November 27, 2017

Former Shack's site to become Worcester cultural institute

Photo | The Grolier
Wellesley College professor Ifeanyi Menkiti at his Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square, where he learned cultural anchors are important to a neighborhood's development.

The $1.25-million sale in January of 405 Main St., the building housing Shack's Clothes for nearly 90 years, is a firm reminder of downtown Worcester's emerging role as a cultural hub. While long-time residents recall Main Street as a retail destination, at present, the city seeks to capitalize on its most valuable 21st century asset – creativity.

The new owner, Ifeanyi Menkiti, knows better than anyone it is culture, not retail, that makes a city vibrant and liveable. Menkiti plans to launch the Emengini Institute for Comparative Studies as a means for activating 405 Main St. as well as his nearby property at 6 Chatham St.

"Like many others, I want Worcester to walk with a new swagger. The underlying strength is all here, and the city does not have to play second fiddle to any other place," Menkiti said. "But it is also important that the city pay attention to its cultural capital. You cannot have a robust and livable city without educational and cultural institutions."

A lifetime of cultural appreciation

Menkiti was born in Onitsha, Nigeria, where he attended a Catholic elementary school and later a Catholic boarding school. He came to the U.S. to attend Pomona College from which he received his bachelor's degree in 1964. After Pomona, he completed graduate work at Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Menkiti joined the faculty of Wellesley College in 1973. After 41 years of teaching, he retired in 2014.

He is the owner/proprietor of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square, the nation's oldest all-poetry book shop, made famous over the years by its association with poets such as T.S. Eliot, e.e. Cummings, and Elizabeth Bishop, who incidentally, hailed from Worcester.

Photo | Brad Kane
The 405 Main St. building in Worcester became vacant after Shack's Clothes closed in September.

"The reason I got involved in the Grolier was because of my long-term interest in poetry. At Pomona, I studied literature and philosophy and wrote a thesis on the poetry of Ezra Pound," Menkiti said.

The Grolier will celebrate its 90th anniversary this year.

Menkiti's proposal for the Emengini Institute for Comparative Studies is enriched by the fact both of his properties are deeply embedded in Worcester's history, though he was not at first familiar with their significance. But Menkiti has learned from experience that a city's vibrancy does not depend on its structures.

"My own vision for Worcester is that the city be able to flourish with the arts and culture as part of its current revitalization. Cities are about people, first and foremost, and I understand infrastructure and buildings as being there to serve their reasonable needs of people," he said.

Menkiti served on the Board of the Cambridge Arts Council during the launch the Cambridge River Festival, which has persisted for more than 30 years. He saw the festival as a transformative melding of cultures.

"The city comes alive, with vendors and street jugglers, townsfolk and university folks, businesses and cultural institutions mixing it up with each other," he said.

Now, he sees this same glimmer of potential emerging in the city of Worcester.

An institute of belonging

The word "Emengini" is an Igbo word from the Onitsha area of Nigeria.

"It essentially says something like this, 'You my colleagues, my associates, my fellow countrymen, what have I done wrong that you exclude me from the collective discourse, the undertaking, the ceremonies? What exactly is the point of your divisions?'" he said.

He views a healthy society as one in which everybody belongs, and likewise, is viewed as belonging. This truth will be the foundation for the Emengini Institute for Comparative Studies.

Menkiti is well aware of Worcester's reputation for maintaining relatively high property taxes, but he is also confident that these problems will be addressed as the city gathers momentum towards its ambitious goals.

The Menkiti family name has developed a national reputation for success of late. Menkiti's son, Bo Menkiti, is the CEO of both the Menkiti Group and Keller Williams Capital Properties, two Washington D.C. companies noted for strengthening neighborhoods.

Contrary to his son, Dr. Menkiti's interest in real estate is driven entirely by his passion for Emengini.

"If one is going to have conferences, seminars, and poetry readings, one needs a physical space to do these things, and be, to the extent possible, self-sufficient in doing them," he said.

Left to his own devices, Menkiti admits he might dream of his academic and literary programs, while leaving logistical elements unattended.

"My son Bo … has been trying to help me out here in Worcester regarding the practical issues," he said. "Time will tell what he decides to do regarding the possibility of his own projects entering the city. I would encourage him, but it is his decision to make."

The Menkitis' reputation for cultural innovation and urban business savvy will no doubt contribute to the belief Worcester's downtown must once again become a destination rather than a mere waypoint. As the city's cultural capital mounts, so too will its overall prosperity.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had a chart about Downtown Worcester properties, which incorrectly said the Denholm building at 484 Main Street was largely vacant. While the property does have two vacancies on its first floor, the 150,000-square-foot building has only 11,000 square feet of available space.


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