Painter Bethany Noël doesn’t think there’s any hope for a thriving artist community throughout the Greater Boston area unless those artists are independently wealthy. “None. Period.”
Her expression matches the deflated monotone of her voice as we talk in her studio at 57 Central St. across from the Somerville Museum. She’s been there more than six years, longer even than any place she’s lived. But at the end of the month, she’s packing up. The owners of the building are selling, and while it’s not listed yet, they hope to have it off their hands by the winter and they won’t be renewing her lease when it’s up Aug. 31.
The tenants had long been worried about a potential sale because of the MBTA Green Line extension. When the pandemic heightened those fears, Noël approached Paul Morse, one of the building’s four current owners, asking for as much notice as possible if they did decide to sell. He said if anything, he would change the artists’ leases from a collective three-year lease to one year. Then in June, they got a notice that their leases were ending and the building was being prepared for private sale.
"We do feel badly about it but there’s only so much we can do. We can’t subsidize the artists, and we’re trying to retire."Paul Morse
“Our situation changed and we can no longer maintain the building, especially in the winter,” Morse says. A note in the bathroom next to Noël’s studio reminds the artists to keep the water running a bit when the weather is cold to keep the pipes from freezing. “We do feel badly about it but there’s only so much we can do. We can’t subsidize the artists, and we’re trying to retire.”
Morse and his wife Karen bought the building with David Benson and Nancy Dutton in 1983. Both craftsmen, Morse and Benson had studio space together in Fort Point in the ‘70s. When artists started getting priced out of that neighborhood, the two decided to look for a building in Somerville where many artists were escaping rising prices in Cambridge and Boston. The basement of the building houses Morse Constructions, Paul and Karen’s former company which they sold two years ago, and the top three floors are artist studios. Some of the artists preparing to move out now have been there from the beginning.
“We tried to keep it affordable, and we had a great relationship with our tenants,” says Morse. He and his wife would love for it to remain artist studios, but he admits it’s unlikely.
“The building needs to be maintained and artists don’t have the money for that,” he says.
“If we got a fair price from someone who’d keep it artist studios, we would sell to them, even if it was a little under another offer,” adds Karen Morse, who says she’s reached out to community organizations to see what can be done but hasn’t heard any viable options yet.
For the artists, it’s not for lack of trying. Despite her pessimism, Noël’s been leading the charge to find a solution — whether that’s buying a building herself or with a group, or getting organizational or city support — but she doesn’t know how she could ever afford it. “Property developers are the only ones with the resources and connections. I can’t compete.”
She doesn’t know any local artist or organization that could make an offer that would even come close to what a developer could bid. So her next option is buying farther outside Boston.
"...wherever I go, I’m just a canary in the coalmine of gentrification."Bethany Noël
“I’ve been told that every 45 minutes from Boston turns back the clock 10 years in terms of real estate costs,” she says. “But wherever I go, I’m just a canary in the coalmine of gentrification.” When the artists arrive, they displace members of the community that were already there. “Then when the area is tolerable enough for a Starbucks, we get priced out too.”
Cost isn’t their only obstacle. Even if they did gather the funds to purchase the building, they would need approval from the city. The building was rezoned as a neighborhood residential building in 2019. Under the new zoning laws, there is still the possibility that someone could petition to open an arts space in a building where one already existed. After inquiring via email about that possibility for 57 Central St., WBUR received the following response: “The Planning & Zoning Division Staff cannot speculate about what may or may not be possible on a particular lot.”
Meanwhile, the artists at Central Street Studios are running out of time and options, and they aren’t alone. The Greater Boston area has lost a number of performance, rehearsal and studio spaces in the past few years, and it’s accelerated in the pandemic. The EMF building and Green Street Studios in Cambridge have not been replaced since their closings in 2018 and 2020 respectively, and the artists at Humphrey Street Studios in Dorchester may be the next casualty for the local arts community. Because of zoning laws and the high cost of living and working in Greater Boston, it’s unlikely that similar spaces will replace them.
And that’s why Noël has lost hope for a thriving, sustainable arts scene.
“It’s hard to build a community with [the real estate market being so] competitive,” says Noël. “It’s extremely difficult if you don’t have the space and resources...so we go into our silos and look out for ourselves.”