Whether you’re new to Worcester or returning for another year at one of Worcester’s many colleges, one thing you need to know – Worcester is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own history and character.
Each neighborhood has a reason to visit, whether you’re dining on Shrewsbury Street, bar-hopping in the Canal District or checking out the culture of Downtown. So get out of your dorm and start exploring this city they call Wormtown!
The Blackstone Canal, the namesake of one of Worcester’s most recognizable neighborhoods, once wound down what is now Harding Street. The Canal District, which now boasts a lively night scene and year-round festivities, was once credited with stimulating commerce within the city of Worcester and the Blackstone Valley (often regarded as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution).
The inception for the Blackstone Canal came by way of New England businessmen in the early 19th century. The goal was to create a waterway connecting Worcester and the valley to Narragansett Bay. Over the course of its 20-year history, the canal created an area rich in industry, but after commercial operations ceased, use of the canal dropped, and it was eventually paved over and forgotten. During the early 20th century, the Canal District was a thriving Eastern European ethnic neighborhood brimming with small markets and commercial activity.
Today, after a long period of decline, the Canal District is once again brimming with liveliness. Filled with bars, restaurants and clubs, the area is becoming an entertainment district. Yet, the history still clings to the neighborhood. A majority of the historic buildings still stand and have been converted into apartments and business spaces; wagon tours trot around the area retelling the neighborhood’s history; antique shops and consignment shops dot the area; and unique and creative restaurants spring up around every corner, making the Canal District a fun and energetic neighborhood.
New York has Little Italy. Boston has the North End. Worcester has Shrewsbury Street. Widely considered the most profitable and tasty neighborhood in the entire city, Shrewsbury Street is lined with restaurants ranging from Italian to Japanese to Middle Eastern cuisine.
Along with being Worcester’s gastronomical hub, the street is host to numerous other novelty stores, auto shops, pharmacies and local marketplaces. Further down the street is Cristoforo Colombo Park, a 59-acre area complete with a playground and the beginning of the East Side Trail, which leads to Lake Quinsigamond.
Shrewsbury Street became the home of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Today, roughly 13 percent of all residents in and around Shrewsbury Street are of Italian descent. The Italians brought their culture and love of food to Worcester and opened the fresh food markets that would eventually evolve into the swath of restaurants locals know and love. Apart from the eateries, Shrewsbury Street has a bustling and efficacious nightlife. Merchants along the street have worked tirelessly to stimulate commerce in this beloved neighborhood. Nearly every month, a festival or event of some sort is held on Shrewsbury Street.
Historic homes dot the neighborhood and are set in a prime location for anyone who is looking to enjoy Worcester nightlife. Also in close proximity to Union Station, the Canal District and Downtown, Shrewsbury Street is a lively neighborhood where taste is king and a good time is just around the corner.
It is no secret that over the last few decades of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st, downtown Worcester was no longer the commerce hub of yore. Appearing bleak and lacking any solid form of business or entertainment structure, Downtown was in desperate need of revitalization.
Worcester is no stranger to urban revitalization and renovation. Union Station received a $32 million restoration in 2000, and the former Worcester Center Galleria, which dominated a major parcel of Downtown, has been replaced by CitySquare, the city’s newest revitalization project, with an estimated $565 million budget. So far, nearly 11 acres of the proposed 12-acre building area has been developed into office buildings, potential apartment spaces and a Cancer and Wellness Center, courtesy of St. Vincent Hospital.
The strengthening of Downtown has been a long time in the making and began in 2009, when the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences renovated an old office space into a sister campus for the school. Since then, other colleges and institutions have taken up residency in spots all over the downtown area. The town common has received a facelift, and the reflecting pool and fountains were removed and replaced with grassy knolls, trees, a seasonal skating rink and new sidewalks and lampposts.
With other famous Worcester establishments like the Hanover Theatre and Mechanics Hall and the great restaurants and cafes of Shrewsbury Street not too far away, Downtown is a great starting point for an exploration of the city. Though far from complete, Downtown is finally beginning to look and feel like a proper “downtown.”
Tucked into the northwestern side of the city is the neighborhood of Tatnuck, home of Worcester State University, Patch Reservoir and Rockwood Field. While not as residential as Greendale, Tatnuck maintains a quaint suburban atmosphere and is close to the airport, Indian Hill and Indian Lake and is filled with hidden gems, including a theater, art galleries, cafes, restaurants, thrift stores and shops.
The sense of safety provided by the neighborhood serves as the perfect location for one of the city’s many colleges, Worcester State University, the only school in the city to be a member of the Massachusetts State University system. Founded in 1874, the school was originally a teacher training institution, but over time, developed into a blossoming liberal arts and sciences university. The college has brought students from around the state and across the country to Tatnuck, many of whom spend days lounging under the sun on the green grasses of the campus or gallivanting down Chandler Street to catch the bus for a quick, six-minute ride to downtown.
Tatnuck is perhaps the most unintentionally, possibly even intentionally, strategically placed neighborhood in Worcester. Residents are a stone’s throw away from the business and arts areas of the city; Tetasset Ridge Park is nearby for anyone looking for a morning or afternoon hike; and Worcester Regional Airport sits just outside the neighborhood border and provides domestic flights to and from various cities around the country.
This neighborhood is known for its residential streets, Quinsigamond Community College and proximity to the airport. In 1953, however, Greendale was known for something else entirely: the Worcester Tornado. An F4 tornado touched down just outside of Worcester on June 9, 1953, and proceeded to eviscerate 48 miles of Worcester County and a large chunk of Greendale. In its wake, the tornado left unprecedented destruction and killed 94 people, making it the single deadliest tornado in New England history.
Over the last 62 years, however, Greendale revived and is now one of Worcester’s most flourishing residential communities. Originally settled by the Swedes during the Golden Age of Immigration, Greendale became the area with the largest concentration of Swedish immigrants in all of New England by 1930. With the Swedes’ arrival, Worcester soon saw an increase in production of ceramics, a trade familiar to the Swedish, and also an increase in workers willing to labor in iron factories, iron being one of the city’s most profitable industries at the time.
The Swedish influence on Greendale can be seen in the architecture of the homes that dot the residential streets. Pitched roofs and classic rectangular farmhouse shapes were common in Sweden during the time of immigration.
Today, Greendale is the perfect city suburb. Quinsigamond Community College unassumingly assimilates into the quaint habitat. The Greendale Mall is visited regularly, as well as the local branch of the Central Massachusetts YMCA. And if you’re looking for a peaceful and almost country feel, Indian Lake is a short car ride or walk away.
The American Sanitary Plumbing Museum was better known to the residents of Main South as “The Toilet Museum” until the lyceum left its Piedmont Street location in 2008 and moved to a new spot in Watertown. No doubt a fun and singularly whimsical monument to those living nearby, The Toilet Museum had a grand 20-year history on Piedmont Street before the move and will continue to entertain plumbing enthusiasts for years to come.
Main South sits, conveniently enough, on the southern stretch of Main Street and towards the city’s southern border. In the 1840s, abolitionist congressman Eli Thayer bought the area that encompasses the neighborhood in hopes that the relatively undeveloped area would soon reap the benefits of the economic expansion of the Industrial Era. Unfortunately for Thayer, who sold the land to finance abolitionist settlers moving to the Kansas Territory, Main South did not truly begin to develop until the 1850s. Then, in 1887, Jonas Gilman Clark founded Clark University, which today encompasses the majority of the neighborhood.
Main Street is lined with historic three-decker houses, which in the late 19th century and the early 20th century were very popular homes for multiple families. Similar architecture can be found in areas of Boston. Arguably the second most historic district in the city, Main South offers heritage and modern cultural interests. Restaurants abound; Downtown is five minutes away by foot; and University Park, with its scenic beauty and historical buildings, winds its way around Clark, providing a light walking path for anyone looking to let off some steam.
There are not many streets or neighborhoods in America which can lay claim to being home to one of the oldest engineering schools in the entire country, but Park Ave. is one of those streets. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was founded in 1865 and holds the official title of being the nation’s third-oldest engineering academy. Nestled seamlessly into Worcester’s urban surroundings, the privately owned campus of WPI is not far away from any of the excitement of Downtown or Shrewsbury Street. The shops and restaurants of neighboring Highland Street are often a popular destination for WPI students.
Though no public roads run through WPI’s campus, pedestrians coming from Park Ave. are more than welcome to stroll the grounds and even take a short walk through Institute Park, which was donated to the university by Stephen Salisbury in 1887, as part of a personal plan to provide university students and the general public with a clean and well-maintained park. Residents from in and around Park Ave. can enjoy the greenery and bird-watching across the pond and the recreational field on the northern side of the Park.
Apart from the educational and outdoor aspects of this neighborhood, there are many other cultural endeavors one could pursue, such as viewing exhibits at the Worcester Art Museum or heading to the galleries Downtown. Living around Park Ave. and WPI is relatively affordable, and the position to notable Worcester areas such as Shrewsbury Street, the Canal District and Highland Street make finding a restaurant or a fun way to spend a night out very easy. The neighborhood is urban enough to provide the feel of a city and dotted with enough trees and homes to conjure feelings of a tight-knit community suburb.
Away from the congestion and business of Interstate 290 is Route 9, the less-congested roadway that serves as a commuter road and living area for a decent chunk of the population of Massachusetts. In Worcester, many streets are incorporated into Route 9 as it carves its way through the city. Highland Street is one such road. Lined with quaint houses, shops and restaurants, Highland Street lends a fanciful and quiet atmosphere to the otherwise urban and bustling nature of Worcester.
Becker College, with a founding charter signed by the likes of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, is settled neatly into the neighborhood surrounding Highland Street. One of the city’s many colleges, Becker stands out amongst them as the only university in the city to offer courses in video game design and development. And where better to find creative inspiration than just down the road at Elm Park? Purchased in 1854, Elm Park became one of the first urban parks in the United States, alongside parks in New York and Hartford. The park became a popular fairground and once hosted P. T. Barnum and his circus caravan. Today, thanks to extensive renovations which took place in 1971, Elm Park remains a popular spot for students and residents to spend a quiet afternoon among nature and away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Highland Street offers prime location to settle in Worcester for anyone wanting to live in the vibrant city center but still have the suburban atmosphere of Greendale and Tatnuck. Shops and cafes mix in seamlessly to the homes and provide residents with unique areas to spend mornings. Downtown and the Canal District are close by, and Shrewsbury Street is not too far away, making the Highland Street neighborhood a quiet, but lively, place.
College Hill achieved its namesake because of the college that dominates the neighborhood: The College of the Holy Cross. Any student or budding student who lives at or visits the university will immediately notice that the campus is, in fact, built along the side of one of Worcester’s seven hills. Founded in 1843 by Father James Fitton, Holy Cross stands as not only the largest university in the city, encompassing 52 acres of land, but also serves as one of the oldest and most prestigious Jesuit institutions in the country, alongside Boston College.
A beautiful view of the Worcester can be seen from the top of the Holy Cross campus, a point of contention that was actually written about in 1836, when the land was first purchased by Father Fitton. One might wonder how the view looked back in the 19th century – the Blackstone Canal snaking its way through a series of mills and factories versus today’s high-rises and I-290 traffic. Holy Cross stands out among the colleges in Worcester not only by being one of the oldest, but also by providing a sense of faith, history and pride to a neighborhood.
Quinsigamond Village is also incorporated into this area. Strategically placed close to the Massachusetts Turnpike and with an atmosphere akin to that of Greendale, this section of the neighborhood is residential and quaint. The Swedes, whose influence left an indelible mark on the city, also settled in Quinsigamond Village. Pitched roofs and rectangular framed houses, much like those found in Greendale, also dot the streets of this neighborhood. Far from being entirely suburban or residential, Quinsigamond Village and College Hill are still within the borders of the city of Worcester. Public transportation or a quick car ride or even a walk, depending on which area of the neighborhood you live in, will take you anywhere in the city you want to go.
With shops, restaurants and nightlife abounding in the city, no matter where in Worcester you go or live, you’ll always find something interesting.
By Ryan Cashman