Worcester missed an opportunity by dismissing Juan Gomez’s vision!

By Rosalie Tirella

Some Worcester projects just drag on and on and on.
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For example: The Wyman Gordon site, at Green Island’s Lamartine Street. Now a brown field, it was once a thriving factory and serious economic booster for Green Islanders. Today it lies empty, ugly and toxic.

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… or Piedmont’s Chandler Elementary School. The families there need a larger school building to accommodate the hundereds of kids that the city educates there. A good chunk of the student body is being bussed daily to other learning sites in the city. On a smaller scale, up until very recently, its trashed back doors and side windows needed replacing … (pics:R.T.)

These projects in our urban core just never seem to get off the ground. Like the perennial lead balloon, these inner-city sites – a reflection of Worcester political leaders’ lack of commitment to poorer/minority neighborhoods and poor/minority folks (usually people with little political clout ) –  just keep rolling along Lamartine Street, Murray Ave or Chandler Street. Every election cycle our politicians ever so elegantly dance over these lead balloons: Yes! they say, we feel your pain! (they absolutely do NOT!). Yes! we know half of Chandler Elementary school’s student body is being bussed out to other city buildings to learn because the building is so over populated! (How many West Side parents would put up with that kind of  school-day disruption for their precious kiddies?!) Yes! We know the school’s back doors are wooden and rotten and look like some one’s trying to kick them in and the wood windows are damaged badly, but, hey, we’re working on it! (finally – yes –  the school’s doors were recently replaced with heavy green metal ones and the damaged heavy wooden windows replaced with new ones – see photo, above)

Here is our latest urban core lead balloon over which the city is self-flagellating but not moving on – even though a BEAUTIFUL USE for it was recently presented to the City Manager and Co. by former Worcester City Councilor Juan Gomez :

It’s the old PIP building in Main South – and the LATINO ARTS/PERFORMANCE CENTER  it could have become!

Formerly one of the state’s  two or three only “wet” shelters (drunk,  high, stoned homeless welcome here!) residents and  small businesses in Main South and city leaders (most notably former District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller) clamored for years for the PIP to be shut down. The drug users were shooting up heroin a few streets outside the PIP’s doors and then staggering into the social service agency for supper, medical care and a cot to sleep in for the night . Morning came and they walked out into the Main South neighborhood, some on their way to getting clean and sober, but most looking to get high all over again and repeat the brutal cycle. Usually just yards away from the PIP’s back doors! Nearby Main South small biz folks were outraged, lower Main South residents fearful and without hope. 

Then a few years ago, the unimaginable happened: Thanks mostly to Haller and Main South community activist Billy Breault, the PIP was FINALLY shut down. Homeless addicts and hardcore alcoholics are now being helped in other places in the city – social service agencies that refuse them if they are high and transport them to hospitals for detoxification; places/half way homes with more security; social service agencies with impressive, structured programs.

So now the old PIP building has become another Woo lead balloon!

For their/your information: the  PIP building ITSELF is STILL attracting junkies, staggering alcoholics and high homeless folks!  Scrawny, weather beaten women are STILL TODAY walking the walk outside its doors, along Charlton Street, looking to sell their bodies to buy a bag of cheap smack from the heroin dearler who himself is usually just a few yards away. The tired and high but hopeless STILL sit on the curb stones by the PIP nodding off, heads in their hands, rocking to and fro, murmuring to themselves. So sad…They are still breaking into nearby vehicles to “sleep it off” or look for money in glove compartments to buy drugs. Guns are still being fired.

The PIP building is STILL an affront to the hardwordking small business folks who are trying to make a living and create jobs! It’s STILL a late night, cacophony-filled nightmare for Main South residents trying to hold down jobs and raise their families right!

Enter the adorable, strong-willled, smart-as-the-bow-ties-he-wears  Juan Gomez, executive director of Centro on nearby Sycamore Street – just two streets down. Gomez, a former Worcester City Councilor and a recent city councilor candidate, has been head of the city’s premier Latino social sevice agency for several years now. And he’s run with it! Programs for the Hispanic elderly, hungry and displaced have expanded! Their outreach to the Worcester Hispanic population grows stronger by the day. Education, art, small biz … Juan is trying to support it all! Do it all!  The  yearly summertime and terrific Latino Music Festival, put on in large part through support from Centro, is another jewel in Worcester’s cultural crown. In other words, Centro, which has been around for years, is UP AND COMING !, thanks in no small part to the little power house and biz-savvy, Republican, feet-on-the-ground-but-not-afraid-to-dream Juan Gomez, himself a second generation American and a profile in courage as a cancer survivor.

So I cheered when Centro purchased a few pieces of tired property, really a good bit of Sycamore Street, next to and across the street from Centro. For additional office space and parking, Juan says. Needed because their expanded services and mission needs more space in a very densely populated inner city neighborhood.

Here’s the most intriguing/best part…Centro, through Juan, planned on buying the PIP building to create a Latino Arts Center/Community Space open to ALL. It would have showcased the arts/culture and artists of Puerto Rico and Central America.  Worcester folks with roots from those countries and territory would be able to enjoy a beautiful slice of their or their parents/grandparents homelands. THEIR ROOTS. THEIR HERITAGE. A POSITIVE PICTURE. There were plans for  a performance space with a stage for dancers, musicians, singers, poets. There would have been classrooms for artist workshops and community art or music classes. All with an eye on nurturing and promoting Latino art and artists!

TERRIFIC! I thought to myself. What a wonderful addition to the Worcester Family! To a CITY that SAYS it embraces racial and economic DIVERSITY as manifested through its population!

Juan applied to the City of Worcester for a $100,000+  community block grant to help buy the PIP building. The City Manager’s office said NO, NOPE, no thanks. Not interested in supporting this arts center. The grant money went to other Worcester social service agencies – all doing fine work but nothing as WONDERFUL and INSPIRED/INSPIRING as what this Latino Arts building would have meant to our Latino/ minority community, ALL WORCESTERITES and DOWNTOWN REVITALIZATION.

The PIP is a big, multi-storied building that is in EXCELLENT shape (I toured it a few years ago). It would have made a great arts center. It has a big commercial kitchen, many bathrooms, meeting rooms and a big open first floor space. Perfect!

Yet city leaders, who claim to be urban visionaries, couldn’t “see” the brilliance and beauty of Juan Gomez’s vision. For his people. For downtown. For all of Worcester County, really.

So often the Latinos that make the news – and shape our collective vision of their culture – are in the stories about Latinos in Worcester riding illegal dirt bikes, getting arrested for drug dealing, getting stabbed over that, shot over this. THE FEW BAD SEEDS. (I’ve always been amazed that grinding poverty and prejudice haven’t made more people angry killers!) Wouldn’t it be great to read, daily, about the good and amazing in Latino culture? The famous Latino guitarist visiting the CENTRO ARTS CENTRE or those wonderful Salsa dancers who performed over in Main South at the CENTRO ARTS CENTRE … or the city kids who are discovering a famous Hispanic painter in the summer art class they’re taking at the CENTRO ARTS CENTRE?

That is how you cure white people of racial prejudice!

Present a different – the TRUE –  PICTURE of a culture to them!

Keep doing this every day…and prejudices will begin to melt away. Work to have people, white, brown, black, poor, rich interact with each other every day – meet in celebratory, educational places to see WHO THEY REALLY ARE.

That is how we break down barriers and make society more equitable, freer…

The CENTRO ARTS center would have been a BOON for all of us! Instead the city manager and city staff and city political leaders shut their eyes and missed an opportunity with the PIP building! Which is really nutty and pathetic, besides being horribly short-sighted, because they often talk about  how there is little racism in Worcester or how seriously they take racial inequity. That’s a lie. They don’t know any better. Yet they need to!

If anything, out of self interest:

Main South is only a block or two away from our planned BRIGHT NEW SHINY DOWNTOWN! City Manager Ed Augustus wants a BEAUTIFUL and BUSTLING downtown Worcester to be his legacy. He’s got an urban renewal game plan and making it happen. It’s a shame he can’t walk just two blocks up from his beloved downtown and his office in City Hall to see all the horrible shit STILL GOING DOWN IN FRONT OF AND ON THE SIDE of the PIP building . The junkies STILL passed out in front of the PIP are just the beginning…

Now, I ask you,  how can we create a downtown Worcester that WILL DRAW MILLENIALS AND THE UPWARDLY MOBILE AND THE MIDDLE CLASS EMPTY NESTERS if, on their way to a show at the Hanover or a road race that starts at City Hall  or a visit to a cool, urbane downtown restaurant for martinis and sushi, they see some guy pretend butt fucking some gal outside the PIP building, like I have? Or several more lost souls sitting on the curb or overturned gray plastic milk crates picked out of Dumpsters waiting for their man so they can shoot up and get high?

What will this little gritty scene say about  the new and trendy Worcester to people who will, in some cases, be driving by the PIP?!

Can you dig it?!

We can!

The City  of Worcester movers and shakers can’t.

Why?

No need to plumb city leaders’ psyches for a deep answer…But let’s just say the city is run by a bunch of unforgiving vindictive shit heads who never forget a slight or a misstatement or a move that was not in sync with their political plans and have no trouble turning the lone riders  the lone visionaries into PERSON NON GRATA.   Crap. Juan Gomez, as a Worcester city councilor, was always his own man. But in a very nice, respectful way. Sometimes he’s been passionate about what he truly believes in. Nothing wrong, everything right, about that! But his passion for the Hispanic livery drivers and their customers during his last few months as a  Worcester City Councilor (that’s why they were his last few months!) turned lots of political movers and shakers off. They whispered amongst themselves: Juan’s gone rogue! When he lead a group of clapping chanting livery drivers out of City Hall as a show of solidarity during a city council meeting when he was city councilor, well, that didn’t do at all! His political demise was written on the City Council chambers wall…

We loved it! Juan was right! Juan was real and cool and INSPIRING! The city shitheads renounced him, in their heads, right then and there! Here was the Juan who used to eat lunch with former City Manager Tom Hoover over at the MID TOWN MALL, across from City Hall, over at the Latino lunch hot spot SABANA’s being  mentally blacklisted! He used to tell Tom Hoover: Come! Enjoy the spicey treats of my culture! Hoover did! Along with the scores of other cool folks! The line for lunch at Sabana’s used to go our the door! The old cool Worcester vibe! Back then it wasn’t all smug and phoney and boutiquey. Just urban. A white Polish guy from Toledo breaking bread with a little Puerto Rican guy from Worcester! Enormous!

Can you imagine Ed Augustus eating lunch in the MID TOWN MALL (a place on his urban renewal hit list) with Juan Gomez, a political outcast? Especially after Juan felt cheated after this election and held a press conference or two about it and almost pushed for a ballot recount?!

Of course the City of Worcester wasn’t going to give Juan his Latino arts center, give him the $$$hundred-plus grand he needed to begin his project.

It’s the Worcester way!

So the PIP continues to languish and be an unsightly magnet for drugs and crime EVERY DAY. And Worcester’s Hispanic community and Downtown Worcester don’t get a cool, racial barrier busting Latino Arts Center!

Another lead balloon rolls down Worcester!