A group of children play in a leaf pile in the city's Elm Park, located on a large square along Highland Avenue. Children are: Kristi Nakollaris, 5, (foreground), Andola Adallia, 12 (smiling), Alexandra Nakollaris, and Stefan Nakollaris, 12, all of Worcester.
A group of children play in a leaf pile in the city's Elm Park, located on a large square along Highland Avenue. Children are: Kristi Nakollaris, 5, (foreground), Andola Adallia, 12 (smiling), Alexandra Nakollaris, and Stefan Nakollaris, 12, all of Worcester. (Nancy Palmieri / Globe Staff)
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Worcester -- who knew?

Email|Print| Text size + By William A. Davis
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2004

WORCESTER -- With a population of just over 170,000, Worcester is the second-largest city in the state and the third-largest in New England (behind Boston and Providence).

Despite this, many Worcesterites feel their hometown suffers from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: no respect. Or, at least, not enough of it. They have a point.

Although long overshadowed by Boston, the Worcester area has a distinct identity, a lively cultural scene, many attractions, and claims to fame that range from the engagingly quirky (the yellow smiley-face logo and shredded wheat were both invented here) to the profoundly significant (the liquid-fueled space rocket and the birth control pill also were developed locally).

Worcester's attractions include the remarkable Higgins Armory Museum, which displays the country's largest collection of suits of armor (more than 100 of them, many very rare and beautifully ornamented) in a re-created castle banquet hall that plunges visitors into the Middle Ages. It sounds gloomy, but in fact is fascinating and family friendly: Young would-be knights and ladies fair can try on replicas of medieval costumes and armor, for example.

Another one-of-a-kind place is Union Station, a local landmark since 1911. Closed for almost a quarter-century, the massive, ornate, and gleaming white twin-towered train station in Washington Square was painstakingly restored a few years ago at a cost of $32 million. It is served by both Amtrak and the MBTA commuter rail and also houses a first-class restaurant, a jazz and blues club, and a small museum devoted to the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Worcester Art Museum ranks among the country's best medium-size art museums. The permanent collection consists of more than 30,000 works spanning 5,000 years; the early American paintings are particularly noteworthy. The museum also was one of the first to recognize photography as an art form and to collect the work of leading photographers.

Also, Mechanics Hall, built in 1857, was originally used as a venue for lectures; Charles Dickens and Henry David Thoreau gave talks and readings here. Lovingly preserved, the hall, with superb acoustics, is used today for concerts and special musical events.

In an era when the locally owned independent bookstore seems to be a vanishing species, Worcester boasts New England's largest: Tatnuck Bookseller. Occupying a cavernous former machine tool factory, Tatnuck has some five miles of shelves with both new and used books. It also sells stationery, cards, candles, toys, and gifts and has an excellent restaurant with an outdoor patio.

Worcester's official emblem is the heart, symbolizing its location in the center of both the state and the region. Over the last 30 years or so, its own civic center, the downtown business district, has had what amounts to open-heart surgery in the form of several urban renewal projects.

These projects gave the city the Centrum, Arena, and Convention Center complex along with Worcester Common Outlets, an enclosed two-level atrium shopping mall. The mall is also home to Worcester Foothills Theatre, the city's resident theater company.

The convention center attracts gatherings and meetings from all over New England; the arena is used for sporting events, including home games of the local hockey team, the Worcester Ice Cats; and the Centrum hosts big-name music concerts. Last month, the complex was renamed the DCU (Digital Credit Union) Center, although locals still use the old names.

Once flourishing, Worcester Common Outlets has lost customers to suburban malls in recent years and now has fewer than half the 100 or so stores it had originally. It is set to close next year and the building converted to housing and office space.

Shopping in downtown Worcester may leave a bit to be desired, but the restaurant scene is vibrant. Good and interesting, often ethnic, restaurants are all around the city, but the acknowledged Restaurant Row is Shrewsbury Street, which runs east from Washington Square.

In a mile-long strip along Shrewsbury, something like two dozen restaurants range from funky diners and trendy little bistros to old-fashioned family dining rooms. This was Worcester's Little Italy, and while a number of good Italian restaurants are here, you can also eat Indian or Mexican and get sushi.

Worcester's entertainment and cultural scene is quite lively for a city this size. Here's a sampling of upcoming events.

''Keeping Shadows: Photography," at the Worcester Art Museum through Jan. 2, marks the centenary of the historic photo exhibition the museum mounted in 1904, one of the first in this country by an art museum. Photographs range from 19th-century daguerreotypes to pictures taken by NASA space probes and include work by masters such as Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz.

At the Higgins Armory Museum through June is ''Now Thrives the Armorers," an exhibition of arms and armor represented in the plays of Shakespeare.

''Perfect Crime," a contemporary murder mystery, is at the Worcester Foothills Theatre through Nov. 21. A musical version of Dickens's ''A Christmas Carol" will run Nov. 26-Dec. 23.

At Mechanics Hall, the Boys Choir of Harlem is scheduled Nov. 29 and the Vienna Boys Choir Dec. 8. On Dec. 4, the Music Worcester organization presents Handel's ''Messiah," featuring the Worcester Chorus and the Worcester Symphony Orchestra.

On Dec. 18, Kenny Rogers, Billy Dean, and Rebecca Lynn Howard will be at the DCU Center, and on Dec. 19, Keith Lockhart will conduct a holiday concert by the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Bill Davis is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

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