or three years ago is not the Union Hill of today.” The Mayor had made the neighborhood a priority of his administration because he saw “a neighborhood that had slid into disrepair.” What he was referring to was the local elementary school, Union Hill School on Chapin Street, being designated as a Level 4 school, neglected houses – some with numerous code violations and a growing crime problem.
What is responsible for this gradual change in Union Hill is a unique partnership with the City, HUD, Habitat for Humanity, Worcester Academy, Oak Hill Community Development Corporation and local residents, businesses and property owners.
The most visible sign of improvement is the streetscape program taking place on Providence Street and Harrison Street. With most of the money coming from Community Development Block Grant funds from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program involves resurfacing the roads, replacing sidewalks with a combination of concrete and bricks and handicapped accessible corners and the planting of trees. New features are the bump out curb extensions installed to make crossing easier.
Also very apparent is the decline of crime. The Worcester Police Department and Chief Gary Gemme created a “Community Policing District” in 2013. Police Officers patrol the area in cars and on foot. Shot-spotter and Crime Watch members have greatly assisted in the crime prevention efforts. Public health initiatives involve school health partnerships and healthy food education.
Housing stabilization and creation will get a big boost from this special forming of partnerships.
An extensive sweep of the housing stock in the neighborhood was done by members of the Inspectional Services, Fire and Police Departments. The City worked with landlords to bring the properties up to code. Nine owner-occupied homes will be rehabilitated on Providence and Harrison Streets and five new units of housing will be created on Aetna and Arlington Streets.
Nearby Worcester Academy, located at 81 Providence Street, recently donated 21 Aetna Street to Habitat for Humanity Metro-West/ Greater Worcester. The existing house will be taken down and a duplex will be constructed in its place. Tim Firment, Executive Director of Habitat , announced that his organization will also sponsor “A Brush with Kindness Week “ and assist a property owner on Harrison Street with porch and landscape work. Also, in an ongoing effort to help homeowners, Worcester Academy has also made available $300,000, administered by the Worcester Community Housing Resources, for home improvements in the neighborhood.
According to Ronald M. Cino, Head of School, “Worcester Academy is improving the quality of life for the Union Hill neighborhood by making significant contributions to education, recreation, housing, safety and economic development. Worcester Academy has completed the acquisition of the old St. Vincent’s property. In addition to sharing use of Morse Field, an award- winning lighted synthetic field on the property with neighborhood residents, schools, and community groups, Worcester Academy is converting the hospital’s generator building into a first-rate performance center that will open late this fall.”
Oak Hill Community Development Corporation, located across the street from Worcester Academy at 74 Providence Street, has been involved in housing since 1972. According to Mullen Sawyer, Chief Executive Officer, Oak Hill CDC ”worked closely with neighborhood stakeholders and funders to create a 21st century investment plan and funding mechanism to serve this neighborhood: Investing in Union Hill Plan. This Plan outlines holistic strategies to preserve and develop housing, promote and sustain business and workforce development while improving neighborhood economics and quality of life. The commonwealth has accepted our Plan and awarded Oak Hill CDC nearly a million dollars in new state rebates to spur public to private investment of this Plan.”
In addition to housing, streetscape, private investments and public safety and health, revitalization is taking place at Union Hill Elementary School. The school which was designated a Level 4 school is now a Level 1 school. It is undergoing renovations thanks to State funding. New windows have been installed and other exterior and interior improvements will take place.
As the press conference was taking place, neighborhood children were seen across Providence Street. City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr., who had referred to the broken window theory in his speech, said “This City has not forgotten this neighborhood. There are a lot of kids who call this place home. We need to make sure they know they’re important to us.”
State Senator Michael Moore praised the City by saying “These ongoing and carefully executed investments will continue to help to bring vitality and desirability for current and future residents alike. I want to commend Mayor Petty, City Manager Augustus and all the departments who have come together to breathe life back into this part of the City.”
City Councilor George Russell whose District 3 covers a good part of Union Hill said “we should not look at it as Mission Accomplished and instead look at it as the beginning of a long road to hopefully revitalize the entire area and most importantly make folks feel good about investing and living in the neighborhood.”
State Representative Daniel M. Donahue sums it up this way “ The community policing district has created a new feeling of safety, our local elementary school has gone from failing to a level 1 and we are making strategic investments in infrastructure and stabilizing our owner occupied housing stock. This could only be accomplished by working together, from our local police to our teachers to community leaders and residents to the different levels of government, we have come together to make change.”