Thursday, February 28, 2008

No Bags

I spent about seven years of my youth living on Edgewater Avenue in Shrewsbury across the street from Spag's. I realize now looking back on it that this is where my thirst for urban living comes from. Urban living in Shrewsbury you ask? Damn right.

I spent whole summers rarely leaving that neighborhood as a kid. It was really really great. I had a huge paper route delivering the Evening Gazette. Two newspapers. The Telegram can't even support one newspaper and they had two then. The neighborhood was chock full of kids and we had no shortage of things to keep ourselves occupied with. If we weren't spending our time playing street hockey or riding our bikes around Jordan Pond we were going to White City Pizza (actually still there) or Orlando's Meat Market for lunch or going to Frosty's for ice cream or Joe White's for soda and candy. I remember going to see Gremlins and Goonies and Pee Wee's Big Adventure with my friends at the White City Cinema. I remember going to MacDuff's and looking at all the guitars and drums that added fuel to the dreams of a kid already obsessed with rock'n'roll. I remember that wierd little opening that connected Iandoli's and Bradlees. I remember Child World. I remember my Dad buying me a copy of Bill Cosby's "Why Is There Air?" on vinyl at the Shrewsbury location of Album's. One of my most vivid memories is going to Spag's with a couple of my friends on busy summer Saturdays and racing from the front doors to the back because Spag's was so absolutely mobbed with people that the race was actually a challenge and you had to know the store well and know what aisles you could use for shortcuts. An independent Worcester business being so crowded with people that you could barely move. Imagine that.

As I got older and wanted to give up the paper route and make a little more money I still didn't need to leave the neighborhood to find a job as Burger King, Bradlees and CVS all took me on as an employee. My parents would eventually buy a house in Oxford and although I only attended school there for 3 years versus the 7 in Shrewsbury I still consider Oxford the town I grew up in. I still have very very good friends that I met in Oxford and I still have a soft spot for Carl's Oxford Diner, N+J Donuts, the French River and Buffumville Dam.

As I look back though I realize that while Oxford is still the town I grew up in, Shrewsbury is an emense part of my personal history. Shrewsbury is where my appreciation for urban living, tight communities, and easy walkable access to whatever you need came from. I don't know what the culture is like in that neighborhood anymore though. Maybe everyone that lives there shops at Walmart and eats at Subway. I don't know.

What is with this sudden surge of nostalgia? I was searching around the net for information about the history of Lake Quinsigamond. I was inspired by a comment left by Ms. Crystal about the lack of water in Worcester being one of the causes of Worcester being the way it is. I have always wondered what would have happened if Worcester's downtown didn't end up being where it is but was centered around the lake. What if the canal didn't come in where it came in but came up from the Blackstone and then up the Quinsigamond River into the lake and created a nice little harbor in our otherwise landlocked city. How would that have affected how the region developed over the next 100 years or so?

What really made me wax nostalgic today though was when I found this website about Spag's.

Now I know that to a lot of people Spag's has a very negative connotation. The "Spag's mentality" is something you hear alot about as something that kept alot of high end shopping out of Central Massachusetts due to folks used to being able to get good merchandise at cheap prices for so long. I don't know much about that. I do know that if they do tear that building down I will most likely shed a tear. That's a huge huge huge part of my youth that is going to bite the dust right there.

Maybe it's a good thing though. Maybe it's a good thing to forget that this city and Central Massachusetts were once great areas and Worcester was a center of commerce and had a culture of it's own. That it meant something to be from here. That Worcester was an important American city and not just the joke that all of us have allowed it to become. Maybe it's a good thing to forget and move on. I know that when the day comes that they swing that wrecking ball into the side of the big ol' white warehouse on route 9 will not be a happy day for me. It's too bad. Spag's really was one of a kind.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Heart Population Statistics

I have long stood by the opinion that one of the reasons for the constant frustration many of us feel as Worcesterites comes from the belief that we are bigger than we actually are. I have also long stood by the opinion that part of the fault of this lies within the surrounding towns and not with Worcester itself. I have finally found a little data to support this theory.

One of the facts that Worcester prides itself on is that we are the second biggest city in New England. It's a statistic that in our constant inferiority complex lets us feel like we have something over Providence and Springfield and and that we can downright hold our heads high and our noses in the air towards such villages as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. Those people in Connecticut don't know a city from a one horse town now do they?

This pride is also a burden too because you can sit in Worcester and look at that statistic but then you go and visit these other cities and you notice something. You go to Providence and realize that Providence is just a flat out better city than Worcester. You go to Hartford and realize that downtown Hartford is awash with vibrancy and activity albeit during the day. You go to New Haven and find a vibrant nightlife and cultural scene. How can this be? Worcester is a bigger city than all these places. Why can't we have a bustling downtown? Why is it that our cultural landscape isn't as rich as some other cities? WHAT THE CHRIST IS WRONG WITH WORCESTER THAT THESE THINGS CAN'T HAPPEN HERE???!!!!!!!

Today I was looking around and came upon this entry on wikipedia. A little from the entry:

"A New England City and Town Area or NECTA is a geographic and statistical entity defined by the U. S. Office of Management and Budget, for use in describing aspects of the New England region of the United States. A NECTA is a region associated with a core urban area with a population of at least 10,000, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting and employment. NECTAs are analogous to Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) and are similarly classified as either metropolitan NECTAs (corresponding to Metropolitan Statistical Areas) or micropolitan NECTAs (corresponding to Micropolitan Statistical Areas). A micropolitan NECTA has an urban core with a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 while a metropolitan NECTA has an urban core with a population of at least 50,000."

I am a bit of a geography geek. I look at lots of maps, read lots of statistics, and constantly compare my findings to my hometown. When comparing things you need to find the differences. Why is it that something works one place but it doesn't work in another. I have always noticed that most of the other bigger cities in New England are surrounded by smaller cities. Boston has its Cambridge, Quincy, Newton and Somerville. Providence has its Warwick and Pawtucket. Hartford it's West Hartford, East Hartford, and Weathersfield. Worcester has it's ... um ... Shrewsbury?

So according to the census bureau, the New England City and Town Area of Worcester actually ranks 7th in population behind Boston, Providence, Hartford, Bridgeport, Springfield and New Haven respectively. So out of all the bigger cities in New England our metropolitan area is dead last in population. Check out the numbers here.

We're still a city though. The next closest NECTA is Portland with almost 200,000 less. Here's the top ten:

Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA NECTA Division (2,773,832)
Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI-MA Metropolitan NECTA (1,291,932)
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT Metropolitan NECTA (1,059,878)
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT Metropolitan NECTA (892,283)
Springfield, MA-CT Metropolitan NECTA (668,960)
New Haven, CT Metropolitan NECTA (571,310)
Worcester, MA-CT Metropolitan NECTA (539,828)
Portland-South Portland, ME Metropolitan NECTA (333,624)
Nashua, NH-MA NECTA Division (291,674)
Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford, MA-NH NECTA Division (280,997)

To me the key sentence here is this:

A NECTA is a region associated with a core urban area with a population of at least 10,000, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting and employment.

I have felt for a very very long time that Worcester, for whatever reason, hasn't developed an ingrained culture like many other cities do. You spend your childhood in the suburbs, you grow up, you get an apartment in the city, you meet someone, you get married, you buy a house, you start a family, you sell the house in the city and move to the suburbs, your kids grow up, the circle of life continues. You have an area filled with generations of people who are Worcester people. People who are "from Worcester" who don't actually live in the city limits. A local culture that revolves around the city of Worcester. I am not sure about Bridgeport and Springfield, because I think those two cities may be in the same boat that we are in, but I do believe that in the Boston, Providence, Hartford and New Haven areas you will most likely find generations of families like this. Not just living in the cities themselves but living in the suburbs. People that live one or two towns out from the city but know that "the best fresh baked bread around is at this little place", or "damn if you want to get a good burger you need to go to this place, I went there with my Grandfather every Sunday one summer when I was a kid."

I think this does exist in Worcester but I don't think it's as far reaching as in most other cities. I think there are a ton of people that live in the actual city who might make statements like this but I think you get into the bordering towns and that number drops sharply and once you start getting into the Oxfords, Charltons and Spencers of the world I would guess that the numbers drop even more.

Of course this is all just an observation not any type of solution. Just something I wanted to write out for the people like me who like to ponder the problems of our little corner of the world called Worcester. To go into the reasons why the circle of life I described above does not happen and why the populations of towns like Shrewsbury, Auburn, Holden, and Millbury did not grow along with Worcester's population is probably a very long and complex conversation. It is something to think about though.