The Scarlet

30 years of service in the neighborhood: Main South Community Development Corporation

Connor Stephens, Contributing Writer

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If you happened to meander through University Park last Halloween, you likely witnessed quite a commotion. Scores of children dressed up as everything from Minions to Elsa enjoyed face painting, costume parades, lawn games, and candy handed out by members of the Worcester Police Department. For several years now, this annual event, known as the University Park Halloween Party, has provided a chance for families in the Main South neighborhood to celebrate the holiday as a community and has vastly contributed to the positive change in public perception of its venue.

A non-profit organization known as the Main South Community Development Corporation (CDC) hosts the Halloween party along with a number of other community events in the park including the weekly farmer’s market, summertime Salsa Dancing lessons, and free public movie screenings. Grown from a 30-year running collaboration between Clark University and the Main South community, the Main South CDC continually strives to bolster the availability of high quality affordable housing and to contribute to the development of a positive Main South identity.

To learn more about the organization’s history and current endeavors, I sat down with Jack Foley, a founding and current board member of Main South CDC and Clark’s Vice President of Government and Community Affairs. A number of community development corporations currently operate in the city of Worcester, each working to enrich their respective neighborhoods through the promotion of affordable housing and provision of community services. These include South Worcester Neighborhood, Oak Hill Community Development Corporation, Centro Las Americas, and Worcester Common Ground. While individual missions and methods may vary between these organizations, the belief that residents should be involved in their neighborhood’s community planning process is fundamental to all of them.

As the concept of community involvement in public planning is seemingly intuitive, such a paradigm was not always commonplace. In fact, community involvement in public planning was essentially unheard of in Worcester before the mid 1980’s when Main South CDC Worcester’s first community development corporation introduced the idea to city planners. The idea was initially met with resistance.

“It was a bit of a shock to the city system to have members of the community determine what they wanted strategically and where they wanted their community to be and not have the professional planners decide for them,” Jack Foley remarked.

At the time of this first foray into the realm of community-based public planning, Worcester – particularly the Main South neighborhood – was dealing with increasing levels of violent crime, catastrophic rates of urban abandonment, and a general lack of economic opportunity. These trends, as is the case in so many other post-industrial northeastern cities, resulted from the loss of Worcester’s economic center in the late 70’s to early 80’s when nearly 9,000 manufacturing jobs were relocated in the pursuit of cheaper labor.

“People lost the opportunity to earn a living,” explained Foley. “If you were young or newly immigrated, you had no chance to earn a living. People walked away from these neighborhoods, there was arson for profit – in the 70’s houses were burning every week.”

It was in the midst of these tumultuous times that the Main South CDC chose to focus on the revitalization of one of Main South’s then roughest areas, the Kilby-Gardner-Hammond area. Through an innovative combination of investment in first-time home ownership, removal and replacement of abandoned industrial sites with quality affordable housing, and the construction of after-school resources such as the new Boys and Girls Club of Worcester, Main South CDC and its partners were able to transform the neighborhood from a disused industrial site to a homeowner-occupied residential community. This focus on first-time homeowner families is a unique aspect of Main South CDC’s approach to urban revitalization, and one that the organization firmly believes must be emphasized if revitalization efforts are to produce long-lasting results.    

“You’ve created a new neighborhood with families and children involved in the Boys and Girls Club, which causes the crime to relocate elsewhere,” Foley said. “By inhabiting the space you improve both the reality and perceived image of safety.”

Currently the Main South Community Development Corporation focuses its energies on a number of primary areas: The Virtual Library program, workforce development, affordable housing, monthly community meetings, storm water management, criminal justice reform, public tax assistance services, and the Main South Youth Corps. However, while the funding for these efforts is provided by a variety of sources including private donations, conventional investments, and grants from the US Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, it is still a significant undertaking from an organization with fewer than a dozen full-time employees.

Due to this limited workforce and the reality of budgetary limitations, Main South CDC relies heavily on volunteerism – especially from the Clark student population – to effect the change that it desires to see in the community. “The single most important objective to us is to create aspirational goals for kids in the neighborhood. Clark students are absolutely instrumental to the achievement of that goal,” Foley commented.

Students working through the Main South CDC have done everything from assisting in planning community events to prequalifying first-time home buyers, however, some of Clarkies’ most profound work has been in local public schools, where they’ve assisted both in the classroom and on the sports field. As Main South CDC moves forward in its efforts to achieve their long-term goal of the stabilization and revitalization of the Main South neighborhood, Clarkies will doubtlessly continue to impart the positive change in their community that the university itself stands for and inspire more to follow in their footsteps.

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30 years of service in the neighborhood: Main South Community Development Corporation