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Welcome back to Brick & Mortar! After spending some time in the Greater Boston Area and looking to the potential future of video game collecting, I decided this week to take a trip back to my roots – to my hometown of Worcester, and to my formative nerd culture hub, That’s Entertainment. But prepare yourselves, because this one is near and dear to what makes me Matt, and what transformed me into a gamer, so I’ve got a lot to say this time. This is going to be Part One of a two-part article, and this week is mostly about life in Worcester as both a gamer and as a human being. So buckle up!

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An hour west of Boston lies a place I called home for eighteen years. With a population of 180,000, Worcester is actually the second largest population center in New England. That means that not even the largest cities in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island can stack up against it in sheer mass of humanity.

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Worcester was once a proud and prosperous city, beginning its life as a shipping town on the Blackstone River. The textile boom of the early 1800s and the steel boom decades later turned the small town into a booming city and made its Gilded Age elites wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Worcester had rapidly expanded by the turn of the 20th century, turning a bunch of disparate collections of industrial parks, farms, villages and neighborhoods into a cohesive whole, and a building and transportation boom that saw streetcar tracks criss-cross every major road, and majestic Victorian Era marketplaces, theaters and concert halls popping up downtown. Education became a major staple, as many Worcester colleges were founded during this time. And to support the growing population, commercial endeavors and public green spaces were developed. It was a very decadent era for the cash-flush city. You can still see distinct shadows of this prosperous era all over town in its architecture.

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Elm Park, not far from the store we’ll be visiting today, is actually famous as the first official City Park in the nation, established in 1854 – years before Central Park and Boston Common. The Iron Bridge pictured above is one of Worcester’s most recognizable visual landmarks. My middle school was actually right next to this park, so we would run around here during recess every day. I remember one time, I tried feeding a Canadian goose and it started hissing and chased me. I had NO idea that birds could hiss until that moment, and was scared shitless. GEESE ARE JERKS, KIDS.

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Mechanics Hall, also built in the 1850s, was the site of the first National Womens’ Rights Convention, and many a stunning concert and performance ever since. They used to take our class on field trips here as a kid, and I remember being way more interested in the enormous paintings lining the walls then whatever children’s play they were trying to show us.

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Bancroft Tower was built in 1900 in honor of a Worcester resident by the same name who rose to become Secretary of the US Navy. He was also the US ambassador to Great Britain, and loved the medieval castles there so much that his wealthy tycoon buddy Stephen Salisbury III built him one on the top of his hometown hill. Important people used to come out of Worcester all the time!

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Union Station, built in 1911, connected Worcester to Providence, Albany, Boston and New York It effectively put Worcester on the map as a cultural centerpiece in New England. Serving as the gateway to the city, architects put stunning work into the structure, and Victorian decadence was on full display both outside and inside.

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Seriously, the clock and spiral staircase up to the train platform has always reminded me of the lobby of the Titanic. Does anybody else see it?

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Anyway, it’s clear that times were good in Worcester about 100 years ago. But the prosperity did not last. Following World War II, old mill towns were left abandoned as industries moved South, West, and overseas. By the 1970s, the decadence was gone, downtown Worcester was a sad and scary place, and many of the city’s most beautiful structures lay abandoned. This is how the inside of Union Station looked by the 1990s:

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(Just another aside, but doesn’t that kind of look like the chapel you meet Aeris at in Final Fantasy VII? Anyway…)

By the time I was growing up in Worcester, downtown was a place you actively avoided. Heroin addicts had taken over Bancroft Tower. Breaking into abandoned, “haunted” places became a popular teenage pastime. Much of Worcester’s downtown district was demolished in the 1980s to make way for the DCU Center Sports Arena (then called the Centrum Center) and an enormous mall called the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets. I have fond memories of both as a kid – I distinctively remember hitting up Media Play at the Fashion Outlets for my Sonic & Knuckles strategy guide, and asking Santa there for a Nintendo 64.

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By the time I returned to the Fashion Outlets in 2001 to pick up my Nintendo Gamecube (I remember the Xbox launch was the same day, and looking over Tony Hawk 2X and Halo and thinking whatever, no Smash Bros no care), the mall had become a ghost town. The mall was situated in a location with little to no parking, and the garage over-charged for parking spots like crazy. With suburban malls and shopping centers popping up in the suburbs just outside of town, most customers skipped the Fashion Outlets completely. Built by wiping out the remains of Worcester’s once-proud Victorian downtown, the Fashion Outlets would itself close it’s doors before I even left for college, becoming temporarily an impropmtu place people would go on runs inside when it was raining or cold out. And when I came back from college, it too had been demolished.

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The DCU Center still stands though! I have such fond memories of seeing our AHL hometeam, the Worcester Ice Cats, kick some serious hockey butt at this place years ago. The convention center attached to the arena was and still is host to all sorts of RV shows, horror conventions, high school graduations and the like. But the Ice Cats are sadly no more. Their successors, the far less remarkable Worcester Sharks, were disbanded a few years ago, and Worcester is back to not having any major sports teams.

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Worcester during my lifetime was a sad story of a city that time forgot, a once-glamorous cultural hub abandoned for the suburbs by those who built it, and left to the destitute living in housing projects or out on the street. it always felt like I was living in the shadow of some great society that had come before. These feelings culminated for me (and likely, the rest of the city) with the Cold Storage Fire of 1999. Before refrigerators, butchers and farmers presenting slaughtered livestock in city markets would store their goods in insulated buildings lined with polyurethane foam, which would preserve the meats for later transport. Well wouldn’t you know it, that lining is insanely flammable. And by 1999, this cold storage facility housed dozens of homeless people. One such couple knocked over a lit candle one night in 1999, and set the whole building ablaze.

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This mobilized every fire-fighting force in the county, and despite their best attempts, the blaze burned for days unabated, and ultimately led to the loss of six firefighters. This became national front-page news, and a symbol of how far America had let our secondary cities fall in the old rust-belt of the Northeast. President Clinton actually spoke at the funeral at the DCU Center- it was that big of a deal. And I will say, something changed after that. There was this purpose-driven push to see Worcester rise again, to be reborn from the ashes.

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In the past several years, a massive urban redevelopment program has taken shape in Downtown Worcester, dubbed City Square, that has already begun to transform things. Shiny glass skyscrapers now dot the city skyline, pulling in a fast-growing biotech industry, spurred on the massive St. Vincent’s Medical Center downtown (nicknamed  Med City) and by the excellent UMass Medical Graduate School and hospital network. Patients come from all over the country to seek treatment in Worcester.  Mechanics Hall and the newly renovated Hanover Theater bring the performing arts to Worcester, and major contemporary musical artists still make stops at the DCU Center.

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Union Station has received a beautiful renovation and is now directly connected to Boston via the Commuter Rail. Worcester’s own WRTA bus service has received an increase in funding, a beautiful new bus terminal, a new fleet of energy-efficient, state of the art buses rivals Boston’s own MBTA, as well as increased service and improved routes. It’s done wonders to bring this city together again, especially for those of us (like me) that are on foot when I visit.

And every June, there is a celebration and 6K run remembering those we lost in 1999, celebrating their progress as a city since, and how far there still is to go.

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Hot-damn, that’s one hell of a history lesson! If you’re still with me, you have a longer attention span than I do. I spaced out multiple times while writing this, and went on a tangent looking into PAL Playstation 2 systems because for some stupid reason I really want to play the Age of Empires II console port. So if you’re with me, and you’re still enjoying this, Let’s proceed!

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Education remains a huge factor in Worcester, and in recent years the colleges have banded together into a “consortium” through which all have prospered. I actually grew up behind the Assumption College campus, and used to run around their campus with my Game Boy Color getting myself into all sorts of trouble. I’ve seen that and every other campus grow over the years, and WPI in particular has put itself on the map for its engineering, robotics, and game development programs. With a booming student population, there’s bound to be an explosion of youth art and culture, as well as some intriguing nightlife options. And there sure as hell are!

To those of you who could care less about the history lesson, and just want to know if Worcester is awesome to hang out in, let me put it this way. Are you 21+? If so, it’s pretty damn awesome, depending on your tastes. How do I put this… Worcester is like the most authentic dive bar ever, spread out to be the size of a city. Let’s begin with Kelley Square, easily the central hub of youth nightlife in Worcester. The city is very spread out, forcing you often to have to drive from bar to bar, but no so in Kelley Square! And thank goodness too, because it’s gained a reputation as one of the most nonsense intersections ever built. I mean, just LOOK at it.

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There’s no joke, like five or six different roads all intersecting here, with no road signs as you enter dictating right of way as you enter. So basically, everyone just wings it. Here’s how one blogger described the experience: “When we drive through Kelley Square, we all know what the one rule is. Just fucking go. Don’t look both ways. Don’t stop at the stop signs. Just go.  Nothing worse than being stuck behind some idiot with Connecticut license plate,  sitting at the stop sign for eternity. No one is going to let you in bro. That’s when I usually just lay on the horn. Get the driver in front of me all frazzled making them start driving only to stop in the middle of the intersection where there is no stop sign, which pisses me off even worse.” Oh, did I mention that Worcester natives are crass as FUCK? To an outsider, Worcester natives have a strongly townie vibe, despite being from the second largest city in New England. This is not a cosmopolitan city. Politeness is not an option here. Everyone’s a lovable asshole.

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Directly in the center of this madness is quite possibly my favorite bar in Worcester – Hotel Vernon. The exterior is unassuming, and without the crowd outside (that usually spills into the square, right into traffic, causing even more madness), you would never even notice it’s there. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t! And man, had I been missing out.

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Look at this place. It just SCREAMS dive. And if you’re a Bostonian of the Allston variety, you may have just found your second home. Hipsters, crust punks and weird locals all mix well with the decaying speakeasy era look of the place. There’s a ripped up pool table in the back, and a Ms. Pac Man machine in the back that occasionally decides to work, and the joystick rests leaning left, but people play it all the same. There’s also a room in the back that’s designed to look like the interior of an old ship. Here’s how it looked in the 1940s.

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It does NOT look like this anymore. It’s beat up to all hell and barely recognizable, but it adds to the character. Bands play here all the time, and it’s quite stinky in there. To cap it off, the Vernon sports an entire set of beers on tap it sells for a DOLLAR a pint, in a clear plastic solo cup. There are plenty of other bars in Kelley Square worth checking out, but this is the crusty crown jewel, so I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. And this is all minutes from Union Station, so you’re welcome Boston.

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If the Vernon is where punks go to party, Ralph’s is where they go to play. This one is actually a ways away from… pretty much anything else, actually. It’s tucked way in at the back corner of a parking lot behind an old furniture and carpeting warehouse, so it’s easy to miss! Again, I was unaware of this one for far too long. From the outside, it just looks like an unassuming diner cart. Which it is. Until you go further inside… Diner food up front…

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Rad bar with wacky decorations inside, and $1 Gennessee, yes please thank you…

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And shows upstairs for an additional $10 cover.

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Yes it is, Ralph’s. Yes it is. This place blew me away on my first visit, and I’ve been back many times since. The style is very much Rosie the Riveter with gauges and piercings, like a punk/50s hybrid.

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Then you’ve got Wormtown Brewery, an increasingly popular bar and microbrew that is catching on a in a lot of Boston bars these days. And if you’re hungry, there’s always Coney Island, Worcester’s NYC-inspired hot dog joint. I’ve been many times before, and for the price, it’s absolutely worth it. If anything, it’s just a cool experience to try once.

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Lastly, we’ve got a bar that might sound familiar to those who frequent the Boston bar scene – Jillian’s! While Boston’s version of Jillian’s sports a bowling alley and much bigger TVs for sporting events, the Worcester location sports more pool tables by far, as well as a collection of air hockey tables, skee ball machines, and as far as I’m aware, the largest arcade in Worcester. And I grew up right down the street from this one! JDP_6743-1024x682

You know what else I grew up right down the street from?

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I did it, guys! I got to the point! Just in time to leave things off for this week. I know it was one hell of a journey to get here, but Worcester as my hometown will always have this very personal meaning to me, and I wanted to take all of you there to get a glimpse of  where I grew up. It’s against this backdrop that we’ll explore That’s Entertainment, the self-proclaimed “pop culture emporium” that sparked my imagination as a kid and motivated me to pursue a life in this. So stick around, because next time we’re going in!

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PS – Yes, our most famous monument is “Turtle Boy”, which depicts a boy, and a turtle, doing… I don’t know. Nobody knows. We love him. We hate him. Sometimes people dress him up in silly things. Welcome, Retroware readers, to Worcester.

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