Monday, May 02, 2016

"Worcester is for working.”

When I was a kid, growing up in the biggest city in the United States that no one had ever heard of, we hungered for any time Worcester’s existence was acknowledged in the outside world.

Cornball 1940’s b&w bio-pic of the obscure football coach and WW I hero Frank Cavanaugh showing on Boston Movietime? Cavanaugh was BORN in Worcester and coached for a bit at Holy Cross. They actually said Worcester in the movie. We’ll watch it!

Space program AOK-ing it’s way into our consciousness in the early 1960’s? Forget Wernher Von Braun, that old Nazi. Space meant a mention of Dr. Robert Goddard. Dr. Robert Goddard, liquid fuel rocket pioneer. The Wright Brother of the space program. Our Dr. Robert Goddard. Be sure to note that, like Frank Cavanaugh, he was born in Worcester, and shot that first liquid fuel rocket off on Packachoag Hill, right up the way from Holy Cross, where Cav coached. Forget that a popular expression in the 1920’s was “crazy as Dr. Goddard.” He was a ours.

So was Bob Cousy. The Cooz wasn’t born in Worcester. He actually chose to live there. Right next to my high school, in fact. Chose to live there. Wow. Just wow.

Who cared if the description of Worcester in Truman Capotte’s In Cold Blood was kind of a downer:

"One wet afternoon the following November, a Greyhound bus deposited Perry in Worcester, a Massachusetts factory town of steep up-and streets that even in the best of weathers seem cheerless and hostile."

Who cared that he called our city “cheerless and hostile”? (You want cheerless and hostile, Mr. Capote? I’ll show you cheerless and hostile.) This was a best seller. And WE were in it.

Well, you can take the girl out of Worcester, but you just can’t take the Worcester out of the girl. So, although I haven’t lived in Worcester since the late 1960’s, and have lodged more years in my Beacon Hill condo than I did in the Heart of the Commonwealth, I was delighted to see that Worcester has made this week’s NY Times Sunday Magazine, in the form of an article “What Happened to Worcester?” by Adam Davidson.

Davidson’s great-grandparents had built their life in Worcester, and he traced their history as a parallel to the rise of the American middle class, a rise enabled by “factory towns” like Worcester, or, as Davidson would have it, by Worcester itself. Davidson writes:

But in learning about my family’s economic history, I’ve also come to understand how deeply their story is embedded in the history of a place, of one particular city created by and for the middle class. When I mention Worcester to people from New England, they often give a knowing nod or laugh — this unlovely, down-on-its-luck
city of dead industry and collapsing buildings. But
Worcester was an engine for betterment until the middle of the 20th century, a magical place that transformed lost and impoverished lives.

My great-grandparents’ economic journey was one that’s harder to make today, in part because there are fewer “middle” cities now. Even during the middleclass
heyday of the 20th century, they couldn’t have done it without Worcester.

The article is quite interesting, detailing the ups and downs of generations of his father’s family, and how Worcester supported them through those ups in ways that are less attainable today, economic forces being what they are. Things are just more complicated these days, all-round.

Yet the article underscores Worcester’s resilience, the tough old hearts that still beat in those three-deckers and modest single family homes that still survive in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. (Main South, Webster Square, OLA.) And Worcester is still a city of immigrants.

When I was a kid, we were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish, Italian, French Canadian, Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, Greek, Armenian immigrants. Today, it’s  Latinos, Middle Easterners, and Ghanians. Yes, Ghanians. A few months ago, I had a cab driver in Boston: a Ghanian who lived in Worcester.

In his travels through Worceser, Davidson spoke with Ahmed Yusef, who’d fled Mosul, Iraq and somehow ended up in Worcester (as did my Irish immigrant great-grands in the 1870’s. Seriously, how did they end up in Worcester County instead of Boston?). In Worcester, Yusef owns a tailor shop. He also works a couple of days a week in Brooks Brothers (I’m guessing in Boston: no BB in Worcester.)

When Yusef was considering where to land, he had the opportunity to settle in Arizona, but called the only person he knew in America, who happened to live in Worcester, for advice:

Don’t go to Arizona, he was told. It’s too hot there, and there are no jobs. Move to Worcester, where housing is cheap, and opportunities are plenty…[Married, and with one child] he envisions that, one day, he’ll have many children, that some of them will even work with him in the tailor shop.

He told me that he has been to New York and Miami. They were beautiful: “Like a dream,” he said. But he was always happy to get back to Worcester. Those other cities are too expensive, too busy. “Too much,” he said. I said, “You like Worcester.” He said: “No, not like. Love. I love it. I have a future.New York is for dreams. Worcester is for working.”

Screw cheerless. Screw hostile. Screw unlovely. Nothing dream-like about Worcester. “Worcester is for working.” That’s about right.


Dual shout out today to my cousin MB, a fellow Worcester girl, and to my brother-in-law Rick, who married in, for pointing this article out to me.

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