It’s not quite 5 p.m. on the first day of Worcester’s tercentenary celebrations, and the Canal District is buzzing with a kind of quiet optimism, as vendors rush to set up tables in front of the traveling crowds, and crews are working to set up a stage at the new Rockland Trust Plaza on Green Street.
The green lawn and beautiful stone fountain represent a transformation from when the space was Pickett Plaza and was just a parking lot. Of course, few people could have told you who General Josiah Pickett was – a Civil War general who, according to MassLive editor Noah Bombard, “on June 3, 1864, … while in state of military arrest, led a regiment of 315 men from Worcester County. in one of the deadliest charges of the Civil War.
Look out, this is Worcester, and there will always be a handful of history buffs ready to talk when a historical figure’s name is in danger of disappearing, and indeed the discontent has already begun, and rumor has it that some thing in the area will be dubbed “Pickett Grove”. It’s a low-key argument – far from one of the city’s most pressing – but it shines a bit on a hot June day, when the city paradoxically celebrates 300 years of history in one of its fastest growing neighborhoods. Today, the past and the future collide in the shadow of Polar Park, and so far so good.
what goes around comes around
If there’s anyone who enjoys discussing the history of Worcester, it’s Bob Largess, the owner of the Vernon Hotel. Stopping to chat outside his historic Canal District bar, Largess seems in good spirits, amused by all the fuss that has been made about the bar being renovated during the pandemic and how it now serves food . As we chat, two Worcester police officers stop to join in the conversation, and one of them mentions that his partner has never seen the Ship Room, Vernon’s legendary, ornate back room, between others, by the wheel of a ship, donated to Burl Ives bar.
Largess offers a quick tour and, indeed, seems happy to share the building’s history, including its beginnings as a hotel built to capitalize on the creation of the Blackstone Canal, and its rich history as a speakeasy during Prohibition. . Largess talks enthusiastically about bootleggers and Babe Ruth, and tells the story of Sgt. Cornelius F. Kelley, the square’s namesake, who came out of the trenches in a World War I firefight to repair a radio wire so his company could stay in touch with command. Largess remembers Kelley never being honored by the military for his bravery, because he acted out of order. Instead, the city chose to remember him, renaming the square in his honor. Bravery and an insubordinate streak are, it seems, qualities Worcester values, even to this day.
The officers seem suitably impressed with the quick tour and history lesson, then go about their business, leaving behind a bar that, indeed, looks shinier and cleaner than ever in memory, but still looks like the Vernon. . The bar has changed before, after all, and so has the city. But somehow, amid all this transition, the essential character of the bar and the city remains the same, peanut traffic or not.
A new drink in an old bar
As brilliant as some of the new developments in the town are, one need only take a stroll down Millbury Street to see that there is still a lot of work to be done and many townspeople are still in need. As you pass by long-time favorites such as Electric Haze and high-profile newcomers such as Major Bloom, it’s hard not to notice how many homeless people are still huddled in the doors of empty storefronts, and not for the first time, we must remember that – despite all the positive things happening in the city – there are still many, many in need. It’s a thought that lingers when you approach the familiar sight of what was once called Nick’s Bar & Restaurant, now the Steel & Wire Cocktail Lounge.
Nick’s was the bar of choice for much of the city’s artistic clientele, and the change was difficult for many patrons. Still, sneaking into the bar to talk to owner Frank J. Inangelo Jr. and bartender Chip O’Connor, it’s hard not to be struck by the familiarity. The vintage Jazz Age feel has given way to a retro 60s vibe, and the police are playing on the stereo and not Edith Piaf, but still, the bar has something of the same feel, even if the colors are brighter. now.
Inangelo concocts a brand new à la carte drink, a Harvey Woobanger. The drink is, according to the menu, “inspired by Harvey Ball of Worcester, creator of the iconic smiley face.” Among its key ingredients are blood orange vodka and Polar Orange Dry. It is an extremely tasty, bright and refreshing drink. Chatting at the bar, it’s hard not to see that this is a place where past and present are still in flux. Steel & Wire may not be Nick’s, but there’s always something of his spirit there, and a glass like that is worth a visit.
Everything new becomes old again
As the evening wears on, it’s clear there are parties all over the Canal District, but one of the most enjoyable is at the White Room, the new arts space run by the creative minds behind the Sprinkler factory, Luis Fraire and Birgit Straehle.
The space, once essentially a reception hall attached to the adjacent Crompton Collective, buzzes with energy as crowds mingle and enjoy the work of local artists adorning the walls. Appreciate and to buyevidently, as word of sale after sale filters out of the gallery and onto the patio, where visitors socialize in the warm, near-summer air.
That shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that many of the city’s hottest visual artists have pieces on display, but selling art has always been a tough business. Yet a consensus seems to be gaining ground around the party that the gallery – curated by two of the local art world’s most respected personalities – is well positioned in the middle of the canal district, both benefiting and adding to the piece. overflowing energy. Positioned alongside businesses such as Crompton Collective, Bedlam Book Café, BirchTree Bread Company and Worcester Public Market, it seems like an opportunity to expose the city’s art world to new eyes. It’s a different energy than the sprinkler factory, sure, but there’s a sense of excitement and possibility that’s intoxicating.
As the sky darkens a bit and people start to gravitate towards Polar Park to watch the night’s fireworks, we are reminded again of the reason for the festivities: the city’s 300th anniversary. On one level, walking through the neighborhood, it’s easy to feel that the place has completely transformed, and on one level, that’s definitely true. It is also true, however, that much of what is there is simply what has always been there, just seen from a new perspective. Both the neighborhood and the city have wonders to offer. There’s always someone who’s never seen the Ship Room, after all, and there’s always going to be someone who wants to make sure the city’s history isn’t forgotten. It’s just the nature of the city: you can dress Worcester however you want, but it will always be a brave and rebellious city, and frankly, we wouldn’t want it any other way.