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PHOTOS: Worcester Before I-290

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Express lane

I-290 put change on fast track in Worcester

Sunday, July 4, 2004

WORCESTER- In any circumstance there is change, even if it is only time slipping by and people and places aging.

But there are moments in history when the influences of change are blurred, when it is difficult to see clearly what is causing the change - and what the change is causing.

One of those moments in Worcester's history was the late 1950s and 1960s, when the highway known today as Interstate 290 was constructed. While the highway created rapid change, particularly to the landscape, it was change itself that brought the need for the highway.

"Things are always changing, of course," said Assumption College history professor Kenneth J. Moynihan, but in the 1950s change in Worcester was picking up speed.

Interstate 290 is praised for opening Worcester up economically, but it also accelerated the dispersal of neighborhoods and ethnic groups. Construction of I-290 began in earnest in 1957 with extensive land-takings, resulting in the evictions of hundreds of people. Businesses, schools, cemeteries, parks, churches, synagogues and homes all made way for what was then called the Eastern Expressway and later just the Expressway.

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Skaters under the fieldstone bridge on Burncoat Park T&G FILE PHOTO

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Gov. John Davis Mansion, 89 Lincoln Street T&G FILE PHOTO

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Grafton Street frm Washington Square bridge T&G FILE PHOTO

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Ward Street School T&G FILE PHOTO

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Providence Street three-decker T&G FILE PHOTO

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Diamond T Sales, 759 Southbridge St T&G FILE PHOTO

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Auburn police station and highway barn T&G FILE PHOTO

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St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Auburn T&G FILE PHOTO

Schools such as Adams Square, Lincoln Street, Ward Street and Ledge Street were razed. Religious centers were lost, including St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. John's Episcopal Church and the Sons of Israel Synagogue.

Such businesses as Nordgren Memorial Chapel, Kulin Waste Co., New England Milk Producers' Association and the College Square Barber Shop were relocated or destroyed. And sections of St. John's and Hope cemeteries and Burncoat and Green Hill parks were moved, buried or bulldozed to make way for the highway.

Among the buildings lost were some that had long been significant to Worcester's history. They included Gov. John Davis' mansion, where Gov. Davis entertained Charles Dickens in 1842.

Although the construction of I-290 may have accelerated change in Worcester, local historians say these changes need to be viewed in the context of what was already taking place in the city and across the country.

"In the 1950s, Worcester was a city that looked and behaved like a pre-World War II city, and it had started to change," Mr. Moynihan said.

"People began buying cars. All insurance companies, Norton Co., banks and even the newspaper began to change." Local companies were being sold to national companies, he said.

The city had changed its form of government in 1949 and with that came the desire to "tie itself further into the transport system," which included the Massachusetts Turnpike, Mr. Moynihan said.

"There was this idea that Worcester had to burst into the future," he said.

It took more than 10 years to complete I-290. The highway was built in sections, and each section had to go through the process of getting government funding and then being contracted out.

The first section opened Sept. 30, 1960. It was a little more than one mile long, from Harrison Street to Belmont Street.

By 1968, only 3.6 miles of the highway were completed, but on June 20, 1970, the eastbound lane of the bridge over Lake Quinsigamond was paved and it opened up the entire 23 miles of highway for the first time. Interstate 290 ran from the Massachusetts Turnpike in Auburn to Interstate 495 in Marlboro.

"There's a paradox in building I-290," said John B. Anderson, a former history teacher at the College of the Holy Cross and a city councilor for 22 years. "It opened Worcester up and gave it access to the turnpike and I-495 in the other direction," he said. "It really did make it possible to access the city. Getting into and out of Worcester is a great plus.

"Ironically, at the same time it closed off parts of the city, closing off one neighborhood from another. It made suburban shopping, like at Solomon Pond, easier, which made it difficult for some urban centers like the Outlets," he added.

Even before the expressway separated Vernon Hill residents from Millbury and Water streets and dispersed the Swedish, Finnish, Armenian and African-American communities living in the Belmont Hill area, those neighborhoods had already begun to change.

"It was an era when a lot of change was taking place anyway," Mr. Anderson said.

People from old, stable neighborhoods such as Vernon Hill had already begun to move to the West Side. Temple Emanuel had been built on May Street before I-290 began.

One of the residual effects of World War II was that people started saving money, Mr. Anderson said. People were encouraged to buy war bonds and were able to build up enough capital to afford a down payment on a house.

"It's easy to kind of romanticize about the past," he said, referring to the Water Street and lower Providence Street area, which was built in the 1870s and 1880s. "By the 1960s it was an old stock of housing and not an easy fit with people's ideals in the 1960s."

The Finnish community on Belmont Hill had also started its move out of the neighborhood before the arrival of I-290, but with the highway the Finns lost much of their local architecture.

Third-generation Finnish-American Barry Heiniluoma of Hubbardston acknowledges the irony of being able to go to Finland and visit his great-grandmother's house but no longer being able to see many of the Finnish buildings that his ancestors built when they arrived in Worcester.

The Bethany Lutheran Church, the Suomi Steam Baths, the Finnish Hall, the Finnish newspaper building, Finnish stores and many homes including those on sections of Clayton, Glen and Laurel streets were all destroyed to make way for I-290.

But, while Worcester lost a large part of its Finnish history because of the highway, the demography of the area was changing anyway, according to Mr. Heiniluoma.

One of the big employers of Worcester's Finnish population, American Steel and Wire, closed in the 1940s, marking an end to the "days of walking to work," he said.

"The Finnish always had this strong pull to nature," Mr. Heiniluoma said. Like his parents, many Finnish people "worked a few years in a factory, saved a nest egg and moved to the country. This change was ongoing. By the 1950s and 1960s, we were losing the immigrant generation, and a lot of their children had already left for the Holden and Rutland areas."

One segment of the city still trying to recover from the impact of I-290's construction is the South Worcester neighborhood. The highway effectively divided College Hill from the residential and business section of the neighborhood.

"The highway didn't move you away, it separated you out," said Ronald E. Charette, executive director of the South Worcester Neighborhood Center. "It really created a sense of two pieces."

From Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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