Urban Renewal

It’s the kind of steaming-hot day that can make even the most good-natured person cranky, but Rosie Mavrogeorge graciously invites a stranger inside her drab, wood-frame apartment building when asked about Clark University. The 62-year-old retiree used to pay no attention to the private liberal arts college two blocks away. But now she sits at her dining room table and raves about all the school has done for her Main South neighborhood, a section of Worcester where many residents earn less than the $23,000 a year it costs to attend Clark.

Mavrogeorge knew this was no suburb when she settled on Main Street 10 years ago. But the view from her front porch made her want to move out soon after she moved in: hookers in shorts and halter tops flagging down cars, drug addicts passed out on the sidewalk, and boarded-up windows on apartments across the street.

Today the former insurance company clerk is glad she stayed put. A neighborhood development group that Clark helped create bought the problem-plagued apartments on the corner and hired two police officers to patrol around the clock. They arrested anyone without a legal reason to be there and, as customers stayed away, the drug dealers disappeared. So did the prostitutes. The renovated buildings reopened last year with fresh green trim, a lush green lawn, and what seem to be law-abiding tenants. Using a $1 million loan guarantee from Clark, the community group took over several abandoned properties nearby and sold them to first-time homebuyers who keep them in good shape. And then there’s the “neighborhood alert center,” housed rent-free in Clark property, where residents can lodge complaints with police and other city agencies, that helps Mavrogeorge feel safe.

“The neighborhood has improved, I’d say, 99 percent,” she says. “The whole area has changed.” She gives much of the credit to the university down the street.

For nearly a century, Clark University had little to do with the people who lived just beyond its wrought-iron gates. The largest institution in the vicinity, it was, like many of its counterparts across the country, an aloof neighbor interested only in itself. But when prospective students started saying they were scared away by the surroundings, university leaders realized the school’s success-even its survival-was linked intimately with the fate of its neighborhood. Today the 113-year-old institution is a powerful partner in the area’s slow, but steady, rebirth.

Since the mid-1980s, Clark has spent $6 million-and helped to secure at least $30 million more-on efforts to rehabilitate burned-out buildings, encourage home ownership, spur business development, increase public safety, provide recreation, and, perhaps most important, improve educational opportunities for the low-income, heavily minority population of Main South. A new secondary school run in collaboration with Clark for neighborhood children serves more than 100 kids and will enroll more than 200 when it reaches full capacity in 2002. And anyone who has lived in a designated area of Main South for five years and can meet Clark’s admission requirements is guaranteed a full four-year scholarship to the university.

While early efforts focused on the gritty streets adjacent to Clark’s 28-acre campus, the university recently committed $2.5 million to build new athletic fields, which it will share with local schools, youth groups, and residents, about a third of a mile away. The plan is part of the Main South Community Development Corp.’s most ambitious effort yet-the $30 million redevelopment of a rundown industrial area that will also include a new Boys and Girls Club, 100 units of low-cost duplex housing, and a social service center.

Clark isn’t doing any of this on its own-and university officials don’t want anyone to think they are. Unlike some ostensible “university-community partnerships” in which the college hands down a plan for neighborhood improvement from its ivory tower, Clark has been no more-and no less-than a true partner with local organizations, working to solve the problems as equals. It’s an approach, Clark officials and community leaders agree, that’s not only politic, it’s practical.

“We believe that long-term, sustainable change only happens when the neighbors are directly involved,” says Jack Foley, executive assistant to Clark’s president and the university’s longtime liaison with the community.

“This is a neighborhood that is politically strong, and if Clark tried to do anything heavy-handed, they’d be right up at City Hall objecting to it,” says Steve Teasdale, executive director of the Main South CDC, the local development agency the university helped create. “Clark recognized that from day one.”

Standing Its Ground in Main South

The story of Main South–the one-square-mile area along Main Street southwest of downtown Worcester–is the story of urban decline around New England after World War II. The area once bustled with industry, like the bootmakers and ironworks that lined the railroad tracks. Business owners lived in grand Victorians while those who worked the factory floors filled modest triple-deckers. But when many longtime residents left for the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, transients moved in and properties fell apart. Companies such as the textile machinery manufacturer Crompton & Knowles moved South, taking hundreds of jobs with them and leaving a world of problems behind.

In the decades that followed, drug dealers, prostitutes, and gangs seemed to take over. Arson was rampant and absentee landlords left burned-out buildings in ruins. Vacant lots became trash heaps. There were shootings, stabbings, robberies. By the 1990 census, almost 80 percent of Main South’s 12,000 residents were of low or moderate income, and one-fourth officially lived in poverty. Worcester was still one of the safest cities in New England, but few people wanted to live in Main South.

When Richard Traina arrived to become Clark’s seventh president in 1984, it was clear that his greatest challenge was not anything inside the university but the deteriorating neighborhood surrounding it. The choices were clear, he recalls: “Should I build a wall, should I move the campus, or should I get involved in urban revitalization?”

Clark offers Main South residents full scholarships.

Neither Traina, a historian who studied urban issues, nor the trustees was ready to leave. “If we had moved to a suburb or out into the country, we would have stopped being us. We would have lost our character,” Traina said this spring, a few months before his retirement. Students volunteered as mentors to Worcester schoolchildren, and faculty did research on affordable housing. It was time to make an institutional commitment to the community.

Born and raised in the Mission District of San Francisco (an area so tough in the 1940s it “makes this part of Worcester look like Scarsdale,” he says), Traina started meeting with neighborhood leaders over coffee and donuts “to find out what was on people’s minds.” He got an earful. Complaints about rowdy students throwing loud parties and monopolizing parking spaces topped the list. The university agreed to build a new dorm, taking 220 students out of local apartments, and expand a parking garage to get their cars off the roads.

But years of university arrogance, especially its habit of gobbling up houses as it expanded, kept neighbors wary and suspicious. Longtime community activist Billy Breault says relations got particularly rocky when Clark closed off part of Woodland Street to make a walkway through campus, blocking the way to St. Peter’s, a large Roman Catholic church. Parishioners were incensed. “There was a lot of tension, a lot of hostility,” recalls Breault. Back then, he says, Clark was “a gated community…in the heart of the inner city. Emotionally it was gated, academically it was gated, professionally it was gated.”

A turning point came in the spring of 1985, when an alumnus alerted Traina that a slumlord with a reputation for drugs and fires in his buildings was negotiating to buy most of an adjacent city block. Traina headed him off at the pass, buying the 30 apartments and dozen storefronts for Clark instead. The rundown Main Street property was desperately in need of refurbishment. But rather than clearing the site, urban renewal-style, the university renovated the buildings gradually, as homes and shops became vacant, and moved longtime tenants into the newly spruced-up spaces. “We didn’t need to behave the way a for-profit developer could behave; we could be more patient because we were looking at the long-term benefit,” Traina says.

At about the same time, an affiliate of the Ford Foundation known as SEEDCO (the Structured Employment and Economic Development Corporation) invited university officials to participate in a new program to help stabilize inner cities by getting large institutions, working with community groups, to help reverse the cycle of disinvestment. Representatives from Clark and the neighborhood created the Main South Community Development Corp. in 1986 to lead the charge. And Clark made a decision that spoke volumes about its good faith as a community partner: The university would hold just one of the 15 seats on the board of directors, formally ceding control to others in Main South. By 1994, the organization had acquired, renovated, and managed more than 110 units of affordable rental property and 19 commercial storefronts, with just modest financial backing from the university.

Despite such progress, it had become clear the Main South CDC could not turn around the neighborhood by itself. That’s when Clark joined with community groups and government agencies to create the University Park Partnership. The new venture has offered more than a dozen new programs to benefit local families, ranging from discounted housing for first-time home buyers to small-business loans to extra street lighting and the planting of 200 new trees. Neighborhood kids who were once kicked off campus now could choose from a menu of recreational opportunities at Clark, including a free summer camp, free music lessons, Saturday morning sports, and a Saturday night swim. Crucial help came in 1995 from a $2.4 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development‹one of just five awarded to university-community partnerships nationwide.

Clark has also tried to make the neighborhood more appealing to its own staff, offering employees financial incentives to buy houses in Main South. So far, 14 faculty members have moved in-getting grants of $5,000 apiece, plus seven-year bonuses of up to $4,000 a year. Five others who already lived in the area received home-improvement grants. And in the most dramatic sign of Clark’s commitment, Traina and his wife, Polly, moved from what he calls “arguably one of the finest homes in Worcester” some two miles away to a once-abandoned Victorian next to the campus. Clark spent $1.3 million to renovate and expand the president’s house, which is used for neighborhood meetings as well as university events.

A Clark Education for Neighbors

While large-scale urban investment often brings gentrification, Clark geography professor Susan Hanson says that’s not happening in Main South. “The goal is not to bring in new kinds of people with higher incomes,” says Hanson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years and directs Clark’s new academic program on urban development and social change. “The goal here is to give the people who are [already] living here some hope, and the tools with which to build upon that hope, and that really has happened.”

More than anything else in the University Park Partnership, what brings hope to many residents of Main South these days is the University Park Campus School-coupled with Clark’s offer of free tuition for qualifying residents. The new secondary school for neighborhood children admitted its first students in 1997. This year there will be about 140 kids in grades seven through 10, with about 70 more to come in the next two years.

Although it is a cooperative venture with the city’s school system, University Park is unlike any other Worcester public school. First and foremost, it’s expected that every single graduate will go on to college-if not at Clark, then somewhere else. “We’re raising a whole generation of kids that’s taking the right direction,” says principal Donna Rodrigues, who has lived in Main South for most of her 53 years. “Most have no one in their family who’s had any college education at all.”

With fewer than 20 students per room, classes are smaller than at other city schools, and the day is longer. Students get eight hours of lessons a day and they all take home at least two hours of homework each night. Then there are the links with Clark: All of the kids take college courses on campus (one a year), including physics, Shakespeare, and a sociology class in which they research their family histories; students get tutoring from Clark undergrads; older students have alumni mentors; and everyone gets to use Clark’s gymnasium and library.

Parents say the school benefits high achievers and struggling students alike. Jane Kobel says her daughter, Taryn, who will start 10th grade in the fall, is getting the kind of attention she needs to keep her interested in academics; she no longer worries that Taryn will grow bored and give up. “I see where kids drop out of school for not being challenged. What Donna and all these other people are doing there is having a major impact on these students,” Kobel says. “If the same students were in a normal high school, they’d just get lost in there.”

Donna Rodrigues has statistics at hand to show the school’s success. MCAS scores were the second highest in the city, with not a single student failing the English language arts portion of the test. Faculty have a 99.7 percent attendance rate, students 97 percent. But the bigger test won’t come for another three years, when the first graduates find out how many will get into college.

Neither Jane Kobel nor her husband Brian, an oil burner technician, went to college themselves. These days their income ranges from $25,000 to $40,000 a year, lingering on the lower end since Jane was laid off a few months ago from a leather product manufacturer. So for them, the possibility of full scholarships to Clark for Taryn and her younger brother, Brian, is a financial godsend. Some 18 Main South residents, including 11 current students, have gone to Clark tuition-free so far.

“We’re not poverty-stricken by no means, but like most people we live on a week-to-week paycheck…There’s not much left over to save,” Kobel says. “Even if they decide not to go to Clark,” she says of her children, “the education they’re getting at University Park will help them to achieve their goals…That’s what [the school has] instilled in each student-that their education is important, that they’re important.”

Renewal 25 Percent Complete

To be sure, things are looking up in Main South. “There’s no question the decline has been halted and we can point to signs of the neighborhood coming back,” says Clark’s Jack Foley, who dedicates half his time to community work. “The crime data has improved tremendously, the property values have jumped up fairly significantly.” Steve Teasdale cites the waiting list of people who want to buy renovated properties from the CDC. And residents interviewed at random say Main South has become a much safer, more pleasant place to live.

Yet it’s equally clear there’s much work to be done. Billy Breault, who runs the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, notes that there were nine murders in the neighborhood last year, and that gang activity, though not nearly as bad as it once was, persists. Many residents still won’t walk alone after dark. Clark students are driven around by a van service at night or escorted by campus police.

Some are fustrated by the pace of change.

Traina, who just retired, turning over the reins to former Case Western Reserve University dean John E. Bassett, estimates the work is about 25 percent complete. He says his biggest disappointment has been that the partnership has had little success creating good jobs. Foley acknowledges they have a lot to learn about economic development, particularly how to attract large businesses to replace the steel mills and shoe factories that once employed hundreds of people. That will be a major goal of the partnership’s next strategic plan, which is now in the works. “There’s probably 10 years of huge stuff on the plate of the neighbors and ourselves,” Traina says.

Given the obstacles still to overcome, some residents have been frustrated by the pace of change, wondering when, if ever, Main South will again truly thrive. The frustration is especially sharp in the corners of Main South that Clark has not yet touched.

Mary Beckwith, who lives on the edge of the industrial area that will host the university’s new athletic fields, says Clark should have done something to help her immediate neighborhood a long time ago. She’s still bitter that the university did little to perpetuate a program she helped create 18 years ago for local kids to use the Clark pool, and is skeptical that Clark will make its planned athletic fields as accessible as the university says it will. “I have to say I’ll believe it when I see it,” she says.

At the same time, Beckwith calls the redevelopment plan for the area “insane.” The 54-year-old home health aide is particularly upset that the Boys and Girls Club and the new sports fields are going up in the middle of a drug-infested neighborhood. “You’re feeding the problem instead of cleaning up the problem,” says Beckwith. “The drug dealers are like, ‘Goody, now we’re going to have all these kids to sell the drugs to.'”

But while some people remain skeptical of Clark’s motives and uneasy about its actions, City Councilor Janice Nadeau, who represents the Main South district, says most residents can be counted as converts. “Back in the older homeowners’ minds, they may still have that little bit of distrust…but on the whole I think most of them appreciate what Clark has done in that neighborhood,” she says. Indeed, Nadeau says she wishes the other private colleges in Worcester-including Holy Cross, Becker College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute-would follow Clark’s lead. “I would love to see them all do something along the lines of what Clark has done,” she says.

The colleges defend their role. “The other colleges are involved every bit as much in their own neighborhoods as Clark is, but in different ways,” says Fred Baus, executive director of the Colleges of Worcester Consortium. A consortium report documents their many contributions, ranging from professional development for public school teachers to programs for student volunteers. Baus says that Clark is simply faced with “a special set of issues” that “calls for them to take maybe a more aggressive and more high-profile role.”

It’s about 4 in the afternoon, and across the street from Rosie Mavrogeorge’s place, three young men are hanging out on the steps of the renovated apartment building that used to house the neighborhood drug trade. Swigging beer from green Heineken bottles, they laugh about how much things have changed in the last few years. Unwittingly, they also serve as stark reminders of how much is left to do.

Meet the Author
“See that tree right there? I used to see crackheads smoking crack under that tree back in them days,” says Abel Ayarza, a 22-year-old with bulging, tattooed biceps. “I used to sell it, rob them. I used to do all that.” Ayarza says he left crime behind when he had a couple of kids and started to take responsibility. But he and his friends say it’s been hard to find steady work that pays well; only one of them has a high-school diploma.

Ready to escape the late afternoon heat, Ayarza and his friends go inside for more beer. At that moment, small groups of students start to emerge from the University Park Campus School down the block. Backpacks heavy with homework, the youngsters turn the corner and head past Clark, making their way home.