Back in October, in the pouring rain, a group of people got on a small school bus and drove around different neighborhoods in Worcester. The Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business had sponsored a tour to examine community economic development throughout Massachusetts. The tour took legislators, municipal officials, small business owners, housing advocates and others to Springfield, Beverly, Kingston, Brewster and Boston.
But an organizer from Main South CDC in Worcester said something on the bus that cold rainy day that predicted a sad story in months to come.
Casey Starr knelt on the school bus seat so everyone could hear her as she talked about the transformation of the Kilby-Gardner-Hammond neighborhood across the street from the leafy green campus of Clark University. She told tales of crime, vacant homes and frightened residents. During the tour she pointed out new homes with solar panels, a gleaming Boys and Girls Club and tree lined streets. Even under the gray clouds the neighborhood was inviting and bright. But this transformation did not happen overnight. It is part of a multi-decade plan to revitalize nearly eight acres of inner city streets and vacant industrial land. It was led by community residents and Main South CDC.
As the bus was leaving the neighborhood, she pointed out several homes which were the opposite of inviting and bright. These privately owned houses were falling apart. Casey told of frequent 911 calls because of squatters’ illicit activities. She told of concerns when the crime spills into the neighborhood and the fear of a fire starting in one of the buildings. Her face changed as she said “we worry that something really terrible could happen.”
A few months later, that terrible something happened in another neighborhood of Worcester. On December 8tha fire roared through a blighted property in the Oak Hill neighborhood, killing a firefighter and injuring his partner. The Oak Hill neighborhood surrounds Worcester Academy, a private day and boarding school founded in 1834 that sits on an elegant campus encased in grand iron gates. Outside those gates is a neighborhood reeling from foreclosures, struggling to keep small businesses open and coping with crime and poverty.
The fire in Arlington Street building that killed the firefighter was blocks from the leafy private school campus. A building that had generated frequent calls to 911, that had squatters and caused neighbors to worry had become the place where “something really terrible” actually happened.
The transformation of neighborhoods like Main South and Oak Hill continues – led by dedicated neighbors unwilling to give up. But it takes time, resources, and capacity to reclaim blighted buildings that are dragging down neighborhoods. Blighted buildings that are really ticking time bombs. Time bombs that can devastate.