Discover more from Worcester Sucks and I Love It
Life is a highway!
Try not to die on it
Another multi-topic post today! Pedestrian concerns, then ARPA injustices, then more on housing and the unhoused and how when we say “affordable” we really mean “possibly attainable. Then an update on festival/event organizers who just so happen to be people of color and just so happen to have a very hard time getting their events permitted by the city. This is four posts for the price of one!
Of course my work here is always free-to-read. No paywalls! But that doesn’t mean it’s free—it’s supported by paid subscribers! Consider becoming one of them. And if you’re already one of them thank you forever! You’re the coolest boss in the world.
Whoopsies went a little viral! The punchline is that Dystopia Is Now!
I was surprised to see that there were no Massachusetts highways on the list I cited given the way we drive here.
Out of curiosity I took a look at the data that MassDOT keeps on fatal car accidents in Massachusetts.
In 2022, there were 439 such car-related deaths across the state. In Worcester specifically, there were 14. Nowhere near the 57 deaths on the Mad Max Hell Highway but a good deal more than zero. The real dystopia in this dataset however is that pedestrians account for almost all the Worcester deaths last year. Take a look at the map for Worcester in 2022:
The map shows seven pedestrian deaths but really the number is nine. Nine out of the 14 car-related deaths in Worcester last year were people who were not driving nor riding in a moving vehicle but simply existing in the outside world! Until a moving vehicle put an end to that. Given the ratio here you could say it’s about three times more dangerous to walk in this city as it is to drive. And that is a reality reinforced and produced by about 50 years of policy and infrastructure decisions. Despite the best efforts of some there’s really no political will here to reckon with that reality, and so we mostly process every pedestrian death as individual tragedies, unfortunate as they were unavoidable. Just a thing that can happen.
Pedestrian issues have been top of mind for me this week. On Sunday night several lingering problems with my old beat-up Honda converged to make it too dangerous to drive and not worth repairing. So I’ve been Without Car since then, and will remain that way until next week sometime when I get into my new car.
Being Without Car in Worcester objectively sucks. It makes living in this city about five times worse by my estimation, and just on the level of how it feels. I’m in the pretty rare position of not really needing a car to maintain employment or other commitments. And I’ll only be Without Car for a week or so. And I have a car I can borrow without much hassle should I need to. And I could easily afford a rental.
All to say that my Without Car Status is temporary and voluntary. For a lot of people, Without Car Status is neither temporary nor voluntary. Not only is it difficult and dangerous, it’s plain miserable to live Without Car in Worcester. There is an immediate psychological weight to engaging this city as a pedestrian rather than a car driver. Personally, it’s manifested as a sort of ambient stress that makes everything more frustrating and exhausting. Even the idea of walking around the neighborhood—and I love walking around in cities where people walk—feels like something you just shouldn’t do if you can avoid it. Like you need a good reason. “Where’s your car?” Like it’s embarrassing or shameful to walk. “Why would you navigate this city without a steel box around you?”
In all but for some small parts of the downtown, the roads are for cars and pedestrians are intruders. This is an infrastructure problem of course but it’s also a deeper cultural problem. The “walkable city” that we all want Worcester to be is contingent on a change in our cultural attitudes about walking. Every time a pedestrian gets hit by a car, we take a big step in the opposite direction. But we also take a little step back every time a pedestrian is honked at or made to feel like they have to run across an intersection or made to wait as drivers blow past crosswalks.
To illustrate the point: It’s 2:30 p.m. on Thursday as of my writing this. At 5:30 p.m., there’s a presentation at the Worcester Senior Center about the Now | Next Citywide Plan, an effort launched by City Hall to (ostensibly) map out a vision for the city’s infrastructure and urban design and housing density and public transportation. This is of great interest to me and this newsletter and I want to go. If I was With Car, I’d just go! Plan for 15 minutes to get across the city. Leave the house at 5:15 and drive. No more thought needed. If in the end it wasn’t worth it to go, no big loss. Drive back home and forget about it.
Since I am Without Car, the logistics are not so simple and so neither is the question of whether it’s worth it to attend. Every single way to get there is either more expensive or more time consuming to a daunting degree.
Do I try to take the bus? Even if I figured out which routes to take and left right now, three hours before the event, I am not confident I’d get there. Even less confident I’d get back. On paper this is the cheapest and most reasonable option. But even if I could figure out the routes and schedules on the WRTA’s rubix cube of a website, I could end up waiting for a bus that never shows up. I could miss the event entirely or get there so late it’s a wash. Otherwise valuable time wasted in the failed effort to participate.
Do I call a cab? That puts me in the position of considering whether this presentation is worth the $30 or so it would take me to get there and back.
Do I walk? Even if I wanted the exercise and had the hour and a half to spare for the 4 mile hike, I’d have to traverse some roads where walking may as well be illegal.
Do I ask around for a ride? That begs the question of whether the event is worth inconveniencing someone on my behalf. Is it worth the social capital spent on a favor? Somehow this feels more costly than cab fare.
With Car or Without Car, the substance of this meeting remains the same, as does the opportunity it presents to meaningfully participate in shaping the city’s future. Whether or not I decide it’s worth it to participate, however, is greatly impacted by whether I’m With or Without Car.
I decided it wasn’t worth it and didn’t go.
Stands to reason that you’re more likely to get input from people with cars as a general rule. In this instance, as in many other instances, the perspective of people without them would be more valuable. Funny/ironic/sad that the walkability and public transportation meeting is so difficult to get to by walking or public transport. In this regard among many, Worcester has such a long way to go.
Pure Neglect of a Community
Big story in WGBH yesterday on the certain inequities in the way the city has so far doled out its allotment of COVID relief money via the American Rescue Plan Act. The $146 million pool everyone is talking about when they say “ARPA funds.” By the station’s Worcester correspondent Sam Turken, the headline reads “'A huge injustice': Worcester denies several small nonprofits ARPA funding.”
The gist, which should sound familiar if you’ve been watching Council meetings over the past year or so, is that the city is unfairly passing over small grassroots organizations in desperate need of the money for larger, more well-off organizations. The stated goal of the money–to assist those impacted most by the pandemic–at odds with how the city’s choosing to disperse it.
Turken arrived on a remarkably clear way of demonstrating it:
According to a GBH News review of publicly available tax data, more than 60% of the total $11.7 million in ARPA money for projects and programming was awarded to larger, more established organizations with at least $400,000 in annual funding.
Exhibit A: UMass Chan.
UMass Chan Medical School has received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and research funding in recent years but was awarded $225,000 in ARPA money for its Lifeline for Kids program, which helps children recover from trauma.
Exhibit B: Dan Ford, a man who should be familiar to longtime Worcester Sucks readers as the man behind The Bridge. In keeping with the spirit of The Bridge, Ford put in an application for ARPA money to expand his auto repair business into a job training center for local kids to get into the mechanic business. The application was rejected by the city in February, according to WGBH.
“It’s business as usual for [the] city of Worcester. ... It’s a slap in the face,” Ford said. “It’s pure neglect of a community.”
Ford is a man used to being slapped in the face by the city. For a year and a half, Dan Ford’s dream of converting the former factory building behind Miss Worcester Diner into The Bridge brought the community together in a grassroots effort to create a truly special place for Worcester youth. There were music festivals and mural-painting events and an art gallery and an incredible food truck serving Caribbean fare and a DIY skatepark and there was a chance—a real chance—that Ford could have succeeded. City Hall did less than nothing to help. And now the building is slated for luxury condos that may or may not be constructed but nevertheless necessitated the eviction of The Bridge. Something nobody wanted taking the place of something everyone wanted. Read up if you’re not familiar with how that went down:
The city said kick rocks then and the city says kick rocks now—at best oblivious to the people and projects which make Worcester special and at worst actively hostile. I’d like to believe it’s the former, but there’s a strong case to be made for the latter.
ARPA is a complicated subject but it says a lot about the priorities and values of City Hall. A while back me and Joshua Croke had a great in depth conversation on the subject on Croke’s podcast Public Hearing (if you are a fan of Worcester Sucks you will love this podcast). Very little of this money is going where it was intended to go.
The Routine Cruelty Continues
There was another routine homeless camp eviction this week in the general area of Walmart. Behind the XtraMart across the street. Small, like the subject of my most recent essay on this practice. Just another day at the office for the cops and city workers who carried it out. Another “sweeping” of one camp to create another somewhere else nearby. Achieving nothing else. Cruelty for the sake of it. I wasn’t there but some activists were and they made me aware. Otherwise it would have happened invisibly. This time the camp wasn’t even on private property it was on Worcester Housing Authority land, making it even more transparently evil. Evicting people in tents from land owned by a part of the government designed to house people. There’s a years-long wait list for WHA apartments. But while you’re waiting definitely do not pitch a tent in the woods the WHA happens to own. The cops will be called.
Worcester resident Terry Kelly filed a petition to end the practice of homeless encampment sweeps at the City Council meeting Tuesday. City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj made sure the petition was sent to the Standing Committee on Public Health, but I’d venture to guess she’s not expecting it to go much further than that.
Not that it’ll make much of a dent but there is some good news on this front. The South Middlesex Opportunity Council received a state grant to go ahead with a plan to build 20 “permanent supportive housing units” at the corner of Chandler Street and Park Ave. These sorts of units are a much better approach than the temporary shelters currently available, but they’re not being built at a volume commensurate with the need. Drop hits bucket.
Maybe if we had more money we could build more but we have to keep giving developers insane tax breaks to build complexes of apartments that cost $3,000 a month. On Tuesday the Council approved an $11.3 million tax break for a 364-unit housing development on Franklin Street. All told it’s a roughly 70 percent discount. In exchange for that the developer agreed to set aside 36 of those 364 units for “affordable” rents, but only for 15 years, and what they mean by affordable really just means reasonable. For a single person, “affordable” under the definition used means rent capped at $1,161 a month. For two people, it would be $1,326. These are rents set to incomes that are 60 percent of the “area median income,” but 65 percent of Worcester households are either near or below that 60 percent line. So really when they say “affordable” they mean “attainable.” In exchange for 70 percent off taxes, this developer will for a limited time make 10 percent of its units attainable for most people who live here. What a deal.
This definition of “affordable” is the main contention in the ongoing debate over inclusionary zoning. I broke that down—what “area median income” really means and how that translates to rent prices—in this post from last August. The vote on this policy proposal will take place in mid April after it was delayed this week. As I explained in this post the Council will almost certainly nix a version of the policy put forth by a coalition of housing experts and activists which would meaningfully create an admittedly small numbers of attainable units. Instead they’ll adopt a neutered version which might in some cases “incentivize” developers to make some apartments a little cheaper. Mostly it will be affordable housing policy in name only, but at least developers won’t be inconvenienced by it. Can’t have that.
I don’t have the temerity to linger any longer on this subject today.
The Elephant in the Parks Department
The Telegram followed up on the demands made at the City Council last week by festival organizers, which was the lead subject of my last post in case you missed it.
Cyrus Moulton did a good job with this follow-up. The story leaves the reader versed in the issue and sensing there’s something sketchy going on. Which there definitely is.
As I wrote last week, City Manager Eric Batista very quickly fell on the sword when these organizers of color like Jennifer Gaskin and Geoff Killebrew said they were being treated unfairly by city employees who seemed like they were going out of their way to make it difficult. They very clearly said it was the Parks Department which was making it the most difficult.
But, at the meeting last week and in this feature today, Batista insists it’s the system which is causing problems. Not people. Not any department. From my last post:
“First of all I agree with Jennifer and I agree with Geoffrey that the system is broken and we need to fix it,” Batista said as an opening remark. That’s not really what Jennifer or Geoffrey were saying! It’s not the system, it’s the way City Hall chooses to employ the system! You can’t say you agree with someome and mischaracterize what they’re saying in the same breath. That’s not agreement.
(Batista) said he was “totally committed” to fixing those problems, but maintained that they were of a “systemic” nature, not “intentional.” Definitely don’t consider whether or not these inequities are intentional or why that might be the case. No. Instead, look at me! Look at this big shiny sword I’ve produced. Watch me fall on it.
The most interesting part of the Telegram’s story to me is a short section on Killebrew’s interactions with the Parks Department.
But after the Parks Department received a couple of complaints in 2019, Killebrew said his license was not extended and he was put on probation. He said he didn’t find out for a year what the complaints were about, when they were received, or from whom they came. It turned out that the complaints were about the prices he was charging, Killebrew said.
“They put me on probation after complaints ‒ but what is that, how is that?” Killebrew asked. “Then they said they were going to charge me $500 (for a vendor fee): based on what? Where did that number come from?”
Meanwhile, his equipment, including the Power Wheels that he bought for children to ride at the F.A.M. JAM festival, is in storage. That storage fee is a significant expense that Killebrew has to pay even though he doesn’t know if he will be able to return to the park.
“I don’t know when I can return there, but I know what they’re doing is messed up,” Killebrew said. “There are so many people who could benefit from being there, but the process is not equitable at all.”
A member of the Parks Commission, which oversees the licensing process for parks, did not respond to a request for comment. According to emails Killebrew provided in which he alleged discrimination over his treatment as a vendor in comparison with a previous vendor at the park, a city contact in Parks wrote that they “don’t appreciate your accusation of discrimination we practice the same process with everyone.”
Spoken like someone who definitely practices “the same process with everyone.” For sure.
Maybe Batista fell so quickly on his sword because he knows what’s going on here is lawsuit worthy? At the very least, be the City Manager. Get your Parks Department under control.
Odds and Ends
Thank you for reading! Please subscribe if you can.
Or share the post! Send it to a friend, post it on your social media. Print it out and slide it through the drive thru window at Dunkies. Word of mouth is the only engine by which the reach of this publication expands and I am grateful it is still expanding.
Love to see Nicole Apostola roast the city over an open flame. Some councilors are trying to do Ed Augustus Way again, driven by Candy Mero-Carlson for some reason. At the last meeting, Apostola showed up to say no way José. Among other things she said...
Speaking of cops... For a good time, head on over to the Webster Police Facebook Page, where they’ve recently posted about a piece of Thin Blue Line swag they commissioned for the office—looks like a custom job! The comments are... something. Let’s not get it twisted: the Thin Blue Line flag is part and parcel with the Punisher logo Totenkopf. It is a reaction against the demands that police officers stop killing Black people. It means the killings will continue. There’s a great Jeff Sharlet piece in Harpers on the flag and what it means. Just came across it.
Conan O’Brien came to Worcester! He was spotted on the WPI campus yesterday. Many of us challenged him to do so after his 2019 comments about Worcester being “unwooable.” In that link I even called him a coward. I’m sure he’s completely forgotten about all that if it ever got his attention in the first place and he was here coincidentally. But a good townie never passes on a chance to settle the score. Take that, Conan. You came to Worcester. Hope you... had a good time. IDK.
I’m going to Wootenanny’s Two Bits comedy show tonight at Heartland Barbershop in Millbury! It’s a new location and I hear it’s pretty cool. The lineup here is all female and includes Brieana Woodward, who was amazing at the Roast of Worcester a few weeks back. If you come out, say hey!