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The year in review
2021 more like 202FUN (jk)
Well we all took both pills and we were stuck in Worcester Massachusetts
Twitter is so weird and stupid. Almost 50,000 likes on the dumbest thing imaginable. This is the one that takes off?
Anyway since we’re both stuck here, I don’t have to tell you that 2021 was an up-and-down sort of ride. A lot of bad things happened in our fair city, and a few notable good things happened as well. In this post I’m going month-by-month through the year with a focus on the throughlines. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll walk away with a clearer picture of where we went and where we’re headed.
But before that, I think we all know the obvious highlight of the year was the November election, in which we saw a remarkable leftward swing on both the City Council and the School Committee. Tomorrow night, at 5:30 p.m., that new cast of elected officials will be officially inaugurated. Me and the Wootenanny Comedy boys will be streaming the proceedings on Twitch and I’d invite you to come and sit in with us.
Most excellent indeed.
The inauguration is a good watch to clown around on the weird pomp and circumstance surrounding it but also because the mayor gives a speech highlighting his priorities over the coming two years, providing an interesting document with which to measure expectations against reality.
And I’ve got a lot of new subscribers today, so if you’re new here please consider signing up for a paid subscription. All the money I make as a journalist in this city I make off of reader contributions and it’s really not a ton of money. Think of it like this: you buy a beer a month for a guy who pays attention to all the annoying minutiae of Worcester so you don’t have to.
So anyway, let’s get going.
This time last January, some fuckin nerds hung up a neo-Nazi banner on an overpass over I-190 and I took it down and burned it.
That’s now I started my year and that’s sort of how Worcester started its year—with a reminder that racist scumbags abound in this city. It would become a running theme.
Shortly after that, the Worcester Business Journal would inform us that Polar Park had become the most expensive minor league baseball stadium ever built. The announcement would be roundly ignored by public officials who would continue to tout the project as a silver bullet saving Worcester from itself.
Around this time, public officials also introduced an artificial intelligence technology for the Worcester Police Department that claims to “forecast crime.” There were many calls from the community to forgo a technology that merely reinforces and streamlines patterns in policing that are racist and classist. These calls were ignored—another running theme.
In February, the city administration was finally able to execute its long-sought plan to remove a recreational amenity for a working class community of color using grant funding intended to help working class communities of color. Hillside Beach, a small beach adjacent to the Lakeside public housing complex, was destroyed with a plan to be turned into wetlands. Officials called the beach unsafe, tacitly acknowledging they lack the political will to make it safe. Calls from the neighborhood to preserve the beach were, of course, ignored.
But on the bright side, the Worcester Public Schools released a bewildering video of the Worcester Pawsox President Charles Steinberg doing a poor impression of an SNL host in a PSA about… federal student aid forms. Amazing. 10/10.
March began with a most pleasant surprise: the City Council voted to remove police officers from the Worcester Public Schools. It was and would remain the only significant police reform enacted by our city administration in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It barely crossed the threshold of a suitable response, and more progressive reforms like a civilian review board with subpoena power were rejected. But it was something. You follow Worcester long enough you learn to appreciate a something where more often than not there’s a nothing. This move, tepid as it was, inspired a massive backlash from Worcester cops and the thin blue line crowd who act as a buttress between them and accountability. A latent anger would simmer among this crowd and come back later in the year in the form of a city council campaign.
Shortly after, another latent anger would boil to the surface. Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital announced a strike against the management over a contract dispute having mostly to do with safe patient ratios. This strike would get uglier and uglier as the year went on, but the nurses would eventually win. A vote to ratify a contract which would end the strike is scheduled to take place tomorrow. However, as I have recently reported, there is a devious push to decertify the Massachusetts Nurses Association going on (more on that later) and that’s something we’ll have to watch carefully.
Of all the Worcester storylines last year, this was perhaps the most significant, especially viewed from a national lens. Across the nation, 2021 was a good year for labor. Important battles between workers and management erupted across the country and the St. Vincent nurses were on the crest of that wave. Here’s to hoping victories like the one at St. V’s will carry the momentum into 2022. Solidarity with all the nurses who spent the better part of 2021 on the picket line.
March also saw the situation at The Bridge dissolve into a last-stand battle against gentrification that would carry on throughout the summer.
For years, organizers at The Bridge held a dream of turning the dilapidated and otherwise vacant warehouse building behind Miss Worcester Diner into a proper community center for the nearby neighborhoods, which are among the poorest and most under-served in the city. It was a valiant effort and I spent a good deal of time down there getting to know the people involved, the community it was serving, and the promise of the vision. As I’ll get into in later months, the battle for the building was lost. But the war is still far from over.
Between The Bridge, the St. Vincent’s Nurses, and the cops out of schools, March may have been the most significant month of the year for Worcester, at least through these eyes.
April, on the other hand, was a bit of a snoozer to be perfectly honest with you. It was a month of little consequence politically. There was a massive block party for The Bridge, which I wrote about substantially. It’s perhaps the best piece to revisit to get a flavor of what The Bridge was about and what it could have been.
However it was the month that a Worcester police officer killed a man in the street. On April 21, Worcester police officer Paul Cyr killed Worcester resident Phet Gouvonvong with several rounds from a long gun. It’s weird to type it that way and that’s because you never read it typed that way. It’s always “A man was killed,” or “a man died” and you certainly never see the officer’s name up front. Local journalists have a habit of covering for the cops right down to the syntax. “Worcester Police Officer Was Justified In Fatal Shooting Of Phet Gouvonvong, DA Says” read one headline, from CBS News. Gouvonvong was obviously unwell. He claimed to be wearing a bomb. It turned out to be fake. Cyr hit Gouvonvong in the chest and in the head. Gouvonvong’s mother was on the phone with dispatchers, pleading to be allowed to help calm her son. Credit where credit is due: Melissa Hanson at MassLive has the best full accounting of this incident. It’s a spooky read.
May kicked off with a good thing! The School Committee finally, after years, voted to implement a decent, comprehensive sex education program for Worcester Public Schools students. Since I started reporting on the city for Worcester Magazine way back when, this has been among the most frustrating and illuminating issues in the city.
Data on rising teen birth rates and STD transmission among the city’s youth have left people screaming for years about the necessity of comprehensive sex education, but old school religious conservatives had hands on the right levers of power, and proposals never got anywhere. Finally, in May, that ended. Like the decision to remove cops from schools, the sex ed decision spurred a conservative backlash which coalesced around a School Committee candidate. But luckily she got spanked and we’re about to inaugurate the most progressive School Committee I’ve seen in the city.
But for most of the month the news cycle was dominated by opening day at Polar Park, the long-awaited fruition of one of Worcester’s worst ideas. It was the subject of breathless coverage and it was depressing. I marked the occasion with one of my weirder posts: an essay framed around cognitive dissonance.
It’s become a line among some in this city to say well, you know, the ballpark might have been a bad idea but it needs to work. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have wasted our investment. I tweeted some version of this yesterday but I’d like it if we could interrogate the idea of it needing to work. Wouldn’t it be better for most of the people who live in this city if it didn’t?
The ballpark is only one piece of a concerted economic development strategy coming from City Hall to inject as much new money and new people with new money into downtown as possible. This project does not take into consideration the people who already live there. It does not ask what becomes of them. The success of this project comes directly at their detriment. Rents go up and up and up and meanwhile all the new tax money generated by this project are going to go back toward paying off the loan we took out to build it. It’s not going to go back into more city services. Gentrification is not an unfortunate side effect of the ballpark and all the new luxury development downtown, it’s the goal.
To make the matters of cognitive dissonance even worse, the “restaurant worker shortage” story—and all the classist pontification on the character of the working class—came into vogue across the nation. I happened at that time to be a restaurant worker, though on my way out, and I wrote about the issue from that perspective.
As spring turned to summer and the media frenzy around Polar Park reduced to a simmer, problems with the new amenity came into focus. Businesses in the surrounding neighborhood found that all the hullabaloo about “economic spinoff” that went into pitching the park may have been false advertising. Revenues were down as issues with congestion turned away the regulars and the park-goers weren’t filling the void. I wasn’t alone in calling that this would happen. It was the consensus of urban planning and design folks that a ballpark wouldn’t help the fledgling commercial district around it but rather hurt it.
Over the past decade at least, the Canal District had emerged as Worcester’s best shot at a neighborhood that resembled a real city with a natural urban fabric. It’s walkable and there’s a high density of small businesses and plenty of residential neighborhoods nearby. If the Canal District ever realizes its potential as a real urban center, it will be in spite of the park, not because of it.
The story of a neighborhood under siege was perhaps best illustrated in early July by the closing of Fairway Beef, a unique and iconic meat market in the Canal District which had stood for some 75 years. As with the end of any business, the factors were myriad, but a sudden rise in property value and accompanying real estate speculation played a large part. A business that adequately served its neighborhood for generations faced a new equation, and the owners took a path well laid by the market forces Polar Park ushered in.
Around the same time, the battle for The Bridge was lost. A Boston-based developer purchased the building with a predictably boring plan for luxury condos.
I still think often about Trevor Delapara, proprietor of R&R Jerk Chicken and one of my favorite characters at The Bridge. He’d outfitted a cozy space for himself, his fledgling food truck and his smoker at The Bridge. He’s a damn good cook and he’d put his time in on the line and when he talked about food it was obvious he really cared. A veteran of the professional kitchen myself, I felt a kinship. We talked often. One day he let it rip to me in the way only a seasoned line cook can.
“The favorites got money, but if you wasn’t a favorite you didn’t get a fucking dime,” he said. “All the bigwigs got money. That’s they friends. But if you wasn’t part of that posse, fuck you. You get nothing.”
Amen, my man.
In the dog days of summer, the situation at St. Vincent became increasingly nasty. All the initial enthusiasm and the rallies and the high-profile politicians on the strike line gave way to a frustrating stalemate. St. Vincent management under CEO Carolyn Jackson took to a craven public relations campaign of smearing the nurses as they hired “permanent replacements” and cut services. A new frontier in the strike opened as Jackson and co. refused to guarantee that all the striking nurses would have jobs to return to. I spoke to longtime St. Vincent nurse Diane Waters who, similar to Delapara, let it rip.
The bottom line is always money. Your equipment is older, your supplies are shitty because they cost less. Things just get cheaper and cheaper so they can make their staff prices go up. They shouldn't be in healthcare but they are. All their decisions are financially based, so, I mean, why are you in this business? Because it's profitable. So I hate them. You know? I hate them. Everyone gets sick at some point, but it doesn't touch them.
Summer turned to fall with some good tidings: the School Committee said so long to Superintendent Maureen Binienda! She wanted a year extension on her contract, and the School Committee said nope, we’ve had enough. Binienda has for years been a recurring villain in my writing on Worcester. The head of a townie patronage machine, she represented deep-seated resistance in the institution to change, especially in regard to racial disparities in the district. The School Committee is midway through the process of selecting her replacement and it’ll be an important thing to watch for in the coming months.
As the November municipal elections crept up, interesting dynamics in a thus-far sleepy race came into focus. The preliminary election on Sept. 14 happened in seeming obscurity, but produced two landscape-shifting results.
In District 1, a police officer by the name of Richard Cipro outperformed incumbent councilor Sean Rose. An admin on the reliably racist copaganda outlet that is the police union’s Facebook page, Cipro’s campaign was know-nothing in the mold of the new Trump/QAnon brand of conservatism and a resentment-fueled backlash to the city’s decision to do one good police reform in removing school resource officers. His success in the preliminary made his threat serious and a main focus of attention in the race.
On the other side of the coin, longtime community organizer and environmental activist Etel Haxhiaj did remarkably well in the District 5 preliminary. In their polar opposite visions, the Haxhiaj and Cipro campaigns became flag-bearers in a fight for the political direction of the city.
Meanwhile, in the School Committee race, a candidate by the name of Shanel Soucy quietly led something of a companion campaign to Cipro’s though quieter in presentation. An organizer in the “opt-out” movement that spawned those funny PornHub lawn signs, Soucy had her sights on reversing the city’s decision to implement comprehensive sex education.
In October, amid the election forums and the standouts and the pitched social media battles, the apparatus of City Hall and the real estate speculation and the soaring property values went on as they had the rest of the year. We lost longtime Webster Square staple Maury’s Deli to an obscene 50 percent rent increase.
And the city tried to quietly demolish a homeless encampment behind the Worcester Walmart. They would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those darned community organizers! Of all my work in 2021, this is the story I’m most proud of. Worcester is a city that tries so hard to obscure the way it handles its homeless population, and I think I did a good job capturing all the erasure, deceit and obfuscation that goes into it. Cold bureaucratic cruelty. We can do so much better.
And I wrote for Welcome To Hell World about Worcester’s approach and how it compares to the much more high profile situation at Mass. and Cass in Boston.
It’s hard to understate how much of an exciting surprise it was seeing the November 2 election results come in. No one—not my most dialed-in political contacts—saw this one coming. The two newcomers on the City Council, Etel Haxhiaj and Thu Nguyen, are both exciting and ambitious progressives. They’re way to the left of the consensus of the council and we have an awesome opportunity over the next two years to stake out a progressive vision. And on the School Committee side, even freakin better. The board shifted tremendously. Jermain Johnson, Sue Mailman and Jermoh Kamara, all progressives, join Tracy Novick and company. And we lost Dianna Biancheria, a holdout of the Binienda patronage network, and Shanel Soucy, the PornHub candidate, came in last. It couldn’t have gone any better.
Tomorrow, this new, more exciting cast of characters is inaugurated and the work begins.
The rest of the month just sort of sucked frankly and it wasn’t just Worcester. Seemed like there was an air of defeat and exhaustion across the board. I wrote about that, in one of my weirdest and most personal essays ever, and it is the one I think people seemed to like the best. It’s about burnout and Kyle Rittenhouse and accepting the pandemic is never going away.
Since the election the best thing to happen in Worcester as I’ve covered is the strike at St. Vincent coming to a tentative end and the nurses getting pretty much what they wanted. We’ll see how the vote goes tomorrow!!
And on the city politics side, the most interesting immediate throughline to the new year is this whole district School Committee business.
It’s my position that the City Council needs to change to mirror the new setup of the School Committee or else paying attention to city politics is going to become even more awful and alienating. Not everyone on the City Council shares this position. Already the battle lines have been drawn, but come tomorrow, the numbers change!
2021 was an interesting and eventful year for Worcester, and this is far from a full accounting of everything that happened. But what I hope I’ve provided is a deeper understanding of the way power works in Worcester—the way it shapes this city and chafes against what it could be. How it stands between expectations and reality. With so much of the media economy around here dedicated to uncritically mirroring the “renaissance” narrative pushed by City Hall, I hope I provided a vision centered more on regular people and the way they experience life here.
Worcester Sucks is about a year and half old, and the core goal of the project is to make city politics something worth investing in—something less alienating and boring and impossibly obscure. Because once you begin to understand how it all works, and you see more clearly what Worcester could be, and what’s preventing it, well it’s something you could conceivably play a part in changing. It’s something you don’t have to feel so hopeless about.
The neverending pandemic and the CDC jokes and a dawning nihilistic mass awareness that no one in Washington really cares—that there’s no driver at the wheel and we’re careening toward the center of the sun with nothing to knock us off course—it can get you down. You’d have to be insane to look at the situation in America and not feel a certain hopelessness or else tune out for the protection of your own psyche. But a city like Worcester’s small enough where you can do something good and see a direct result. There’s achievable goals—like a fare-free bus system, for one—and you don’t have to feel like some atomized consumer destined to experience reality from the sidelines, rooting for whichever lifestyle brand you choose to wear.
In 2022, our central question should be how. How can my city be better? How can we make it be better? How can I get involved? How can I convince my friends to get involved? How, at the end of the day, can I leave this place better than I found it?
It’s a hell of a lot better than sitting on the sidelines watching the world fall apart and asking yourself why?
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And I think I wrote enough today I’ll see ya on the stream tomorrow! 5:30 p.m. sharp.