Sunday, October 02, 2005

Support your local downtown

Whenever I travel outside of my own parochial parameters of place, I try to see as much of a new area as possible. Regardless of where one goes, it takes effort to get away from the strip malls, shopping complexes and chain stores and visit the actual places where local people live, work and congregate.

Yesterday, my wife and I traveled to Worcester, Massachusetts, to watch our son participate in a fall baseball game, against the home Holy Cross Crusaders. If you’ve never been to Worcester, it is typical of many former industrial and manufacturing hubs scattered across the New England landscape. With the loss of the manufacturing sector and jobs that supported a former functioning working class, the last two decades have been especially tough.

I’ve heard the comments about Worcester before—“be careful where you go,” or like I heard yesterday from a parent of one of Mark’s teammates, referring to the nearby area as a “rough part of town.” Well, Mary and I drove through some of the “rougher” parts of Worcester, near Federal Square and in the area near Clark University. These areas are “rough” or better, rundown, because any semblance of a local economy has been stripped away by jobs shipped overseas, or the trend towards white flight and urban sprawl that was common during the 1970’s and 1980’s, as businesses vacated downtown for suburban shopping centers and malls. This all adds up to a recipe that leaves the urban center neglected and decaying. As convenient as it is for some to blame the residents that inhabit this urban core, it has more to do with the attitudes of members of the business community and others who could make a positive difference. Even the local visitor’s bureau website seems bent upon keeping folks away from the downtown area.

While it is all too easy to whisk by these areas with the windows up and the doors locked on one’s Lexus, Jaguar, or BMW, Mary and I drove through town in our Toyota Corolla with the windows down and our eyes wide open. Yes, much of the area that we drove through was populated by non-Caucasian individuals, but I’m always curious why that elicits such fear in others? Have we not risen above the level of being able to appreciate someone for who they are versus the color of their skin? Quite honestly, I don’t think so.

I particularly was struck by some of the wonderful architecture and some of the older homes that we drove past. Some of them seemed to have had better days, but I saw so much potential in and around the city center of Worcester that I wondered why it has such an unseemly reputation? Did you know it is the third largest city in New England?

While our lack of time prevented us from getting out and walking around, we did see the Worcester African Culture Center and some neat little local markets and bodegas that I’m sure had some great culinary treasures inside. Just about a ½ mile form Fitton Park, where the day’s games were to be played, Mary and I found Culpepper’s Bakery and Cafe, a local eatery and bakery with pastries and other decadent treats to die for. Located at 500 Cambridge Street, an easy exit from I-290, it’s definitely worth a visit. While I didn’t have a hankering for a full breakfast, I noticed an abundance of $2.99 specials on the board.

I’m sure there are those who grow tired of my cheerleading for the home team/local economy, but I don’t think our economic long-term is served by our current fixation for lower prices and supposed convenience. At some point, the lack of sustainable options is going to jump up and bite us squarely in the hindquarters.

If anyone cares to read more on the issue of inner city poverty and the factors associated with the phenomenom, I dredged up this document from a conference held back in 2001, in Massachesetts. The speaker, David Rusk, is speaking about many of the issues I raised regarding my visit to Worcester.


ChefDunn said...

Being from Cambridge myself, I can tell you that you are relatively safe walking around during the day. I'm not sure I'd be walking around that area alone at night. During the late 80's and early 90's I used to frequent the area via public transportation to get to and from my high school basketball games (We used to play Holy Cross fairly often). You'll remember that during that time gang activity was pretty high and fairly violent. I'm not sure what things are like theese days as the media doesn't give gangs much thought these days and my life in Maine keeps be pretty sheltered from the goings on in my old stomping grounds. If I had to guess, stereotypes are still very much in charge. Of course, when I was a teenager knowing those same stereotypes were often helpful in keeping me out of a bad situation.

Anonymous said...

You are right about being able to walk around during the day and being fairly safe but it is very unfortunate for the city of Worcester but there are areas where there is a lot of drug activity going on. I do not believe that I would want to be in them after dark. I don't know why this is but it was the same way in the area surrounding Providence College.

Jim said...

The comments are both very pertinent to the issue and I wasn't trying to minimize incidences of social dysfunction; on the contrary, I think the fact that there are issues with drugs, gangs and violence only strengthens my point. The loss of vital resources in urban areas have only been ascerbated by "white flight" and the associated sprawl that accompanied this.

I'm currently reading a great book on poverty by David K. Shipler, The Working Poor; Shipler's book dispels many of the myths about poverty and caricatures that often are associated with poverty.

When I see the dichotomy of unbridled wealth and crushing poverty, often side-by-side in our country, I ask, why does this have to be? Then again, I'm not an unapologetic champion of the capitalism that breeds this malady (neither am I a politician, or poverty pimp that grows rich by continuing our flawed social experiments).

There are no easy answers, but a start is always raising the questions and then moving on from there.

Thanks for weighing in on this.