Worcester’s Kelley Square: Terrifying. Woefully confusing. Peak Massachusetts.
WORCESTER — “This is totally illegal.”
Cackling, Enrique Tirado banged a terrifying U-turn and slid into a parking space in front of Kelley Square Pizza, his old Jeep skating just in front of the bumpers of the cars streaming off Interstate 290.
Over the course of delivering pizzas here for about five years, Tirado has made hundreds of trips through what might be the most confusing and dangerous intersection in Massachusetts. He has survived, despite two totaled cars, by following the cardinal rule of Kelley Square, one echoed by commuters, driving instructors, and really anyone who’s braved the intersection more than once: Never stop moving.
This is also the ethos of the shark.
But soon the web of roadways that form Kelley Square will be doing a little moving of their own. The intersection is set to be redesigned in advance of a new ballpark opening for whatever we’re calling the post-move PawSox. The overhaul will likely mark the end of Kelley Square’s run as the Platonic ideal of Boston driving (which, yes, happens to be in Worcester).
It will be better. It could scarcely be worse. But it won’t be the same. The state ought to put up a commemorative plaque of some sort.
Everything about Kelley Square is perfect in its own special way, and sort of peak Massachusetts. There’s a Dunks, of course, connected to a gas station. There’s a cellphone store, obviously, and a packie, Kelley Square Liquors, that appears to do a brisk nip business.
Traversing the square on foot is difficult enough sober, but the area is also surrounded by bars, just to up the degree of difficulty. On the southern corner, where cars zoom on and off 290, there’s a chain-link gate with a prominent BEWARE OF DOG sign. The gate stands open. The dog could be anywhere. This is a bit like those “Danger Falling Rock” signs all over America’s interstates: There’s not a hell of a lot I can do about the problem, and I’d almost prefer not to know.
Fundamentally, though, Kelley Square in its current configuration is about cars. And it’s about a very particular style of driving we have perfected around here.
“Driving in general, you treat other people the way you want to be treated. Kelley Square, it’s just the opposite,” said Yves Pelletier, owner of Best Driving School, just a few blocks up Madison Street from Kelley Square. “They’ve got wolves in every car.”
Instead of rewarding defensive drivers, Kelley Square punishes them. Stop for a second and everybody approaching from one of six other directions knows they’ve found their sucker. The right of way belongs to whoever has the most faith in their Lord and their insurance company.
“I have full coverage,” said Tirado, 56, who wears two big earrings and is so Puerto Rican that he keeps a bottle of Goya Adobo seasoning in his glove compartment. Unwittingly, he seemed to be doing a very credible impression of my father.
Tirado has developed some unusual survival strategies for driving in Kelley Square: He blows kisses to other drivers as they curse him in the notorious, almost lawless convergence of seven streets. He’s gotten out of the car, ready to throw hands more than once (note: don’t do this). He’s thinking about buying an air horn, like a long haul trucker (don’t do this either).
Pelletier takes students through Kelley Square every day, he said. “It’s a great place to teach people how to drive,” Pelletier said. “When you learn how to drive, you’re a sheep among wolves. Then you become one. The way you get through Kelley Square is, you never stop, you keep moving.”
Pelletier thinks the actual danger of Kelley Square is overblown, and there’s some evidence that he’s right.
“It is one of the highest crash locations in the state and it has been for a long time,” said Barry Lorion, highway district 3 director at MassDOT. But because the intersection is so difficult to navigate, people drive through very slowly. The resulting crashes mostly involve only property damage. “We don’t see a lot of injury accidents or fatalities,” Lorion said.
But Lorion is confident the state can do better than “infrequently deadly.”
The plans for the new intersection, which has been described as a “traffic peanut,” involve an elongated “hybrid” rotary with an island in the center and two lanes all around, keeping drivers in a more familiar stay-to-the-right alignment.
It has been fairly popular in public meetings. Construction is slated to begin this fall and cost an estimated $14 million.
Lorion said the new design will be intuitive enough that longtime Kelley Square motorists will understand it quickly. It won’t be light controlled, because every time engineers tried to include stoplights. it resulted in worse congestion.
And, critically, new drivers won’t be suddenly confronted with the yawning maw of hell.
“Given some of the proposed development in the area, the intersection will be used by a lot of out-of-towners — many possibly for the first time,” Lorion said.
That sounds like a disaster, I said.
“We agree,” Lorion said.
At the same time, the redesign will make the area more walkable, and provide space for bicycles. That’s always important but especially so for Worcester, which is suddenly . . . kind of cool?
Excellent new restaurants have joined the great Armsby Abbey, downtown. There’s a shop across the street that sells both craft beer and craft doughnuts, which . . . I guess I have to move to Worcester now.
But Kelley Square will always have a special place in some hearts around here.
“I’ve always gone through Kelley Square,” said Aimee Barnes of Oxford, smoking a cigarette outside the tax preparation office where she works.
“It’s the best intersection to learn in, honestly,” she said. “You just have to keep your eyes focused on the road in all directions.”
And, of course, never stop moving.