Play ball I guess

Smiley Ball, pay my rent

Cognitive dissonance I said and the guy next to me in the kitchen chuckled. It was about 6 p.m. yesterday and he knew what I meant. The servers had the WooSox opening day game on the TV and they were like oh wow look, it’s on NESN! In the hours following the restaurant would see a steady stream of well-to-do people there for a nice post-game dinner in their fresh WooSox merchandise. Hats and masks and sweatshirts fresh off the rack and proudly worn because it’s a great day to be from Worcester, you know? Play ball! It was the talk of so many of the customers I overheard. To them it was a huge deal and you see that translated in all the local media outlets. I just checked the Telegram and the lead story on the website is “Polar Park a grand slam with VIPs, baseball legends, Worcester officials.” That’s nice for them! Even worse: “It feels like Boston! Worcester fans praise Polar Park.”

I wanted to lay down in heavy traffic. Still do.

Yesterday we realized after years and years and millions of dollars the end effect of a misguided and disastrously expensive project, and the mood in the restaurant where I work was positively jovial. “Worcester is on the up and up. It’s baseball and then it’s the moon for us. I checked Zillow the other day and my house is worth twice what I bought it for!”

Cognitive dissonance I said and the guy next to me chuckled. Of course he knows what I meant. He’s involved in Black Families Together. He’s active in the fight to preserve his neighborhood from the gentrification coming. He’s not stupid, neither is anyone else involved with that organization or any of the others that rightly identified the hype around Worcester coupled with the tight housing market spells a recipe for disaster. 

The squeeze facing working families trying to stay here as property values respond to “the market” and artificially inflate and inflate and inflate is enormous. I have a friend I’ve seen break down and cry because she worked her ass off for years to save up for a down payment and she loves Worcester but she can’t use it here. She’s getting kicked out of her apartment because her landlord put the house on the market and it sold for $30,000 over the asking price in a matter of days despite the fact it’s a dump with obvious structural problems. There are so many more people in this city facing that sort of problem than there are moving into new luxury apartments or sitting back and watching the property of their home skyrocket. No one who works in my restaurant will tangibly benefit from anything going on down in Kelley Square, save maybe the few of us who own homes and the owner of the restaurant of course it’ll be good for that family. 

This time in May 2019, the average sale price of a home in Worcester was $259,000. Now, it’s $345,000. This would be a problem with or without the ballpark of course but it certainly doesn’t help to have this big flashy billboard for Worcester as the next hot destination. Article after article peg Worcester as one of the hottest real estate markets in the country and it’s bringing in all the real estate developers and speculators who treat the neighborhoods where people live and work and build connections like some sort of physical stock market.

Cognitive dissonance I said and the guy next to me chuckled. Straight up he said. 

Of course, the people in this city who rent or want to get into the business of owning their first home are not the sort of people our city government is designed to care about. City Hall cares about the homeowners north of Park Ave. The West Side folks. They’re the ones who vote and it’s their interest, as well as the interest of the city’s business elite, that city hall is oriented toward protecting and facilitating. Affordable housing is an afterthought, not a priority. It’s tacked on to new housing projects as an appeasement. Once a year we’ll see some sort of report paying lip service to the amount of affordable units under construction but it’s never a pressing issue. There are some really exciting new affordable housing projects, like the one Worcester Common Ground has going on Chandler Street, but the sheer volume of “luxury” and “market rate” apartments being constructed makes it near impossible to achieve any sort of stasis.

I mean just look at this monstrosity they’re putting right next to the ballpark. 

Three hundred eighteen units of housing and we don’t know for sure yet but the safe bet is that most if not all will not be considered anything close to affordable. 

Home prices, and thereby rent prices, are on a runaway train. And people like me aren’t making any more money. 

It’s become a line among some in this city to say well, you know, the ballpark might have been a bad idea but it needs to work. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have wasted our investment. I tweeted some version of this yesterday but I’d like it if we could interrogate the idea of it needing to work. Wouldn’t it be better for most of the people who live in this city if it didn’t?

The ballpark is only one piece of a concerted economic development strategy coming from City Hall to inject as much new money and new people with new money into downtown as possible. This project does not take into consideration the people who already live there. It does not ask what becomes of them. The success of this project comes directly at their detriment. Rents go up and up and up and meanwhile all the new tax money generated by this project are going to go back toward paying off the loan we took out to build it. It’s not going to go back into more city services. Gentrification is not an unfortunate side effect of the ballpark and all the new luxury development downtown, it’s the goal. 

It’s not just Worcester, it’s just Worcester’s turn right now. This is happening or has happened in countless cities across the country, based on an outmoded urban theory of the “creative class” i.e. young wealthy white liberals infusing blighted areas with an influx of cash. It’s been the modus operandi of city halls across the country for decades to work with developers – give them tax breaks and grease the tracks with zoning changes and redistricting – to make sure they build as much possible. It’s always what can we do to get you to build and never why should we let you build here and how will it improve our city. 

Cities do not identify gentrification as a problem because the neoliberal city hall is a gentrifying agent. When we talk about Worcester being a “city on the rise” and celebrate it, we’re endorsing the gentrification of the city.

All of the things I love about this city –its dive bars and music scene and rich diversity of mom and pop restaurants and the ability to live here comfortably while pursuing passions that are not profitable —–re the sort of things that the project of gentrification seeks to erase. It’s not hyperbolic to say that the narrative of a “city on the rise” threatens the character and charm of the city. It’s not over dramatic to say that The Woo is at odds with Worcester. 

Cognitive dissonance I said. If you have the cash come and take it. 

~/~

On the good news front, sex education in Worcester passed! Finally! Last week the School Committee voted 5-2 to adopt a curriculum called Rights, Respect and Responsibility. It teaches consent, safe sex and it’s inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. It’s something Worcester should have had for a long, long time, and it took much more effort than it should have to pass it. Folks like School Committee members John Monfredo and Diana Biancheria, the two that voted in opposition, represent an unduly powerful coalition of people who oppose sex education on prudish religious grounds. They’ve been able, through back channels and through connections to the current superintendent, to stifle the push for sex education and keep children from learning things they really ought to know before they’re sent into the real world. Last week, that coalition lost. With any hope this signals a changing of the guard and things will start to look a little more sensible around here. 

On another somewhat related good news front, Aidan Kearney, the bridge troll who runs Turtleboy Sports, handily lost his bid for the Wachusett Regional School Committee. I didn’t bother looking too heavily into Kearney’s platform because whooooo care, but from what I saw he was upset they were teaching students about racism or something like that. It’s racist to hate racists or whatever bootlicker nonsense is kicking around in his addled noggin. He ended in fifth place out of six legitimate contenders with 719 votes. The top vote getter got 1181. For perspective, 655 voters opted to leave the ballot blank. Better luck next time, sport! 

In what is nothing short of poetry, the Telegram published an op-ed from Mary Mullaney, Kearney’s mother, on the day Kearney lost. The letter argued against the idea of expanding the School Committee in a way that would make it more racially equitable. She writes:

“Quality, not quantity, of members is what determines how effective a school committee is. I served with giants like Ogretta McNeil, Brian O'Connell, Shirley Wright, Edith Morgan. Never once did they complain about how hard campaigning is. Nor did they think they were entitled to be on the committee because of their color or what part of the city they dwell in.

They put on their walking shoes, went door to door, did the hard work – people watched and voted for them. The notion that anyone is entitled to a seat rather than earning it is absurd.

Such woke ideas will be the downfall of city government. If you want to get elected, work for it.”

The letter is obviously racist and intentionally obtuse drivel. One of these days I’ll write a serious post on why expanding the school committee would be a good idea. But for now, I just want to point out that the letter also serves to completely roast her own son. In a post-election recap, Kearney complains that the candidates he was up against ran as a ticket, used voter databases and sent out robocalls. You know, they campaigned effectively. 

As Mullaney said, they wanted to get elected, so they worked for it. 

In her time on the school committee Mullaney was a very effective anti-sex education advocate. Last week, when I wrote about sex ed, I got into that a little bit and I wrote the following, which I still think is an idea worth dwelling on. 

The Mullaney to Kearney pipeline is not a bad lens through which to view the generational morphing of American conservatism. The “Jesus saves” bumper sticker versus the Punisher bumper sticker. “Family values” versus “blue lives matter.” Authority rooted in a morality versus authority for its own sake. Still though, the object of that authority, the people on whom it is leveled, remains the same. “Urban kids” versus “ratchets.”

Well I guess that’s enough for now. It’s getting late and my copy editor is already in bed so take it easy on me OK? As always, if you liked what you read, consider throwing me a couple bones a month so I can keep doing this. 

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