Worcester

Now more than ever, as a city of hidden gems comes out of hiding, Holy Cross students embrace the spirit of their College's hometown.

By Mark Sullivan

The Miss Worcester Diner on Southbridge Street is a city icon. Sitting amid old factory buildings beneath the rusted overpass of the Providence and Worcester Railroad, it serves up comfort food in an unlikely setting. The roar of Harley Davidsons mixes with the aroma of home fries and the diner's signature French toast. Blue-collar workers and artists, bikers and college students share stools at the narrow counter.

Gritty exterior notwithstanding, the place is welcoming. It is a microcosm of Worcester, a city of 182,000 that is undergoing a renaissance.

"People not from around here think this area is shady and sketchy," says the diner's owner, Kim Knistern (right), spatula in hand, sleeves of tattoos on both arms. "But when they come in here, they become regulars." Certain time of the year, she says, "not a day goes by that we don't have a parent in here with a kid looking at colleges."

Above the door at the "Miss Woo" hangs a Holy Cross baseball cap. The players on the team have been coming to the diner since they were freshmen, Knistern says. Located a mile or so from campus, within walking distance for students who aren't allowed cars until junior year, the Miss Woo has been a longtime Holy Cross favorite. For its 50th reunion party, the Class of 1960 rented the entire dining car and decked it in purple and white.

On a Sunday morning in late April, four members of the Holy Cross men's lacrosse and women's soccer teams were in a booth sharing a French toast sundae covered with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Living in Worcester "definitely adds character" to the Holy Cross experience, said Emily Gallagher '15 of Duxbury, Mass., who described the circa-1948 flagship of the old Worcester Lunch Car Co. tucked beneath the railroad trestle as "kind of cool."

At the counter, Sarah Webster, Holy Cross assistant professor of biology, was having the blueberry ricotta-stuffed French toast. "I'm really glad I moved to Worcester," says Webster, who joined the faculty four years ago after doing her postdoctoral work at Children's Hospital in Boston. "It has a lot to offer that I didn't realize living in Boston."

"Hidden gems" is a phrase you hear a lot in connection with New England's second largest city, home to 10 colleges, a lively restaurant scene and a world-class art museum. "If you go looking for things to do, you will find them," says Victoria Aramini '14 of Westborough, Mass. "I've come across plenty."

Shrewsbury Street has become Worcester's "Restaurant Row." Holy Cross students head there for guacamole and chips at Mezcal Tequila Cantina, for velvety cupcakes at Sweet Bakery, and for espresso and cappuccino at InHouse Coffee. It's also the scene of the popular Shrewsbury Street Shuffle. Nicholas Tasca '13 of Cranston, R.I., says the event, held in the fall and only open to college students, is one of his "best Worcester memories." For $10, students get to sample dishes from the eateries up and down the street. "Each restaurant invites the 'shufflers' to walk in and taste a specialty off their menu," Tasca explains. "Be sure to go hungry, because you'll certainly leave satisfied."

On Highland Street, the Sole Proprietor seafood restaurant is the place to take visiting parents. Wooberry, across the street, is a frozen-yogurt mecca. Owner Ted Domville is used to seeing Crusader purple coming in the door. "When we opened, we were really hoping to see a lot of Holy Cross students, even though of all the colleges in Worcester, they're the farthest away from us," he says. "
And we really have. They're one of the schools we see the most of."

Wooberry hosts twice-monthly fundraisers, and Holy Cross groups including the women's crew team have taken part. "One of the groups that fundraised with us from Holy Cross set up a shuttle that ran to Wooberry on the hour and returned on the half-hour, from 6 until close," Domville recalls. "That was a great idea."

The city's Canal District, with restaurants and bars along Water and Green streets at Kelley Square, comes alive on weekends. Flavor fans flock to The One Love Cafe on South Main for Jamaican food at a Sunday jazz brunch.

Just two blocks away from campus on Southbridge Street,  George's Coney Island Lunch, another favorite of students and locals alike, serves up classic hot dogs and pickles.

Worcester's appeal extends beyond its culinary offerings, of course. The Worcester Art Museum (WAM)-the second largest art museum in New England-draws visitors from around the world with its impressive collections of European and North American painting, prints, photographs and drawings; Asian art; Greek and Roman sculpture and mosaics; and contemporary art. Monet, Pollock, Homer, Gauguin, van Gogh and Picasso all live under the WAM's roof.

Holy Cross President Rev. Philip Boroughs, S.J., who visits the WAM a few times each semester, says the museum has become his favorite place in Worcester. "I am totally amazed that such a fine collection is housed in a city of our size," he observes. "I recently took 12 students there as a pilot for a larger program I will begin in the fall, which involves taking groups of first-year students to various sites in Worcester and environs that interest me and hopefully will interest them." Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Fr. Boroughs was raised in Seattle; just before moving to New England, he lived for nine years in Washington, D.C. In other words, this is a man who knows good museums. "I want Holy Cross students to get off of Mount St. James and discover the rich resources of our city," he adds, noting the Worcester Historical Museum, Elm Park and the EcoTarium. "Further, I hope they can see the wonderful architectural gems of our city and, in light of all the development going on, participate in the re-envisioning of Worcester's future."

The American Antiquarian Society on Salisbury Street is another Worcester gem on Fr. Boroughs' "must see" list. It is both a learned society and a major independent research library, housing the largest collection of books and other materials printed through 1876 in what is now the United States.

With financial help from the city's colleges and universities, including Holy Cross, the extensive renovation of an empty downtown theatre was completed in 2008, transforming the historic building into The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. Now recognized as one of the finest venues in the country,  "The Hanover," as locals call it, enjoys a robust schedule, from Broadway shows to dance to concerts. Upcoming productions  include "Jersey Boys" and "Man of La Mancha."

Over the years, Admissions Director Ann McDermott '79 has been pleased to see how Holy Cross students discover these local gems and embrace them as they adopt Worcester as their hometown. "It's the perfect 'give and take,' " she says. "Worcester has so much to offer our students, and our students have a lot to give the city in return." McDermott notes that the College makes it very easy for students to engage Worcester and make it their own. "Our students are do-ers," she adds. "They seek out where they can take part in the life of the city and celebrate the unique opportunities here."

A concerted effort is now being made to tie together the attributes that make Worcester unique. A major piece of that effort is a multi-million-dollar redevelopment that opens downtown Worcester to Shrewsbury Street, Union Station and the Canal District, an endeavor that is designed to bring new life to the heart of the city that calls itself the "Heart of the Commonwealth."

 "Worcester's really coming back," says Edward Augustus Jr., a former state senator from Worcester who currently serves as Holy Cross' director of government and community relations. "And when Worcester shines, Holy Cross shines."

City Manager Michael O'Brien recalls a comment made to him by a JetBlue executive on a tour of the city prior to the airline's recent announcement that it would begin flights out of Worcester Airport: "How come I didn't know about this city before?" Adds O'Brien, "I don't want to be the 'best-kept secret' anymore," as he seeks to promote the message: "Rediscover Worcester. Who knew Woo?"

"The Woo," an affectionate nickname for a city plagued by mispronunciation (newcomers are warned not to call it "Worchester"), is part of a campaign to encourage residents to enjoy the city's vibrant cultural scene. The "WOO card" program, sponsored by the Worcester Cultural Coalition, gives cardholders discounts at restaurants, shops, concerts, street festivals, museums and more. The initial card fee is waived for Worcester's thousands of college students.

This winter, the city of Worcester invited area college students to the new Worcester Common Oval skate rink for an evening of free ice skating. The event was a thank you to the colleges, including Holy Cross, which sponsored the Oval project-a 12,000-square-foot rink (that's 4,000 square feet larger than the rink at Rockefeller Center) that offers skate rentals and concessions. "It is yet another success story for our downtown," notes O'Brien. "I am grateful to those in the community who continue to recognize the potential of our great city and step up time and time again to make things happen."

What is happening in Worcester is "not a buzz," says Ben Forman, research director for independent think tank MassINC. "It's real."

The $565-million CitySquare project, one of the largest public-private development projects ever in Massachusetts outside Boston, is seen transforming downtown Worcester into a hub that connects many of the city's most prominent destinations, while creating more than 2.2 million square feet of commercial, medical, retail, entertainment and residential space.

Express commuter rail service between Worcester and Boston has accompanied the move of the CSX rail facility from Allston-Brighton to Worcester, which has become the busiest rail port in New England. The two largest cities in the state are now potentially less than an hour away by train.

"This is a game changer," Augustus says. "If you look at what a house costs in Worcester versus a house in Boston, you can have a four-bedroom, three-bath house with a huge yard here for $250,000, or what you would pay for a 700-square-foot condo in the South End."

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has more than doubled its presence in downtown Worcester, while Quinsigamond Community College is opening a satellite branch in the former Telegram & Gazette building. The influx of college students is seen adding to a demand for shops, restaurants and cultural amenities that, it is hoped, will create a vibrant "18-hour day" downtown. Though none of the city's 10 colleges has been large enough to sustain a business district of its own, MassINC's Forman says a revitalized downtown potentially could be the college-town hub this city, with its more than 30,000 student population, has been missing.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is partnering with the city and private developers on Gateway Park, a life-science and bioengineering complex that will boost research and development in Lincoln Square at the north end of downtown. And the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the city's largest employer, continues to grow with the addition of the $400-million Albert Sherman Center, which has doubled the campus's research capacity.

"Education and medicine -'eds and meds'-are the two biggest parts of the Worcester economy now," says Augustus. "Once we made steel products and corsets. Now we're helping figure out how to cure HIV and cancer, and how to educate the next generation of leaders in every field imaginable."

Worcester once manufactured hoop skirts and wire for telegraphs, suspension bridges and the fencing of the Western prairie. This city made 75 percent of the crankshafts in America, says John Anderson '57, associate professor emeritus of history at Holy Cross and a former mayor and city councilor. The monkey wrench was invented here, as was Robert Goddard's prototype rocket.

But over the course of the 20th century, Worcester experienced the fate of other mid-sized industrial cities in New England, Anderson explains. Manufacturing jobs left. Residents, businesses and shoppers departed for the suburbs. The Massachusetts Turnpike bypassed Worcester, while the I-290 expressway bisected it. The downtown that once had five department stores deteriorated.

The Galleria, later the Worcester Common Outlets, attempted to recreate the suburban mall downtown-and failed. The downtown was cut off by a mall that acted as a "Berlin Wall," says Augustus.

Holy Cross, too, was effectively walled off from the city, says former longtime Telegram & Gazette editor Harry Whitin. Industrial Southbridge Street was a physical barrier, and then, so was I-290. The isolation was both geographical and psychological: A perception grew of the College as an ivory tower, Whitin says.

Mary Beth (Hearn) Burke '84, now an adjunct professor of political science at Assumption College, recalls when she attended Holy Cross in the early 1980s, "We didn't leave campus. The buses stopped running at 8 p.m."

Today, the walls are coming down.

The College has created a transportation department within the division of student affairs and public safety, centralizing the scheduling of vans and allowing a whole new flow of shuttles into the city, according to Jerry Maday, the College's transportation manager. "Students are getting daily shuttles to Shrewsbury Street, Wal-Mart, White City, the Auburn Mall and the Shoppes at Blackstone Valley," Maday says. Since the centralization, shuttle activity alone has nearly doubled as students take advantage of the availability of transportation.

And students aren't just leaving campus to grab a bite with friends or see movies-Crusaders are pitching in to remake their city. They provide more than 91,000 hours of volunteer service annually at family shelters, nursing homes, health clinics and schools in Worcester County. They are cutting trails at Cookson Park and engaged in the College's effort to extend the Blackstone Valley National Park to the Middle River at the edge of campus. They are speaking to high school athletes about teamwork and modeling respect for fellow players. They are using their tech skills to help the elderly learn how to connect with their grandkids in the digital age. (Maday notes a downtown shuttle runs three days a week during peak volunteer times.)

Most of these opportunities are organized through Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD), a student-founded, student-run community service operation sponsored by the Chaplains' Office. Consisting of more than 45 different outreach programs and boasting 700 active members, SPUD is the largest student organization at the College. This year, SPUD celebrated its 45th anniversary and continues its Jesuit tradition of standing in solidarity with and serving people in need.

"As Holy Cross students engage the people of Worcester, either through Community-Based Learning opportunities or service projects," Fr. Boroughs notes, "I hope that they let the people of our city teach them how to see the world from a variety of different perspectives. What does the world look like if you are a single mom raising your children alone with very limited resources, or a recent immigrant trying to find one's way in this country, or a middle school student of great intelligence but limited means trying to use his or her education to create a future?

"From these perspectives," he continues, "our students will gain a deeper sense of empathy and compassion as well as an increased desire to work for social change and justice."

Students often see a need and fill it with volunteer programs they create from the ground up. A couple of years ago, for example, a group of community- and environment-minded Crusaders noticed that each spring, as students cleared out of their residence halls, hundreds of perfectly usable items were being tossed in Dumpsters. They formed an effort dubbed "Trash or Treasure" and encouraged their classmates to donate those items instead. The collection effort now yields about five truckloads of lamps, televisions, clothing, housewares and more that head over to the Salvation Army and other Worcester organizations.

The ultimate grassroots effort was this year's "Working for Worcester," the brainchild of hockey player and Russian scholar Jeffrey Reppucci '14. "Working for Worcester is a city wide project designed to promote pride and ownership while, at the same time, providing necessary improvements to Worcester's recreational spaces," Reppucci explains. With a core cadre of friends as site managers who adopted his infectious passion for the project, the group held its inaugural project day on April 20. Working for Worcester mobilized a group of about 600 students, faculty and local volunteers who fanned out across Worcester to make more than $60,000 of improvements at 12 community sites.

"Projects like Working for Worcester go beyond the impressive physical improvements made to our recreation spaces," says Margaret Kettles, a child advocate at The Village Shelter for families transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing. "They help Worcester college students learn about and gain connection to the Worcester community and help strengthen relationships between colleges and neighbors." Working for Worcester volunteers modernized the shelter's teen lounge with a computer station and game tables, and upgraded the blacktop basketball court and the play area for younger children.

At Worcester's South High School, another Working for Worcester site, principal Maureen Binienda marveled at the updates tackled by volunteers from Holy Cross and Unum, which funded the South High projects. The group expanded the play space that serves the children of current South High students by installing a new fence, play structure and sandbox. "The children in the day care and preschool are so happy with the new play area. Everything is so beautiful!" Binienda says. "They finally have the play space that these wonderful children deserve."

Children are, perhaps, where Holy Cross' efforts in social justice and community building have the most significant impact. Every second-grader in the city this past year received a library card through Libby, the mobile library the College sponsors. And, in addition to the big splash made this spring by Working for Worcester, hundreds of Holy Cross students serve as Big Brothers and Big Sisters all four years they are on the Hill (see related story, Page 22). Dozens more work each week as tutors and mentors in the public schools, including Elm Park Community School, Quinsigamond Elementary School and Vernon Hill Elementary.

"You're that friendly face who is there every week, someone to count on, who can help kids with their multiplication, be there to talk with them about how their day at school was, and instill academic aspiration," says Brittany Geoffroy '13, who oversaw school volunteer opportunities for SPUD this past year. "You're that college example. We really take pride in being that for kids."

Debbie Mitchell, principal of Quinsigamond Elementary School, concurs. "The Holy Cross volunteers who work in the classrooms at our school provide not only academic support, but even more important, they are excellent role models for urban students. Having your teachers tell you that getting a great education is the key to success is expected," she says, "but seeing young college kids who are living examples of this truth makes it real for our students."

During their visits, Crusaders get to play games and go to the gym with the young students, and they "serve as great listeners to children who crave the one-on-one attention," according to Mitchell. "Quinsig's affiliation with the Holy Cross volunteers has been a win-win situation. Our students are inspired by these bright, caring and fun young people, and the volunteers experience that great feeling you get when you reach out to others."

A spirit of coming together to get things done animates the Worcester comeback, says Frederick Eppinger '81, president and CEO of Hanover Insurance, developer of the CitySquare project and naming benefactor of The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. Eppinger points to the Theatre's renovation efforts as an example of how Worcester's comeback strengths differ from those of other cities.

"When you go to the theatre, look at the people who have contributed," he says. "Just look at the names. We don't have millionaires in Worcester. We don't have lots of wealthy people. These are people who have lived here their whole lives. These are people who come from every neighborhood in this city, who decided they wanted to be part of that."

He says he finds the "grassroots commitment to the city" remarkable. "A lot of other cities have four wealthy families that do everything. We don't have that in Worcester. Here, it takes a village. That is what I like most about this city."

The College shares that feeling of being invested in its hometown.

 "Holy Cross has been a major educational resource in Worcester for 170 years," Fr. Boroughs says. "In years past and continuing today, you can find our alums serving in our city's political, business, health sciences, educational and ecclesial leadership, making Worcester a great place to live and work."  ■

Mark Sullivan, a freelance writer in Ashland, Mass., has written for newspapers and college publications across New England.

Next page: Holy Cross' student athletes prove the the Crusaders are still "Worcester's Team." 

 

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