Forget Oakland Or Hoboken. Worcester, Mass., Is The New 'It' Town Once left for dead, the city outside Boston is seeing its stock price rise so fast that it is outpacing nearly every other small city in America.
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Forget Oakland Or Hoboken. Worcester, Mass., Is The New 'It' Town

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Forget Oakland Or Hoboken. Worcester, Mass., Is The New 'It' Town

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have news of a side effect of booming cities where housing costs are soaring and people are priced out. People who can't buy in are moving to smaller cities. Think about San Francisco and Oakland, you know, or Manhattan and Hoboken, N.J., which is a little bit cheaper. Over the past few decades, that process has brought big change to Boston and the towns surrounding it. And now, a full hour west of Boston, Worcester, Mass., is seeing its stock rise. From WGBH Radio in Boston, Aaron Schachter reports on what could become a case study in urban growth.

AARON SCHACHTER, BYLINE: A few years ago, if you'd asked most people in Massachusetts their opinion of Worcester, you'd likely get an answer like this one from Michelle Costello.

MICHELLE COSTELLO: It wasn't any place I'd ever come - made me nervous, made me scared. My mother used to tell me all the time, when I was a kid, stay away from Worcester. It's not a nice place to be.

EDWARD AUGUSTUS: It had sunk into the psyche, I think, of the city that it wasn't going to come back, that this was just our fate.

SCHACHTER: Worcester city manager Edward Augustus grew up here and points to Union Station as a symbol of Worcester's booming industrial revolution at the turn of last century. By the mid-'70s, its roof had caved in. There was also the Galleria Mall, which was supposed to revitalize downtown, but instead killed local businesses, divided the city in half and then went belly up.

AUGUSTUS: There were a lot of silver bullet strategies over the years. You know, jeez, if we just make this project happen, this will be the catalyst.

SCHACHTER: Officials really got to work in 2010 by beautifying the large park outside city hall and then demolishing the infernal mall. Kate McEvoy, a vice president for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, is a fifth-generation Worcesterite.

KATE MCEVOY: Properties are hot, commercially. Properties are hot, residentially. Everyone just wants a piece of Worcester right now. It's crazy.

SCHACHTER: It's actually not crazy at all, considering the forces at play. Brian Sargent, professor of public policy at UMass Amherst, says there's a classic path for a smaller city to boom, and Worcester is following the formula a whole lot quicker than anywhere else.

BRIAN SARGENT: You need a smaller city near a larger city. You need the larger city to get really expensive fast. That's Boston. You need the smaller city to go through under-development or, a lot of times, post-industrial depression. Then as the expensive city prices people out, there would be some bleed over from there.

SCHACHTER: Boston is 47 miles and an hour train ride away, making that bleed over a relatively easy commute. This past spring, average rents in Boston rose faster than any metro area in the country, and that was on top of an already booming real estate market.

SAM CANARY: Professionally, it's a great place to be. Personally and socially, it has been just incredible.

SCHACHTER: 32-year-old Sam Canary works for Morgan Stanley and lives in one of Worcester's swanky new downtown buildings. He's minutes from a domestic airport and surrounded by nine colleges and universities, including the state university's teaching hospital.

CANARY: I walk to work every day. I go out to eat three or four nights a week. The food scene here is great. The social scene here is great. I get to be here, and I can access the world right outside my doorstep.

SCHACHTER: The city is experiencing booms in tech, biomedical and specialty manufacturing. City officials have greenlit $2.6 billion in recent construction - new housing, as well as retail and restaurant space. And Worcester is finally growing after losing residents for much of the last century. But it's the residents already here who Danielle Lariviere thinks about. She's with the Central Mass Housing Alliance and says over the past 12 months, rents and housing prices have risen too far, too fast.

DANIELLE LARIVIERE: We need to remember that we are pricing our elders out. We are pricing our young families out. In order to have, like, a really vital city, we don't want to end up with some of the crises that we're seeing in the Boston area.

SCHACHTER: Lariviere says the housing speculation so far hasn't extended much beyond the city center, but she worries that it's only a matter of time before affordable housing goes the way of Worcester's once-vaunted industrial manufacturing.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schachter.

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