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If at first you don’t succeed
Worcester as the Wall-E universe
Well, the cats out of the bag in a big way! Worcester is getting an indie video store and Worcester Sucks is getting a real physical newsroom. The Patch’s Neal McNamara came down to the shop the other day and did a really nice write-up:
WORCESTER, MA — In 1985, schlock director Larry Cohen unleashed the landmark horror-satire "The Stuff" about a delicious extraterrestrial ooze that zombifies anyone who eats it. Shady corporations sell the Stuff for profit. Everyone gobbles it up and gets addicted and brainwashed by aliens.
If you were born before approximately 1990, you may have encountered "The Stuff" on the shelf at your local video store. The iconic VHS cover bears a man's face twisted in agony, his eyes and mouth full of dribbling goo. All at once, the box causes feelings of terror, disgust, and curiosity (will mom let me rent this?).
But in an age of countless streaming services — that delete movies and cancel shows on a whim — kids today will never know the fun of visiting a video store on a Friday to find some weird treasure to bring home for the evening.
That's why several Worcester residents are in the process of opening a video rental store along June Street, hoping to offer Worcester residents the chance a new way to enjoy physical media, and much more.
Rewind Video will be the face of the Worcester Community Media Foundation, which will offer programming like media literacy classes, an internet café and youth employment opportunities. The storefront at 116 June St. will also serve as the first physical newsroom for Worcester Sucks and I Love It, the alternative news outlet founded three years ago by ex-Worcester Magazine writer Bill Shaner.
Rewind is Cara Berg-Powers’ idea and baby and it’s gunna be a really cool addition to the local small business landscape. It will also be an opportunity to hold some Worcester Sucks-branded community media events and workshops. Right off the bat, we’ll host regular open newsrooms and, if there’s interest, a book club. Then, as we get settled, I’ll be adding some writing and reporting workshop style events. More soon! We’re shooting for a fall opening, and right now the pressing concern is fundraising and acquiring the necessary gear. Check the donation page on the website and give the Rewind Video Instagram a follow! If you want to get involved in any way, drop me a line!
Underpinning the video store is the non-profit Worcester Community Media Foundation. For years, I’ve been trying to get at a way to cement this newsletter as a local institution that’s bigger than myself and my account on Substack. Through community media events, especially writer workshops and group reporting projects, a main goal is facilitating new voices for the Worcester Sucks experiment in aggressive and unrepentant local journalism.
The main feature of today’s newsletter is a great example of that goal and why it’s a good thing. The piece is by Andres J. Lorenzana, a talented young writer in Worcester, and it’s zany in premise and well researched and intensely critical of those in power. I think you’ll enjoy it. If I’m thinking about what Worcester Sucks looks like five years in the future, the best case scenario is a publication stuffed with these kinds of voices and this kind of writing. The Community Media Foundation’s goal is to find and encourage those voices.
Lorenzana is a Worcester-born and based poet and photographer. His writing can be found at Typewriter-Productions. Otherwise he can be found at the Vernon on Friday nights. “I’ll buy you a pickleback or a beer and we can talk about Worcester,” he said. Sounds fun!
Before we get to Lorenzana’s piece, I need to address an absolute nightmare situation a woman in Worcester is being made to face by way of the city’s policy of selling whole houses for free as attached to tax debts. In August, Nancy Rodriguez received a letter which said she no longer owned her home, per the Telegram.
Rodriguez bought her home in 1996, paid off the mortgage in 2020 and thought she built up substantial home equity, giving her peace of mind. The letter left Rodriguez shocked and confused, and she called the city to find out what was going on.
“When I called the city, and I gave my address to the lady, she said you’re not the owner. I was blown away, this is crazy. I’ve never heard such a thing. Who steals a home, and you don't even know it?”
Who steals a home? Well, a Massachusetts law gives cities and towns the right to sell not only property tax debts but also the equity of the home along with it. Worcester avails itself of this law, apparently. Because of medical debt and work issues that are classically American in nature, Rodriguez had an overdue tax bill of $2,256.
According to Rodriguez’s legal complaint filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the City of Worcester put a lien on her home and sold it to Tallage LLC, a private real estate investment company in Boston. Tallage paid Worcester $3,370.60 in June 2019 for the lien, an amount that covered the unpaid balance and administrative costs.
So this Boston real estate investor was able to buy this woman’s ~$300,000 home for $3,370 and the City of Worcester was the middleman. Rodriguez is suing for her home, and with any luck it works. Absolutely garish stuff! It’s made worse by Worcester’s comment on the matter.
A Worcester spokesman said the city doesn't comment on legal issues concerning pending litigation. The spokesman's email pointed out that Worcester did not foreclose on the property at issue, nor would it obtain any surplus as a result of a sale of the property by the third party.
Oh good to know you didn’t turn a profit on selling the deed of a Worcester resident’s property to a hedge fund! Great!
Ok, now let’s move to Lorenzana’s piece about Worcester and Wall-E. Please consider a paid subscription so I can continue to pay great writers like Andrés.
If at first you don’t succeed
By Andrés J. Lorenzana
There’s this really good movie that came out amidst the ’08 recession about a plucky little robot who spends his days cleaning up trash and collecting items he finds interesting; his nights watching old movies and staring longingly at the stars. He falls in love, goes on an epic space adventure, and in the end helps save the human race.
Meanwhile, humanity has been relegated to a glorified cruise ship. Aimlessly floating around space, they are blissfully ignorant of the planet they once called home. During the climax, the captain of the ship learns why they’ve spent the last few millennia drifting through the cosmos. In short, we chose to leave our fate in the hands of a corporation, Buy n’ Large, which had no regard for our—or our planet’s—well being.
Once Buy ‘N Large had mined Earth for all it’s worth, the corporation abandoned it, leaving the mess for the machines to clean up in the hopes one day we could return. Except really they never planned on coming back. They knew the damage they’d caused, they fucked the planet and got out while the going was still good. But they lied to the people aboard the cruiser, told them this was best while they sang a song and dance and gave them shiny new things, all to distract them from the truth.
When presented with a tiny, albeit undeniable, bit of proof that life on Earth is slowly returning and the planet may once again be sustainable, the ship’s AI autopilot denies it, insisting this is how it has to be, and even tries to dispose of the evidence. Faced with an alternative, the response is vehement. “This is the only way, any other ideas will be shut down and silenced.”
I’m talking about Pixar’s beloved animated hit of 2008, Wall-E, and in a way it’s a fitting allegory for Worcester, especially the discourse around Polar Park. It feels as though too many are willing to bury their heads in the sand, trust the powers that be, and make a naysayer of anyone even remotely critical of it. Someone who wants the ball park to fail. The park is good for Worcester, they say. It put us on the map and is part of a larger revitalization of the city as a whole.
Except it isn’t the first time we’ve heard this song and dance from City Hall.
Summer of 1971: You’re looking to escape the summer heat for a few hours. Inevitably, you end up at “The Worcester Galleria,” a shiny new mall that “renovated” (read: bulldozed) multiple blocks of the downtown. Opening on July 29th 1971, the Galleria was hailed by city officials as the start of a new era for Worcester. It would bring people from all over the world, and finally put us “on the map.”
It opened to much fanfare, boasting massive anchor retailers such as Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, and Kennedy’s, among many other stores. It did well for a few years, but business dwindled. By the mid 80s, a plethora of stores had pulled out. Too many stores to list, so here’s a link to the Google Drive folder, where most of these images and sources come from.
I pulled all of these images from the archives at the Worcester Public Library, and are available for anyone to see, you just have to ask one of the nice librarians to get them. There are literal stacks of newspaper clippings, too much for one person to sift through by themselves. It took a few hours of digging through clippings, parsing out what seemed important or relevant, and I didn’t manage to get through it all.
Buried in the stacks was this prophetic quote about sports arenas and local small business from co-owner of Foxborough Stadium and the Galleria at the time, Stephen R. Karp: “There’s no synergy between the two. People who go to a football game don’t go shopping afterward…Look at all the events at the Centrum [the DCU Center], they don’t help the shopping center.” Football and baseball are two different sports, sure, but I imagine having (half) a stake in the mall, he’d want business to flourish. It's almost like this is something businesses in the Canal District have been saying since the opening of the ballpark. It hurts small businesses more than it helps, and it’s almost comical that a man once listed as one of the 8th wealthiest men in Boston in 2006 told us way back in 1991.
By 1992, the Galleria’s taxable value had plummeted from about $88 million to around $64 million in just one year, a $23 million drop. It was clear something needed to be done to get shoppers back in, and soon. A rebrand was decided upon, and on October 29th ,1994 the mall reopened as the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets (only two years later, in 1996, they decided to drop “Fashion” from the new name, go figure) They hired a small time celebrity, Judith Light, to spearhead the promotion of the grand reopening. The longtime co-star of the sitcom “Who’s the Boss?”was invited to a private party in the mall before it opened, and attended the ribbon cutting ceremony, signing autographs. She made an appearance on the Boston radio station WXKS-FM to answer fan questions (remember when people still listened to the radio?).
With all the promotion she was doing, I’m guessing they had high—if not modest—hopes for future business. Around here is where I stopped digging, but the rest of the story is fairly straightforward: Any hopes they might’ve had were slowly squashed. With Auburn, Greendale, and Solomon Pond Mall all having opened within a twenty minute drive from Worcester, all with free parking no less, competition was stiff. But hey, if you were willing to fork over the extra cash to park at the Worcester Outlets, at least you could go to Applebee’s.
In a 1995 piece from the Telegram headlined “Deal is for mall, not all” (Shameless plug, the title is not too dissimilar from something I wrote back in late 2020) the Fashion Outlets were given a tax relief plan, a luxury not granted to other local businesses.
Even with the tax break, the mall couldn’t cut it. A relic from “the Paris of the 80’s” era, it died a slow, painful death before quietly shuttering in 2006. The building sat decaying for a few years before being demolished in 2010 to redevelop downtown into City Square as we know it.
Remnants of the mall can still be seen. The Worcester Registry of Deeds which was once the food court, that cool pedestrian bridge above the Harpoon Beer Garden, it once led you into the Galleria, or the parking lot of the Mercantile Center, a fraction of the size it once was. At the time it opened, the parking garage was lauded as the largest in the world, a claim that is hard to verify and dubious at best. The only remaining sources I could find are a dead link to a Boston Globe article from Wikipedia, and a fella named Caldor who does a pretty good job recapping the history of the mall on the blog Labelscar: The Retail History Blog, where they cover the history of dead malls across America. Caldor explains bits of the mall’s history in greater detail, much better than I can, and actually has pictures from its time as the Fashion Outlets, definitely worth checking out (after you finish reading this of course)
So, let’s see how the folks at City Hall went about getting this mall built.
Small businesses were basically told to get fucked from the start, the mall was happening one way or the other. In building the mall, City Hall tore up the natural urban fabric in pursuit of “growth” and “development.” It went over budget, plans changed, and a multitude of stores pulled out of agreements after the mall struggled to make ends meet. It then rebranded, received a tax break despite concerns raised by councilors, still wasn’t profitable, then finally closed its doors and sat as a blight on downtown until it was torn down for the new City Square project, which officials promised would be the start of a new revitalisation for Worcester, much like the Galleria before it. Just look at what then-Lt. Gov. Tim Murray was quoted saying in a Telegram article from September, 2010:
“What begins today will re-shape Worcester for generations to come,” Murray told the crowd. Citing the new streets and neighborhoods that will rise when the building is demolished, he said, “The end of the long dark shadow the old mall has cast on downtown Worcester will bring new light and energy to the city.”
Hearing the same rhetoric get mindlessly spewed and constantly regurgitated is exhausting. Those who say “It’ll pay itself off!” or “it put Worcester on the Map!” and come down hard on anyone who expresses skepticism—a personal favorite of mine being “They just don’t want Worcester to be nice, they want it to keep being a shithole.”
I don’t want Worcester to be a shithole. I want the city to grow and develop and have nice things, while keeping its rich history, culture, and diversity. I was born and raised here, like many others, and would like to continue living here. But I’m tired of an unelected City Manager and the developers they’re in bed with controlling the narrative and telling us what’s best, while the rest of us have no choice but to line up and take it on the chin.
Yes, I’ve been to the ballpark a few times and enjoyed it. But just because you like something doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of it. And I swear that’s the nuance that flies over the heads of people who love the ballpark and call us “haters” or say that we don’t want Worcester to grow as a city.
You aren’t a hater or want Worcester to keep being a shithole just because you have a healthy amount of skepticism. We need and should be able to critisise the decisions being made at City Hall, even if we like them. Because it’s through that sort of critical analysis that we sometimes find a new perspective we might not have had otherwise. Even if you walk away with the same perspective, you should be critical of things you enjoy. What you shouldn’t do is trust big corporate firms, real estate developers, or men in slick suits at City Hall to tell you what is best for us.
Despite how it may seem, and unlike in Wall-E, there is no evil AI controlling Worcester in an attempt to hide the truth. There is no deeper conspiracy, but it doesn’t negate the fact certain people in positions of power benefit from weaving a narrative about Polar Park to keep us distracted. On opening day, Mayor Petty was quoted as saying “This is going to lift up Worcester..It really will. I think this was electrifying for the city. The city is on fire right now, and I think we deserve it after COVID-19.”
Am I being hyperbolic? Maybe. It’s too early to tell if Polar Park will suffer the same fate as the old Galleria. But the two stories have very similar beginnings. And just as it happened with the Galleria, Polar Park’s financial situation is looking less and less rosy as the initial hype fades away.
We’ve been down this road before and it seriously fucked any momentum the city might’ve had for decades. Those at the top got their money and dipped out, leaving Worcester in shambles.
Remember our friend Stephen R. Karp, co-owner of Foxborough stadium and Worcester prophet? In 2004 his company, New England Development, sold the dying mall to Berkeley Investments for $30 million. As of September 21st 2006, Karp allegedly ranked #374 on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America, if Wikipedia is to be believed.
At any rate he’s rich, successful, and it's clear he and all the other developers the mall traded hands with knew when to cut their losses and got their money.While Berkeley had to sell some assets due to the Recession of ‘08, all the major developers involved seem to be doing pretty well and thriving. In the world of Wall-E, Buy n’ Large saw the writing on the wall and chose to get ahead of it, with no regard to the mess they left behind. And much like the AI pilot, many Worcester city officials are dead set on maintaining their course of action, one where the truth and any sort of accountability is brushed aside because it doesn’t fit the narrative.
But unfortunately for us, we don’t have a plucky, sentient, trash compactor to solve our problems. It’s up to us: the community organisers, local businesses, poets, artists, musicians, all the people just trying to fucking get by, you and I, to find the truth and not let go, to hold those “above” us accountable for the actions they take.
Odds and ends
Thanks for reading! Hoping this wont be the last essay we see by Lorenzana on here. Please consider a paid subscription!
Since there was no Council meeting Tuesday the Worcestery Council Theater 3,000 crew did an episode of the Worcester Sucks Power Hour. Fun time. We spent most of it talking about the CPC ordinance fracas. Check it out!
Election season is ramping up! There was an interesting forum at Redemption Rock Brewing last week, hosted by Pride Worcester. In August, there will be three. The Sept. 5 preliminary election is coming up fast!
The WCLC — which is composed of over a dozen local groups, from the Worcester NAACP to the Carpenters Local 336 — has three candidate forums coming up in August, just in time for the Sept. 5 preliminary.
Each candidate forum will feature a different lineup of candidates, including some who will not be in the preliminary. All the forums will take place at the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester, 65 Boys & Girls Club Way, in Main South.
Aug. 2, 6 p.m. — School committee candidates
Aug. 9, 6 p.m. — District city council candidates
Aug. 16, 6 p.m. — At-large council and mayoral candidates
Way more questions than answers coming out of a federal judge’s decision to dismiss questions about Worcester cops and whether they sexually assault prostitutes. While the judge found the questions irrelevant to the case in question, they are pretty relevant questions in terms of understanding what it is the Worcester Police Department really is! In particular, I found this passage of Brad Petrishen’s story interesting:
According to partial transcripts filed in court by Pineiro, Augustus, now the state’s housing secretary, answered several questions on the topic before being instructed to stop.
Augustus testified he did not recall hearing allegations directly from anyone at the advocacy organization, Living in Freedom Together, during his time as city manager.
On the advice of Quinn, he did not answer a question regarding whether the head of his public health division brought related allegations to his attention in 2019.
District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera told the T&G last December that she brought some concerns to Augustus following a 2019 meeting of the Worcester Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
Pineiro asked Augustus in his deposition whether he was familiar with the Worcester Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, which is a now-disbanded group Rivera helped start to address exploitation of women in prostitution.
“You know, I don't know if I — I don't know exactly. I assume they're a group of community organizations. I don't know if the Department of Public Health was a part of that.
“I know they partnered with this organization, but I don't know all the organizations and acronyms” Augustus responded.
And in other news, District 5 candidate Jose Rivera continues to try and take credit for something a woman is already doing. He continues to pound away at questions for which there are easy answers, both on the “Big D” thing and the “Mill Street construction” thing. It’s deeply embarassing. The “Mill Street “ non-controversy will continue to unfold tomorrow. There’s a community meeting about it at 6 p.m. at the Mill Swan School, 337 Mill St. It will be yet another forum for Rivera to embarass himsefl.
Anyone been to Bombay Lounge yet? The new Indian restaurant on Mill Street. Looks pretty good!
I wanna leave you all with a passage from chapter 1 of Eight Hours For What We Will, a 1983 book by Roy Rosenzweig about the history of labor in Worcester from 1870-1920. A friend gave me a copy of it recently and it’s like why have I not read this before. It’s insanely good. See if this sounds familiar. It’s about the homegrown factory owners of the time.
Supporting and reinforcing these business connections as well as a network of interlocking corporate and bank directorates were extensive social and cultural ties. Worcester industrialists worshiped at the same Protestant churches, belonged to the same clubs, attended the same schools, lived in the same West Side neighborhoods, vacationed at the same resorts and married into each other’s families (p. 14) ... These men did not agree on all major issues, nor did they rule every aspect of life in Worcester, but their overwhelming economic power, their close business and social ties, their civic generosity and corporate paternalism made them the preeminent force in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Worcester (p. 16).
Hmmmmm. The more things change, eh?