On the Loose #15

Published in Worcester Magazine, 2001

With the country now officially in a recession, and the Commonwealth tightening the purse strings, I await the inevitable cuts in arts funding and elimination of arts and music programs in school districts. Those of us in the creative field have already grown accustomed to our roles as canaries in the economic coal mine. I've lived through three recessions in my adult life, and each time, both public and private sectors condemn the creative types for the first wave of sacrifices into the budget cut volcano.

This should matter a great deal to our society and especially to anyone concerned about saving our architectural heritage. I see the lack of emphasis on arts education as the single biggest contributor to the decline in the quality of our built environment. The evidence of this lies all over our city in the form of vacant lots and the "junkitechture" that replaced quality-constructed and artfully-designed buildings condemned for no other reason than having owners devoid of imagination or sense of community pride.

I wonder about the arts education received by people like Barry Krock, Leonard Israel, or the yahoos in the planning department that wouldn't dare say "no" to anyone seeking to construct the most banal of developments in this city, such as the forgettable and regrettable "redevelopment" of Lincoln Plaza. When finally presented an opportunity to make lemonade from one fat lemon, Worcester opens a packet of Kool-aid.

I have spent much of my life trying to understand this. I attended a high school built in 1896, as a veritable palace of learning graced with rich architectural and educational features. Despite that legacy, the city sought to abandon it. I have since tried to comprehend what prevents otherwise rational people from seeing the value in quality and history. I challenge anyone reading this to find me one single example where a community, after having saved a cherished historic commercial landmark, later said collectively, "Gee, we really should have torn that down."

More than one member of Worcester's Historical Commission has actually said during public meetings, "We can't save everything." Unfortunately, the stupidity of the remark belies defacto reality. The Commission can't save anything. It has only one real power: To invoke the six-month demolition delay ordinance, which developers now simply factor into their cost of doing business. It hardly provides any deterrent, since the owner has probably sat on the property for years anyway. What's another six months?

Preservation must become policy. Like a growing number of other cities, such as New York, Portland, and Milwaukee, we must draft guidelines for development based on pedestrian-friendly, urban-oriented design principles. Streamline the permitting process for any project that meets those guidelines. Hinder anyone insisting upon building more junkitechture.

And confidently show the door to anyone who threatens to build elsewhere unless they get their way.