New York Times Magazine: 'What happened to Worcester?'

May 2, 2016

Last Sunday, The New York Times Magazine featured a story about Worcester and included references to Clark University. In a piece titled "What happened to Worcester?," contributing writer Adam Davidson reflected on the city where his great-grandparents once lived, using his family story to explore the larger theme of the rise and fall of America's middle class.

He turned to two Clark researchers — Geography Professor Deborah Martin and Economics Professor John C. Brown — to expound on the role of place in the American dream of opportunity.

"If you drive around Worcester now, it’s easy to imagine there is no rising middle class, no aspiration at all," Davidson wrote. "In reality, it’s just much harder to tell Worcester’s story simply. A century ago, you could have picked any three-decker and immediately grasped the basic life story of all its tenants: where in the world they came from, which factory they worked in, what their hopes and fears were for their children. Today things are not so clear. Deborah Martin, a professor of geography at Clark University in Worcester, has spent years leading students through the city and researching its social dynamics. She knows a fair bit: where the Ghanaians live, how the Latino immigrants are differentiated by country of origin. But she often finds herself noticing newly renovated three-deckers and wondering, who is that? What are they doing?"

Davidson, the founder of NPR's "Planet Money," again mentioned Clark here: "John C. Brown...told me that Worcester is right in the middle when it comes to the current circumstances of once-flourishing manufacturing centers in New England. Brown says one quick way to assess a city’s fortunes over time is to look at its population. Many urban areas in Massachusetts experienced a population collapse in the 1970s and 1980s. But Worcester and some others have had slow and steady growth over the past few decades. Worcester, he notes, can’t credit its success to any one industry. It doesn’t have, say, Boston’s robotics or the tourism of Salem and Lowell. Worcester instead benefits from a whole bunch of things: hospitals, universities and a bit of manufacturing still. Nothing screams at recent immigrants or people struggling in other parts of New England to rush to Worcester to fulfill their dreams. The city’s economy is a more complicated tale."

Meanwhile, Clark University got plenty of mentions in the comments from readers, several of them alumni. As one alum from Virginia wrote: "Clark University in Worcester contributed substantially to the success of the children of immigrants. I should know as I was one. Jonas Clark, a wealthy industrialist, in founding Clark, required the admissions office to visit the high schools in the many mill towns of the Blackstone Valley looking for promising young people from immigrant families. In the 1950s, Clark was inexpensive and welcomed commuter students. For many who enrolled, they were the first in their family trees to attend college. ... Clark's student body was also amazingly diverse, long before the idea became fashionable."

And another reader wrote this: "Worcester is definitely a complicated town. Immigrant town. College town. Working class town. Middle class town. But with 11 colleges and universities  — it has to do so much more to attract students. I hear from so many Clark current students and perspective (sic) students — love the college, but the town, not so much. So it's imperative that ALL the schools follow Clark's lead in investing in the communities that surround them."

We should also note that the story, while at times depressing, ends on a hopeful note. An immigrant from Iraq tells Davidson "that he has been to New York and Miami. They were beautiful: 'Like a dream,' he said. But he was always happy to get back to Worcester. Those other cities are too expensive, too busy. 'Too much,' he said. I said, 'You like Worcester.' He said: 'No, not like. Love. I love it. I have a future. New York is for dreams. Worcester is for working.' ”