The Woo

50 thoughts on “The Woo”

  1. There are a lot of these beautiful old buildings shuttered here in Ohio. (Cleveland, I’m looking at you.) The problem is that these buildings were constructed when energy costs were at an all time low. Retrofitting brick buildings to be energy efficient is a nightmare. Sure, you can super-insulate the inside, and keep the heat from escaping, but that lets water seep into the brick and freeze, causing the buildings to self-destruct. It breaks my heart to see such beautiful buildings shuttered or torn down, especially considering how ugly and monstrous the replacements are. (Cleveland, again I am looking at you.) Brick is simply not a good structural building material in cold climates; the only reason it was used in the past was because oil and coal used to be cheaper than dirt. Cities with warmer climates can successfully repurpose these structures, but in the frigid regions it is a terrible challenge.

  2. Dickens/Little Doritt

    Yes, it’s pretty fresh,’ assented Pancks. ‘As a stranger you feel the climate more than I do, I dare say. Indeed I haven’t got time to feel it.’

    ‘You lead such a busy life?’

    ‘Yes, I have always some of ’em to look up, or something to look after. But I like business,’ said Pancks, getting on a little faster. ‘What’s a man made for?’

    ‘For nothing else?’ said Clennam.

    Pancks put the counter question, ‘What else?’ It packed up, in the smallest compass, a weight that had rested on Clennam’s life; and he made no answer.

    ‘That’s what I ask our weekly tenants,’ said Pancks. ‘Some of ’em will pull long faces to me, and say, Poor as you see us, master, we’re always grinding, drudging, toiling, every minute we’re awake.

    I say to them, What else are you made for? It shuts them up. They haven’t a word to answer. What else are you made for? That clinches it.’

    ‘Ah dear, dear, dear!’ sighed Clennam.

    ‘Here am I,’ said Pancks, pursuing his argument with the weekly tenant. ‘What else do you suppose I think I am made for? Nothing.

    Rattle me out of bed early, set me going, give me as short a time as you like to bolt my meals in, and keep me at it. Keep me always at it, and I’ll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country.’

    When they had walked a little further in silence, Clennam said: ‘Have you no taste for anything, Mr Pancks?’

    ‘What’s taste?’ drily retorted Pancks.

    ‘Let us say inclination.’

    ‘I have an inclination to get money, sir,’ said Pancks, ‘if you will show me how.’ He blew off that sound again, and it occurred to his companion for the first time that it was his way of laughing. He was a singular man in all respects; he might not have been quite in earnest, but that the short, hard, rapid manner in which he shot out these cinders of principles, as if it were done by mechanical revolvency, seemed irreconcilable with banter.

    ‘You are no great reader, I suppose?’ said Clennam.

    ‘Never read anything but letters and accounts. Never collect anything but advertisements relative to next of kin. If that’s a taste, I have got that.

  3. I’m a Midwesterner who spends a fair amount of time in Worcester, MA, self-billed as the “heart of New England.” In my time there, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around the differences between the New England area and the Midwest, both in the cities as well as the rural areas.

    My stereotypical view before this time was that New England was the land of white fences, red barns and green mountains, with taciturn, overwhelmingly white, earnest farmer types keeping things in tight order. Of course, the reality doesn’t match my preconceptions. The countryside is filled with the same mish-mash of neat properties, completely run-down houses, and everything in between, complicated by drug problems, very much the same as anywhere else in the US. And the cities … from Springfield, Hartford, Providence, New Bedford, Worcester, Ware, and others … they are all very similar to what you describe here about Worcester.

    The simple summary of Worcester I’ve formulated is that it has all of the drawbacks of Boston with none of the benefits. Crazy streets, crazy traffic, a mix of good and bad areas, but what reason to be there? When Midwesterners think of MA in general, the only thing they know is Boston … it’s all about Boston, there really is no more to think about but Boston. Of course there is so much more, from Worcester west past the Quabbin and Amherst and the Berkshires.

    But Worcester itself … what an odd mix. I can’t help but think of the crazy roads more than anything. Too many cars, way too crowded for a city of its size, too many small car dealers selling too many cars crowded to the curbside. The interstates running thru add the usual, awful artificial divisions common to many cities. The hilly geography complicates navigation. There may simply be such an awful road system that Worcester can’t overcome that — the city is being choked by itself, by its own success, built to handle a fraction of the current car traffic.

    There are an amazing assortment of dining cars, which I love, and I understand how these little structures were built locally, in some distant past.

    To me, the gem of Worcester is the Coney Island hot dog joint. Once there, all seems right with the world. That Union Depot sure is nice too.

    The idea of a cycle of development and destruction seems apt, and apparently things must get worse before they get better. We’ve seen improvement or gentrification is many, many cities across the country, building up the formerly troublesome areas into fresh space for moneyed invaders. I can’t say whether Worcester can follow this path … I haven’t seen much evidence of it happening yet. I suppose Worcester remains livable enough to most of its residents that there is no need to radically upset the current system.

    In the meantime I will continue to try to figure it out in bits and pieces.

    1. Enjoyed your input…Worcester is certainly on the upswing of late…two of the older buildings included will be turned into apartments (200 total?) by 2020; court house project looks amazing. Nearly 500 restaurants now listed in the city on TripAdvisor, Hanover Theater New England’s most successful after Boston, vacant downtown properties being gobbled up. Aside from three years in Europe/upstate NY, as a lifetime resident, I’ve never experienced such optimism locally as I do now.

  4. Hi Johnny, what kind of establishment is the building in the fifteenth picture from top (last detached building before the grands boulevards pictures)? I can’t place it.

    1. It’s a horse stable. Architecturally it has all the telltale signs. A horse and carriage would enter through the central double doors. Hay was hoisted up to the doors above on the second floor to be stored in the loft. Notice the protruding post above the arched stained glass window. That’s where ropes and pulleys were attached. The loft is generally also where the stable boy slept.

  5. That law firm building and its parking have the look of a building that was something else before it was the law firm.

    Not that this changes the premise. But maybe they used to employ a fleet of clerks and pages and secretaries or something

    Ps. The answer to the question you ask is about money. Not lack thereof, but that there is more to be made in massive projects that wipe out entire neighborhoods to be replaced with ugly garbage. These sort of high scale, low cost project have the best roi for banks and developers with the lowest risk and complexity.

    When you say it costs $50k per parking space, the next question is why. The answer to that is banks/developers are totally content to puke those out at fat profits until we stop paying.

  6. Hi,

    My name is Paul and I started to respond to some of you comments.

    (Johnny, I am a big fan – heard your podcast on Detroit with Strong Towns and I just loved it.)

    I am from Worcester. Born and raised.

    I have also hit basically every Rust Belt Community in the Rust Belt (I lived in Cleveland / Akron and later Chicago and hit many if not all the surrounding communities in one way shape or form or another.)

    I am –

    (There is a small group of us) who are working hard to stem the tide of poor decision making and bad development and looking to usher in a better era for Worcester.

    Meeting as many people as I can (you) and finding support is huge.

    So, I just want to say thank you to Brian Meade for tipping me off and to each (and anyone of you) who can / wants to chat about Worcester / urban redevelopment / activism / investment, etc.


    1. Paul – I’ve come to the conclusion that we, as a society, aren’t going to change much of anything on a voluntary basis. Don’t hold your breath waiting for zoning regulations, building codes, political forces, and financing mechanisms to change anytime soon. We’re just not interested in having that conversation. Things will eventually change, but only after external circumstances force us to let go of some things and embrace others. Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Holyoke et cetera will be rediscovered and pressed back in to service in good time. They have the right combination of qualities to thrive in the future. But not yet. First we have to pass through a period of doing absolutely everything we possibly can to maintain the current set of arrangements. That effort will ultimately fail. Then, reluctantly, we’ll go back to some version of the older way of doing things. I probably won’t live long enough to see it. Perhaps younger people will.

  7. Built before cars but still has space for 3 travel lanes, 2 on-street parking lanes, and fairly decent sidewalks on either side. On all 4 sides of Main! How many wagons did this place have?

    And like one block over there’s a weird tunnel that passes under the buildings to deliver people out quicker. Maxed out in 1950, but still has plenty of surrounding area for ’60s sprawl -bet there’s a story to tell there.

    At it’s prime grew by 30,000 people in one decade – before cars! An area growing by 30k in 10 years puts you in-line with the most popular places in the US today.

  8. It’s possible the buildings just aren’t well-maintained enough for a move to be worth the hassle of actually moving into them- some of those places look as though they’ve been empty a while. But it’s still such a shame to see the older structures go to waste like that, and by implication, it’s really sad they’ve been just left alone for so long. Fantastic pictures, by the way.

  9. Haven’t been to the Woo, but I have been to Brockton. There was a lot of dereliction.

    Parking and pensions, we spend a lot on parking and pensions.

  10. The comment on 2nd and 3rd tier provincial towns is so true. For me, the most charming cities that I’ve been to have often been of the 2nd & 3rd tier provincial towns that are about an hour outside of big city. Where most of the city is contained in a fine grain walkable 6 by 6 block area, the pace is a little slower & prices are a little lower. Where a train connects from the downtown to the big city on the hour.

    Boston is surrounded by a ring of (should be really) great cities like that about 30-60 miles from downtown. Each of these cities, they have remnants of fairly big walkable downtowns & pre-WW2 urbanism (cities like Fall River, New Bedford, Providence, Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, Portsmouth, Salem, Gloucester, etc). They all used to be connected to Boston (downtown to downtown) by hourly train service.

  11. I work on a college campus with a large contingency of commuting students. Many (if not most) people like to park as close to the door as possible. That may be why the law office chose its site. Also, I constantly hear the lament that it is more costly to re-fit an old building for today’s technology than it is to re-fit a newer building. But I, too, love the old buildings. When I was a preschooler in the 1950s, I would spend the day with my grandparents while both of my parents worked. My grandfather worked at a downtown courthouse, and I clearly remember my grandmother and I driving him to work and watching my grandfather laboriously climb the courthouse steps. My grandfather had survived polio as a small child and spent his entire adult life on crutches. Even though I don’t like how ADA ruined the “look” of old buildings, I am a supporter, remembering my grandfather. He never complained, though, because people did not complain about such things in those days.

    1. I agree…I think the necessity of ADA compliant offices, restrooms, building access, and elevators for those in public service businesses (law, real estate, etc.) may doom some of these older buildings that can’t be economically retrofitted.

      As a society we’ve decided to value universal access. We also do court and legal stuff differently today…old masonry courthouses are hard to rearrange for today’s way of doing things.

      1. I don’t buy the argument that we can’t retrofit historic buildings because it’s too expensive to bring them up to ADA compliance. Check out the new multi-story parking deck. How much do you think that thing cost to build? We simply choose to spend our money on some things and not others. There’s always money to take a six lane arterial and turn it into an eight lane arterial, but there’s never money for underfunded schools. These are societal choices. Long term… they’re bad ones.

        1. Johnny, I agree more than disagree, but we don’t know all the particulars there. I suspect the parking deck was a TIF/bond funded deal that is technically off the municipal books. They may also have used CDBG and/or NMTC funding since there are jobs and businesses “created” on the ground floor. Those are air quotes since in reality the jobs probably just moved there from elsewhere.

          Almost everywhere, though, capital expenditure to revitalize the county courthouse would have to be funded directly from general tax revenues. It could be bonded, so that the payments are spread over 15 or 20 years, and if it were my county I’d be in favor of that. In many places people will vote yes on bonds for a well-done and specific community project. (In fact, my county still uses its 1881 Romanesque Revival courthouse.)

          What puzzles me is that Worcester County has fairly high median income, and is a place with lots of history and some apparent appreciation for it. Maybe county government is controlled by “no tax increase” folks?

          1. The government shouldn’t have to spend a dime to put the building back into active use. Just sell it to a developer. On Google Maps I noticed that the old courthouse is designed with a courtyard in the center, which makes an ideal layout for conversion to apartments or condos. There is other residential construction happening in their downtown so there must be demand. Get out of the way and let good things happen, Woo!

  12. And to think zoning commissions and architectural review boards probably gave their stamp of approval for these eyesores. I’m recently moved to an urban area of a large city, living in a neighborhood being revitalized (gentrified) in a recently designated historic district. It’s good to see some of the grand buildings being put back into commission.

    Americans need to quit building ugly stuff!

  13. Just chipping away at the trivial parts of the problem:
    If Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski already own the building, they’re stuck with it. The could go work someplace more impressive, but then they’d have to find a tenant, and we see how scarce those are.
    A couple of years ago, Ted Rall explained in a column how banks consider occupancy rate in deciding whether to approve real estate lending. I suppose a high occupancy rate is a sign of a vibrant local economy, and a great likelihood of getting the loan paid back. So Dayton OH bulldozed a lot of old vacant buildings as a means of getting good-looking numbers to get finance. In that case it wasn’t just a question of maintenance costs. I don’t know if that applied here. (
    The big problem is that these days it’s easiest to make money by just making, literally, money. Doing actual business is risky, and boring, and doesn’t pay so well. (

  14. Your exploration of America is fascinating. When you post about a place I always check it out on Google Maps and the city’s websites.

    Worcester is particularly interesting to me because it’s the same size as the city where I live (Knoxville). Both have a metro area population of about 800,000 and the size of the downtowns are about the same. The curious difference between the cities is Worcester’s lack of restaurants downtown (or if they exist they aren’t showing up on Yelp). Their calendar of events is full of stuff ( but somehow that hasn’t translated into a large number of restaurants, coffee shops, brew pubs, bars and shops. Contrast that with the 50+ restaurants etc in Knoxville’s downtown, almost all of which have opened in the last 10 years. It makes me wonder what causes the difference. A lot of it might be due to the presence of our Market Square, a pedestrian plaza that is the focal point of our downtown revival. Worcester doesn’t appear to have anything similar.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I love this stuff.

    1. I think another factor is that “the mall(s)” opened relatively late in Knoxville, and the older downtown fabric was never demolished. (Knoxville largely missed the horrific 60s and 70s urban renewal projects like the failed mall in Woo)

      Lived in Knoxville for two years, so it is great to hear that the City is renewing its core. Ironically, the incomes in the Woo are probably quite a bit higher than Knoxville, yet the former still seems to struggle.

      Still…it is not JUST us. Use Google Streetview to explore the horrors of modern Italian suburbs. 🙂 .

      1. Yes. Drove through many while touring Italy a couple of years ago. Expressway-driven sprawl as bad as anything in the US.

      2. Median household income is about 20% higher in the Woo than in Knoxville.

        You’re not quite right about Knoxville missing out on urban renewal. A huge area immediately to the east of downtown was bulldozed in urban renewal. After plowing under an area roughly as large as the remaining downtown, they built a highway, coliseum, jail, low income apartments and a school. It’s all suburban-style crap and a no-street-life wasteland that is a stark contrast to the lively downtown.

        1. Yeah. I do remember that zone now that you remind me. And I worked in the brutalist monstrosity of the City-County building looming over the river for MPC. We can’t forget the World’s Fair site, either, although I read on Zillow that there are million dollar apartments for sale there now!

          I lived in loved Morningside Court in a tiny tudor apartment that was so cheap and so neat!

  15. If workers and residents are living elsewhere and need parking when they get there vs. prior generations who had multi modal choices, how do you provide it. Is it a combination of on street, small pre-development “warehoused” rear surface lots and incentives to live in the area that enable incremental shedding of one or more family cars? I’m interested in your thoughts on how the transition might occur.

    1. How will the transition occur? The usual way. Circumstances will shift. Some places will lose market value. People with money will migrate away. Buildings will be more expensive to maintain than they’re worth. The downward spiral will unfold. I expect the changes to come as a result of the economy contracting, energy prices rising, insurance companies drawing red lines on the map, government regulations and fees going up… There will be an entire generation where things simply fail and decline while society attempts to maintain the unmaintainable. After the unpleasantness of that period winds down it will become obvious that a new (or perhaps old) way of organizing our affairs is just better, cheaper, easier. If we’re lucky we’ll go back to building places like we used to in the 1870s. But I won’t live to see that.

      1. “There will be an entire generation where things simply fail and decline while society attempts to maintain the unmaintainable.”

        That’s the feeling I get. My children will be left with an Argentine future, but will have to live in it.

        “After the unpleasantness of that period winds down it will become obvious that a new (or perhaps old) way of organizing our affairs is just better, cheaper, easier.”

        Or a combination of both. Work, creativity, family, community. One thing I’ve always believed in is mass transit. I worked for New York City Transit twice in my career, but saw the writing on the wall as a result of all the debts. A financial deficit is becoming physical.

        So now I bike to work, and work at home some of the time. Maybe people will become less likely to commute beyond biking distance at all, living more of their daily life in their neighborhood, with shopping at home, home based group schooling, working at home, etc.

        That’s why I’m glad someone pointed me to this blog. With entire generations setting out to beat the system, they may make it impossible to save the system. The possibility is new systems.

        1. We won’t be getting meaningful mass transit anytime soon. In fact, most existing transit in most locations will be shut down due to budget cuts as things unravel. Your best bet is to live in a place that comfortably accommodates shoe leather and bicycles.

  16. I guess the most hopeful interpretation is that lower individual wealth is associated with higher community aspirations.

    Because what younger generations are inheriting is lower incomes, debt, and shorter life expectancy. With public policy an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the economic frat party going a little longer while deferring the cost.

    The less hopeful reality is that this country is going broke, individually AND collectively. With the bad collective choices of the past 35 years limiting the collective choices of the future, and those who will live in it.

    The wise move is to refuse to lock yourself in to ownership of real estate until the price drops so low that it offsets all those collective disadvantages. The problem is that in order to push up housing prices, the government has acted to try to get homebuyers to spend 45 percent of their income on debt, compared with the historic 30 percent.

  17. Well, we’re on our way to turning the whole freaking country into a massive parking lot. All concrete and no greenery anywhere. I get sick of the strip-mall architecture and want main street back–of course, people don’t mingle or browse in person anymore, so there. But there were some great buildings–I’d think it’d give some prestige for a business to be in those buildings, but I’m not an engineer…and the massive amounts of parking spaces–sheesh–I’m sick of “parking-scapes”

    1. Walking makes you aware of the space wasted on parking. The main street I live next to (a 7 lane busy California stroad) is pretty much lined with blighted businesses with huge empty parking lots. Even the businesses that are doing well don’t fill up their lots. But before I started walking whenever possible I didn’t notice them. When you’re flying by in a car watching other cars so you don’t get into an accident you don’t have the mental resources to look at the empty lots you’re going by. On foot, I notice them, and think “what a waste”. Even if you have to have off-street parking you don’t have to have such an excess – but basically everybody does.

      1. It’s all sized for Black Friday (or in the case of grocery stores, Thanksgiving eve) crowds. Because heaven forbid that someone should have to wait for a space to come open, or come back later.

      2. The problem with building with concrete is you can always add, but it’s costly, ugly, and annoying to subtract. It’s like they plan every parking lot as if the business is gonna get hit by black friday crowds 24/7. Awful–it’s a lot of crap space. They need to start building businesses on excess lot space–that’ll create more revenue in taxes, wouldn’t it, than an empty lot?

        1. The problem is that retail executives keep insisting that (as I experienced personally) a 15,000 square foot Walgreen’s or CVS store needs 70+ parking spaces!

          I really have never seen more than 20-30 cars at an urban drugstore (and probably 5-8 of those were store employees’) or 10-15 at a suburban one. These places all now have drive-through pharmacies…so why add that much parking?

          1. Much of that retail will be going away soon anyway. We* will all stay locked in our gated suburbs and have Amazon deliver everything to us via unmanned drone.

            * For a certain favored, small percentage of the population.

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