Summer has already passed into autumn, and if you feel like something’s amiss in your perception of how time flows, you’re not alone. No music on the Worcester Common, very few new murals, a general lack of dancing and street food. For many people around Worcester, the absence of the city’s many festivals has been a disruption on numerous levels, not the least of which is the way in which we mark time as the year progresses.
“It definitely feels weird to not have stART to mark the beginning of fall,” says musician Ash L’Esperance, of The Promise is Hope. Likewise, Nikki Erskine, co-director of the stART on the Street arts festival, says, “It’s been bizarre enough being around the city and seeing so few people on the sidewalks and in restaurants, it’s felt like a ghost town at times. But without the festivals, I’ve kind of felt like I missed summer.”
Indeed, an informal Facebook poll showed a widespread and deeply felt pain over the absence of the annual arts festival, but it’s hardly the only event lamented. The first mass gathering that was canceled because of the coronavirus was the St. Patrick’s Day parade back in March, the absence of which was sort of a wake-up call to the seriousness of the matter. Other annual city celebrations that have been widely missed this summer and early autumn include Worcester Pride, the Latin American Festival, the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival, the Worcester Middle Eastern Festival, Pet Rock, the Central Mass. Jazz Fest, Pow Wow Worcester, Saint Spyridon Grecian Festival, the WOOtenanny Comedy Festival, the Asian Festival and the Juneteenth celebration, and that’s an incomplete list. Throw in outdoor music series such as the ones at Elm Park and Newton Square, the Out to Lunch concerts on the Common and cool little local favorites such as the Punkcake outdoor festival, and suddenly you realize that a lot has been missing from the local cultural life.
“We need festivals to bring us together,” says Erin Williams, Worcester’s Cultural Development Officer. “Worcester is a city made up of immigrants over the centuries: Scandinavians, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Southeast Asians, Latinx, Dominican, Italian, Ghanaian, Albanian and many more who have made Worcester home and shared their celebrations. They bring tourism, economic spinoffs for restaurants, hotels and the local businesses. These businesses and the artists and organizers involved have lost significant amounts of money this year.”
For many in the city, the loss of the festivals has been palpable. “Gay Pride Worcester is so unique,” says musician Jereme Hamel. “That’s because we are such a college town, we throw it during the fall. And the Latin festival has the best food of all our festivals — well, the Middle-Eastern Festival also was a great time to be had and food was dope too. I simply miss seeing people come together in these large groups — to forget about their problems and just eat and have fun and see culture.”
Learning From Each Other
“Worcester being the second largest city of New England is rich with its tapestry of culture — of all ethnic origins, arts, visual and performing arts performances, the parades, and street festivals,” says Christina Andrianopoulos, Chairman-Publicity, Outreach & Program Book of the Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral Grecian Festival. “Worcester would not be the city it is without all that our diverse citizens and community have to offer.”
Indeed, Worcester’s size goes a long way toward explaining why the festivals have such a visceral presence. It’s big enough to have something for just about everybody, but small enough that when everyone’s out partying, it’s felt. You have to kind of work to miss it.
“Festivals evoke pride and put Worcester on the map as a truly creative city,” says Williams. “All together, we are a plethora of cultural expression. Festivals bring people in Worcester together, and visitors learn much from Worcester’s rich cultural heritage.”
Father Milad Selim of St. George Orthodox Cathedral certainly agrees with Williams’ sentiment. “Our three-day festival brought together roughly 10,000 people of different backgrounds and walks of life under one tent. It showcased the rich diversity of our great city and affirmed the need for more culturally focused events. The pandemic took away the opportunity for the people of our city to witness what our rich Middle Eastern culture has to offer in terms of food, music, faith and art.”
“The festivals are our culture on display,” says Dolly Vazquez, founder of the Latin American Festival. She no longer runs the festival, but she still feels it “brings a celebration and display of Latin culture, which is an important part of Worcester. It demonstrates the legitimacy of that portion of the population. And it’s a lot of fun.”
Jennifer Gaskin, organizer for the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival, says, “All the different festivals showcase a little bit of who we all are. By everyone in the city getting to experience each little bit in return we all begin to open up and accept our differences as unifying not divisive.”
Indeed, for many locals, the festivals have been a lifelong touchstone. “My mom,” says country musician Stan Matthews, “who grew up in Worcester, always took me every year to the the Greek, Armenian, Italian and Irish festivals.”
Not all the local festivals are centered on cultural backgrounds, of course. Some, such as the Central Mass. Jazz Festival and Wootenany, focus on particular art forms.
“There are not may live venues for jazz these days,” says Jazz Fest organizer Mauro dePasquale, “especially locally or regionally … Central Mass Jazz Fest doesn’t just present jazz artists, it celebrates jazz and the amazing diversity jazz represents through live music performed by some of the finest local, regional and internationally acclaimed artist of the genre available. It brings people together in a unique and joyful way.”
Another festival, Pet Rock, is different in that it centers on animal welfare. “It brings to the city a major social event that pairs a segment of the population that struggles somewhat to get its message out with a segment that is just ‘looking for a wholesome, family event where they can bring their dog,’” says Charlene Arsenault, who organizes the event with Jeannie Hebert. “As with stART on the Street … Pet Rock Fest became a defining bookmark for the end of the summer and the kickoff to the fall around here. Twenty-two years. That’s something a lot of people planned and looked forward to, so even by virtue of longevity, the Pet Rock Festival became part of the culture, I think. I certainly hope that will return.”
Pet Rock is definitely a favorite for locals, but almost all of the events are dear to the hearts of large swaths of the city’s population.
Tina Zlody, co-director for stART on the Street, says, “The Caribbean festival is hands down my favorite festival ever. I’ll never forget their first year, we were moving our festival stuff out of our HQ on Park Ave. when all of the sudden the windows of the empty store front we were occupying started to rattle and then we heard a noise and out of this amazing fog of sound came this vision of trucks with speakers, glitter, feathers, the most amazing dancers we had ever seen … We were in awe. We literally stopped what we were doing and got drinks at Park Grill and stood amazed and thrilled. The next year Gabe Rollins, our performance director, looked to us at this event and said, ‘We aren’t the best festival anymore.’ He was not wrong. A group of us go every year to dance, eat and enjoy the culture. Having spent many years at a lot of different events, we try to take something away about how other cultures celebrate their heritages and learn from them. I love the idea of expanding my knowledge and understanding.”
A Time to Connect
“I have always felt that the city craves culture — things that are different and exciting are a bonus to that,” says Michelle May, creator of the annual Cirque du Noir arts fundraiser, which will likewise not be happening this year. “The most successful festival is obviously stART on the Street. This is everything in a nutshell. It is a place you can come to for free and walk around, see your neighbors, meet new people, or shop handmade goods. You can hear music, see performances and experience many cultures the city has. The offerings were as dynamic and diverse as our city. It was a place you could come to with your kids and let them go and enjoy a little independence with a couple bucks in their pocket for a frozen lemonade or some treat. It is what the parents are nostalgic for.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Worcester School Committee member Tracy Novick, who says, “A long while back, I sent (stART co-founders) Stacy Lord and Tina Zlody a message, thanking them for running a festival that I, as a parent, could let my kids be on their own at. Anyone can find something at stART: you can be a little kid with a couple of dollars and find something, or a collector with no budget limit and find something. You can sit and listen to music and not spend a dime. You can eat amazing food! You can see people show off what they can do and make. And there are so many people I won’t see this year without it.”
The popularity of stART on the Street — easily Central Massachusetts’ largest outdoor art festival — can’t be overrated. When asked online which festivals they missed most, stART was overwhelmingly the one most mentioned.
“It is just the perfect street fest,” says Bex Zumbruski of Easthampton. “I love the quality and variety of vendors and artists. Love the food options and the entertainment scattered throughout. I also love that there are fun activities for kids. Really, it is just the PERFECT event. I have found so many favorite regional artists through stART. All street art events should strive to be as well run and curated as stART.” Zumbruski’s wife, Worcester native Kae Collins, seconds that assertion and adds, “I also love how it brings the community together and we always run into so many people we don’t get to see often.”
Seeing people one hasn’t seen in a long time was a consistent theme in people’s thoughts, no doubt one compounded by the sense of isolation that’s come with life in the time of the coronavirus.
Lost and Found
While some festivals have just taken the year off with plans to return in 2021, some major annual events have tried to maintain a presence online, including Pet Rock, which held an online event Sept. 13, and the Harvey Ball Smile Awards, which were held virtually Oct. 2.
“It worked out,” says Arsenault. “It happened. We had an ‘event’ and raised some money for our cause. Was it like the ‘real’ Pet Rock Fest? Of course not. Is watching Springsteen playing from his living room on your laptop the same as standing with thousands of fans singing ‘Jungleland’ at the DCU Center? Nope. But as with many organizations, we’ve been forced to adapt. In a short amount of time, I think we pulled off an enjoyable, informative virtual event that captured some of the spirit of the fest and allowed folks to converge in a way, and an opportunity to support us.”
That’s important, for the festivals and their supporters. The more you talk to people about the absence of the festivals, the more clear it is that they are not just important events, but a major part of the city’s identity, and for many, their absence couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“With us being unable to present the Caribbean Carnival this year,” says Gaskin, “the city missed what has become an annual tradition in the city to come together to embrace each other’s differences, culture and beauty through the art which is Carnival. Carnival to us means to ‘free up.’ To let go of all your worries, pain, and burdens for that one day. I think we could all use a bit of that in 2020, so it was sad that we weren’t able to do it.”
“Given the national and international attention on race in America,” agrees Erskine, “it’s disappointingly ironic that festivals like Juneteenth and the Caribbean American Carnival couldn’t take place in person.”
Zlody, too, laments what’s missing, saying, “This year has been devoid of gallery openings, theater, live music, any type of cultural and non-cultural gathering and it really sucks … I think there is a level of sadness and disconnect we all feel without social interaction and face-to-face discussions. In a nutshell 2020 (expletive) sucks, but let’s try to come out of it with a better and more open understanding and compassion to our fellow human beings, you have no idea whats actually happening to folks, just be nice.”
It’s not hard to see where she’s coming from: It seems right now like everyone is in pain on a spiritual level, and the social distance — necessary as it may be — is exacerbating that feeling.
“Art, culture, food and music all feed the soul and its absence is being felt by the entire world,” says Lisa Drexhage, who organizes the annual Pow! Wow! Worcester mural festival with Jessica Walsh. “Although we may not be able to produce our traditional event this year as we have in the past, we are happy that the efforts of prior years are still available to be enjoyed and act as a reminder that there is joy, beauty, art and culture in the world during the toughest of times.”
It’s a time when a community would normally turn to each other for support, but that’s — in many ways right now — impossible. The festivals are, in a very real and necessary way, a mirror. “It’s what Worcester wishes it were, and what Worcester is at its best,” says Novick, talking particularly about stART, but really, the sentiment could easily apply to all of the city’s festivals collectively.
“The festivals GIVE the city its character,” says May. “We have so many rich ethnic communities of people in our city and the festivals allow them to feel like they are at home — with food, music and culture. They invite people to come and learn about that culture. What is better than friends and family? If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that they are everything.”
“I don’t think you can develop a sense of community — communing — without identifying culture as a dynamic force in shaping who were are as a city,” says Williams. “The absence of the Juneteenth, Irish, Italian, stART on the Street, Latin, Worcester Pride, Southeast Asian and African celebrations, in addition to the Taste of Shrewsbury Street and mini block parties has left a void. Hundreds of volunteers work year round to build these festivals. Many of the organizers have been creative and redirected their energies to virtual mini celebrations — new ways of experiencing cultures, but it’s not the same. We want to taste the spanakopita, dance the bachata, see the art, colors and the pageantry that tells our stories. Now more than ever festivals, celebrations are needed. They bring us together, help us experience new ways of seeing the world. Festivals support and give voice to racial equity, cultural diversity and build new audiences. Festivals bring a sense of pride and are powerful expressions of who we are. Yes, Worcester is a city of festivals, and I miss them. And when this veil of social distancing needed to keep us safe is lifted there will be dancing in the streets.”