Social, Political and Economic Changes in the City
by John B. Anderson

Worcester in the 20th Century Home
Political Changes
Economic Changes
Social Changes


Worcester met the twentieth century with optimism and enthusiasm. The census of 1900 showed the city's population had passed the 100,000 mark (118,421), putting Worcester among the thirty largest cities in the United States, bigger than Omaha, Memphis or Los Angeles, all of which had populations of about 102,000. The 34,000 person increase from the 1890 census of 84,655 was a forty per cent growth. If that trend continued, Worcester might reach a population of 300,000 by the middle of the new century. And why not? Worcester's industries boomed, the nation itself was asserting a larger role in world affairs and market after market beckoned for the extraordinary range of goods that Worcester's factories produced.

Evidences of Worcester's success and prosperity abounded. There was the new City Hall dedicated in 1898 in the fiftieth anniversary year of Worcester's charter as a city. And in the same year the Worcester Art Museum was founded. Plans were being made for a new Union Station (opened in 1911); a new headquarters for the fire department had also opened in 1898. Electric trolleys had served the city since 1891 and a new charter with a stronger mayor had come into effect in 1893. Worcester was on the move.

The first decade of the new century seemed to confirm the expectations. Population again rose substantially (to 145,986), although the rate of growth slowed to 23 percent. Yet thousands of new immigrants came to the city; Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, Greek, Poles, and Lithuanians joining the already large numbers of Irish, Swedish, French Canadian and English immigrants who made Worcester their home. Indeed, the 1920 census showed a population that was over seventy percent of foreign stock, that is, born abroad or with at least one foreign born parent.

As the century moved on, the optimism of the first years abated; growth slowed and by mid-century, although the population exceeded 200,000 (203,486 in the 1950 census), and although even Rome seemed to recognize Worcester's importance with the creation of the new Diocese of Worcester in 1950, the remaining years of the century were marked by population decline or minimal growth. At the century's end the city's population (172,648) was smaller than it had been in 1920 (179,154), and the city was no longer even among the hundred largest in the country.

Worcester had experienced many of the same problems that other older, middle-sized industrial cities had: industries losing market share, declining or evaporating markets for products, departures of factories for other locations, consolidation and relocation of businesses, competitive disadvantages and aging plants.

In many ways 1950, the century's midpoint, marks a demarcation between a city on the rise, albeit at a slowing rate, and a city seeking to stabilize itself, seeking to prevent further decline and, in the words of the city's strategic plan of the late 1990s, a city seeking to be "the most livable medium sized city in the Northeast," a realistic, if modest, goal.

Economic Changes

During World War II many American cities, Worcester among them, had prospered; the demand for war goods had relieved the distress of the Depression era of the 1930s. Factories worked seven day 24 hour schedules to provide for the needs of war; at the war's end, pent up demand for civilian goods cushioned the effects of the loss of war contracts. Equally important, the considerable savings, enforced and encouraged during the war, gave many the opportunity to move up and, for many in Worcester's older three decker neighborhoods, out. Suburbs beckoned and city residents responded. While Worcester's population fell by eight percent between 1950 and 1960, the population of the towns around the city grew by between thirty and a hundred percent.

As the population moved from the city, retail business did as well. Within a generation the old line downtown department stores, Denholm and McKay, Sherer's, MacInnes's, and Barnard Sumner and Putnam, were shuttered as shoppers drove to larger, more modern suburban stores.

Later efforts to re-establish downtown shopping with Worcester Center, a downtown shopping and business mall, opened in 1971, were unsuccessful. The redesign, in 1994, of the Galleria, the retail shopping segment of Worcester Center, as a discount or off-price mall, the Common Fashion Outlets, was also unsuccessful. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the shopping center was scheduled for demolition and replacement by mixed retail and housing uses. A rebuilt Union Station and a re-established commuter rail service to Boston suggested a role for Worcester as an urban suburb. Local merchants fought a losing battle against national chains, particularly as smaller in-city malls in Greendale and Lincoln Plaza attracted nationwide retailers.

Another effort at downtown renewal, the creation of a civic center, led to the building of the Worcester Centrum. After considerable debate and two referenda, the building of a center was begun, filling in open space created through a downtown urban renewal program. The Centrum opened in September, 1982. From the first it was successful as a venue for entertainment, setting records for an arena its size. The Centrum was expanded in 1989, and an adjacent convention center, the Centrum Centre, opened in 1997.

One of the factors which helped the Centrum succeed was easy access to it from the network of interstate highways developed in the 1960s, particularly its location a few blocks from Interstate 290, the "Worcester Expressway." I-290 helped the Centrum, but in other ways it was part of the undoing of old Worcester. The highway, begun in 1957 and completed in 1970, cut through neighborhoods, particularly older ethnic ones, speeding the process of decline. At the same time, with its companion routes, I-190 to the north and I-395 to the south, it helped maintain Worcester's geographic advantage as a center point of New England, much as the railroads had done in the Nineteenth Century.

More consequential than the loss of retail business to the suburbs was the decline of local industry in the last half of the century. United States Steel, which had succeeded American Steel and Wire Company, which, in turn, had succeeded Washburn and Moen, closed the last of its three Worcester operations, the South Works, late in the century. Other smaller steel companies such as Johnson Steel and Wire also closed as did companies whose names had long been associated with the city, Pullman-Standard and Graton and Knight. Crompton and Knowles left the loom business and left the city. Screw and machine companies like Reed and Prince and Reed-Prentice, and Heald Machine, by 1975 a part of Cincinnati Milacron, ceased operations. Norton was one of the few old line companies to continue in business, but even it became part of a larger multi-national French firm, St. Gobain.

Local leaders addressed the issue in a variety of ways: providing new sites for companies, with financial and training assistance and, most successfully, by taking advantage of opportunities for new economic development, most strikingly with the development of the University of Massachusetts Medical School which, with its associated hospital, had become the city's largest employer by the year 2000. The medical school made it possible to attract new employers such as Abbott Laboratories to a biotechnology park. By the century's end, service employment had far surpassed industrial employment in the local workforce. Although some of this employment was sophisticated and high paying, much was not. Largely being warehousing and distribution jobs.

Many locally owned businesses became part of larger entities. This was especially true of banking; by the end of the century consolidation in banking left only smaller banks locally owned. The local newspapers suffered the same fate as many similar papers across the country. Evening papers disappeared: first the Worcester Evening Post closed (1938) and The Evening Gazette merged with the Worcester Telegram as the Telegram and Gazette, a morning newspaper. The foreign language press reflected the changes in immigration with the local French and Swedish language papers closing and a Spanish language paper, El Vocero, beginning operations.

Political Changes

Economic changes in the Twentieth Century were paralleled by political changes, the most important of which was a change in the form of city government with the adoption of the council-manager form by the voters in election in November, 1947. The new form of government took effect with the election of a new city council in 1949 and its inauguration in January, 1950. . The impetus for change went back to the 1930s and mixed elements of partisan politics, "good government" ideas and promises of more efficiency. Although challenged and modified over time, the city still operates under council-manager government, although since 1987 under a local "home rule" charter.

For much of the city's life under council-manager government, the city manager was Francis J. McGrath, whose thirty-four year tenure (1951-1985) as manager was remarkable in a profession in which the usual length of service is less than a third of that time.

Social Changes

More significant than the political changes in the twentieth century were the changes in the city's population in the last part of the century.

Worcester had been a city of immigrants from the start of its growth as an industrial center and by 1950 had drawn thousands of men and women from Ireland, Sweden, Canada, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Albania, Syria, Lebanon, and Armenia. Although there had been significant episodes of social tension, including Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s, by the 1960s mutual accommodation prevailed.

The last third of the Twentieth Century was marked by a new immigration, particularly from Latin America and from Southeast Asia. Large numbers of people from Puerto Rico and nations ranging from the Dominican Republic to Brazil made Worcester their home as did hundreds from India, Pakistan, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Joining them at the end of the century were Nigerians and Kenyans, sufficient in numbers to form social clubs and churches. A Buddhist temple and a mosque joined the church and synagogue so familiar on the Worcester landscape. The city's school system showed a majority of minority students at the end of the century.

Worcester would meet the new, twenty-first, century as a changed city, but one still building on its past.