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Sunday, 15 June 2014

24 Hours

By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]

Hope Cemetery,
Coney Island Luncheonette, Worcester Art Museum
You can tell a lot about a city by its cemeteries. In New England, the denizens of these burying grounds, even in death, speak loudly of the accomplishment, influence, and fortune of once flourishing 19th-century communities. And even, as is the case in Worcester, poor cemetery management.

By the numbers, Worcester, with a population of about 175,000, is New England's second largest city. Though, as you walk about the city, as I did last week, you wouldn't know it. Pedestrians are few, and cars roar by with an intensity that makes its plain that their drivers have scant need nor interest in interacting with Worcester's downtown. What's left of it, that is.

Since the '70s, if not before, city officials, under the pretence of urban development, have worked tirelessly in gutting downtown's heart, in a city that's ironically nicknamed the 'Heart of the Commonwealth.' First they razed the commerical district around the Common, replacing it with a huge barrel-roofed, multi-storied shopping centre, attached to the world's largest indoor parking garage. [Sic!] The centre quickly morphed into a white elephant; the garage, almost always empty.

The shopping centre and garage are now also gone. So are other previous victims of dim-witted city planning, the Congregation Church that once graced the Common and Common's colonial-era cemetery. (Headstones were flattened). Somewhere along the line, city fathers also arranged to have the Common greensward paved over with cement.

What's left of 'old' Worcester has decamped to the city's largest remaining Victorian burying ground, the aptly named Hope Cemetery, dedicated in 1852 and where the colonial-era graves from the Common were re-interred. Since then many of Worcester's other great, good, and the bad have found their way to Hope, including  Robert Goddard, the space pioneer; the poet Elizabeth Bishop; Eleni Gage, a Greek freedom fighter; and the bigoted Webster Thayer, who presided at the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial.

Worcester isn't without additional points of interest. During my 24-hours, I visited the campus of Holy Cross College and, remarkably, one of the best mid-sized public libraries anywhere the Worcester Public Library.

I also had lunch at a Worcester institution, the nearly 100-year-old Coney Island Luncheonette, 158 Southbridge Street. The place is a hot dog dive, a lunch hang-out catering to workmen, businessmen, the occasional out-of-towner, and to students from the Cross, the campus not being far away. (While eating my double helping of dogs, I easily pictured the late author Joe McGuiness and the MNBC host Chris Matthews doing the same when they were Cross undergrads some years ago).

My four-year-old granddaughter N-O-R-A (that's how she introduces herself), my dining companion, ruled that the hot dogs were 'excellent good' and 'yummy.'

Hot dogs, served in the traditional Coney Island style, with diced white onions, yellow mustard, and a mild house chili sauce, are $1.60 each. Cash only.

My biggest disappointment was what I found at Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury Street), the city's acclaimed fine arts institution.

More specifically what I found at the museum's current exhibit, 'Knights!' The medieval arms and armour installation is derived from the full assembly that was once the Higgins Armory collection. The Higgins Armory closed last year, and its full collection, known for being the nation's second-most comprehensive assembly of arms and armour after that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was deeded to WAM.

'Knights!' is a disgrace. It is poorly curated, with only a few examples from the 1,000-plus piece Higgins collection. Further, these examples are disjointed, with oddly-selected, incompatible period oils accompanying four (only four!) suits of armour.

In addition, the small installation area surrenders valuable exhibit area to a large play-pen for children with cushioned pillow chairs -- and no seeming relevance.

Most appalling is how a companion exhibit by Guns Without Borders in Mexico and Central America, sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, is sandwiched within the Knights! exhibit. Seemingly the Pulitzer Center is a cash underwriter of the arms and armour exhibit, as I gathered from a sponsorship list. OK, anyone can sponsor. But that gets your name on the wall; not a 25-feet-by-25-feet alcove, with video, in the exhibit itself.

If this despicable form of advertising, yes, 'product-placement' advertising, is what WAM's new director, Matthias Waschek, thinks is an acceptable form of fundraising or branding,  heaven help the museum and its devotees.

Seemingly, Waschek has attempted to transplant part of the mission of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, where he previously served as director. The Pulitzer is an arts collaboration, drawing cultural and artistic references from many sources. WAM, please, is a traditional art museum, and that culture needs to be respected. 

The trashing of the Higgins collection in the exhibit was bad enough; now, this.

Of course, WAM may still be the 'best' small museum in the United States, an otherwise jewel-box. Let's hope that Waschek isn't prepared to sell the family jewels.