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In Boston, a tale of two arts districts

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The SoWa Open Market is a happening place on Sundays. In a parking lot on Harrison Avenue, rows of white tents take the place of cars. People browse the stalls with their dogs and children, sampling wares from local businesses: jewelry, hot sauce, veggie burgers. A DJ spins disco from a tent by the beer booth. Past the beer and down a cobblestone path, a sign welcomes visitors into the broad brick building where artists keep their studios.

The market, which happens every Sunday from May to October, is one of several recurring events designed to attract a crowd to the SoWa art and design district. SoWa — which stands for “South of Washington” — comprises just a few blocks of the South End near Route 93. The designation is relatively new, dreamed up by the area’s primary developer, GTI Properties. The company's founder, Mario Nicosia, saw possibility in the neglected neighborhood, where artists already made use of the cheaply-priced old buildings, and decided to transform it into a cultural destination.

The Sunday open market at the SoWa Art and Design District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Sunday open market at the SoWa Art and Design District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

About 17 years ago, Debby Krim, a painter, photographer and jeweler, became one of the first artists to rent studio space in one of GTI’s Harrison Avenue properties. “When I came in, they were just starting to develop the lower floor of 450 Harrison Ave.,” Krim says.

Back then, it was easy to snag a studio in SoWa, Krim says. “It's rare that there's even a space available, because we've had a waitlist for so many years.”

Over two decades, Krim watched the run-down neighborhood transform with an influx of artists, designers and art dealers, who now occupy more than 100 studios and galleries at 450 and 460 Harrison Ave. The pair of buildings form the hub of cultural activity in SoWa, with artists occupying three floors of one building and galleries spread across the lower floors of both buildings.

“It's the coolest frickin’ place in Boston,” Krim says with a smile.

An "artist studios open" sign at the SoWa Art and Design District in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An "artist studios open" sign at the SoWa Art and Design District in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But the community is more fraught for some. "It feels lonely,” says LaiSun Keane, owner of LaiSun Keane Gallery. SoWa's artists and gallerists are predominantly white, and Keane, who is Chinese Malaysian, feels her difference acutely. Her gallery focuses on art by women and people of color, a project she says people sometimes find alienating.

“When I try to tell people what I do, they don't get it,” she says. “I can sometimes come across to them as aggressive and confronting. And they don't want to hear all that.”

LaiSun Keane at the LaiSun Keane gallery in the SoWa Art and Design District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
LaiSun Keane at the LaiSun Keane Gallery in the SoWa Art and Design District. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

SoWa's studios and galleries are generally inaccessible to anyone without financial means. Though GTI sets its prices a bit below market rate, the average cost of studio space, $25 per square foot per year, is not cheap. (By that math, a 500 square foot space costs $1,041.50 per month; the studios range from 400 to 1,400 square feet in size.) Krim estimates the rent has doubled since she started leasing her first studio. She is also in the minority as a full-time artist with a decades-long career. Artists in the SoWa Artists Guild, which Krim helps run, tend to be older, with the financial cushion provided by a more conventional career or marriage — though Krim thinks that may be changing. “We do have a lot of new, younger people that have come in,” she says. “I mean, we’re talking about probably less than a dozen, but it’s still nice to see that, because for a while we didn’t see that at all.”

Still, the demographics of the artists remain fairly homogenous. “There’s not many people of color here,” says Nick Peterson-Davis, who runs the SoWa Artists Guild with Krim. “It’s probably 10%.”

LaiSun Keane works with artists Kate Holcomb Hale and Cicely Carew preparing their exhibition at LaiSun Keane gallery. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
LaiSun Keane works with artists Kate Holcomb Hale and Cicely Carew preparing their exhibition at LaiSun Keane Gallery. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Even Keane counts herself among the privileged. The gallery does not earn her a living wage, and she depends on her husband's income for financial stability. “I’m not doing this for money,” she explains. “I'm doing this because I felt that I have a point of view. I have something to say. And I want to also provide a platform for people like me who have something to say.”

Keane thinks that, in order to make the community more diverse, GTI would have to offer subsidies and programs designed to bring in artists and gallerists from underrepresented backgrounds. “They could even start a residency for people of color,” she says, “so that they can take up a space here.”

Development comes to Nubian Square

Diversity is rarely a priority for developers, whose primary goal is to make their real estate investments pay off. In the case of SoWa, the artists benefited, too, from increased residential density and foot traffic brought by development. But the possibility of displacement always looms. Artists are often the harbingers of gentrification, drawn to run-down industrial areas by the cheap rent and lax oversight. They help make the neighborhood trendy, which attracts developers, which raises property values, which raises rents, until the original artists and residents are priced out.

Yet the allure of the arts to improve a neighborhood remains strong. In recent years, both city and state governments have sought to harness cultural activity to uplift low-income neighborhoods of color in Boston. These plans seek to replicate the prosperity of aggressively developed districts like SoWa and the Seaport without reproducing their harms, usually by enlisting the participation of local communities in the planning process. A popular tagline is “development without displacement” — more an expression of aspiration, perhaps, than a tried-and-true recipe for success.

Black Market on Washington Street in Nubian Square. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Black Market on Washington Street in Nubian Square. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The section of Roxbury encompassing Nubian Square (formerly known as Dudley Square) was designated a state cultural district by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2017. The cultural district program, according to the city of Boston’s website, exists to “attract artists and cultural enterprise” to a city, “encourage business and job development” and “enhance property values,” among other things.

In the case of Nubian Square, the designation on its own did little to improve the neighborhood. A crisis was declared in 2019 after a number of Nubian Square businesses closed, and a community meeting was called.

“What we discovered is that community members wanted to take blighted lots and transform them,” says Kai Grant, a member of the Roxbury Cultural District board of directors and co-owner of the Nubian Square event space Black Market.

Kai Grant at Black Market. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Kai Grant at Black Market. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

For Grant, the development of empty lots could remedy a problem that long plagued the neighborhood where she grew up. “I'm tired of having to go to Copley or the Seaport or Cambridge or JP in order to get a glass of wine and see a show,” Grant says. “I shouldn’t have to take my money to South Boston and the Seaport to do that. And it's caused hundreds of millions of dollars in leakage that could stay right here and build small businesses and build ability beyond the nonprofit industrial complex.

Now she has a chance to make Nubian Square a destination. A team led by Grant and developer Richard Taylor, who was involved in the development of Boston's World Trade Center and the Big Dig, recently won a bid to develop a large city-owned parcel in Nubian Square that abuts Grant’s event space on Washington Street. The project, called Nubian Square Ascends, puts the arts at its center.

The planned Nubian Square Ascends and 2147 Washington Street developments will cover the Blair parking lot on the left, the open area in the center, and the car park on the far side of Washington Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The planned Nubian Square Ascends and 2147 Washington St. developments will cover the Blair parking lot on the left, the open area in the center, and the car park on the far side of Washington Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“Art and culture drives foot traffic,” says Grant. “It drives excitement. It transforms a community that was once blighted into an open-air art gallery.”

The centerpiece of the multi-building project is a cultural hall, with rehearsal space a 300-seat performance venue that supports music, theater and film. Grant wants the hall to be a nexus for Black culture in Boston, a place that local organizations and artists can call home.

The proposed project comes with a whopping $164 million price tag and has yet to be fully financed. (The project recently received a $1.5 million grant from the state.) It aims to capitalize on demand for lab space with a five-story life sciences building. Then there is a parking garage, an “artists’ way” where local artisans can sell their wares, an “art lab” with production equipment available for artists’ use, and 15 artist condo units, 10 of which will be affordable — though exactly how affordable is yet to be determined. Grant wants to cater to a range of income levels.

Renderings of Nubian Square Ascends. (Courtesy Nubian Square Ascends)
Renderings of Nubian Square Ascends. (Courtesy Nubian Square Ascends)

“We want to be able to provide some opportunities for folks that have discretionary income to be able to support and sustain the businesses, because you need both,” she explains.

Grant believes “development without displacement” is possible, as long as a neighborhood’s existing residents are given opportunities to benefit.

You do that by being able to create opportunities for people to be able to earn a living wage,” Grant says. “You do that by giving people an opportunity to be able to invest in a project. You do that by having a robust community benefits plan that offers nonprofits and different agencies opportunities to build capacity.”

Grant knows that large development projects like Nubian Square Ascends provoke anxiety in a community that has seen the detrimental effects of gentrification firsthand. But, she says, “we can't live in fear of change. Change is inevitable at this point. There's a reason why there's so much blight in Roxbury. And I refuse to be beholden to keeping things in blight so that I can feel better.

Fears and broken promises

Aziza Robinson-Goodnight is one of the skeptics. The daughter of painter Paul Goodnight, she grew up in the South End’s Piano Craft Guild (popularly known as the Piano Factory), a building that for a long time housed affordable live/work apartments and a community of Black artists of all disciplines. Robinson-Goodnight remembers it as an idyllic place, with high ceilings and lots of light. Children roamed freely among studios where dancers, ceramicists, builders, painters and photographers lived and worked. “There was space for everyone,” she says. “It was just utopia.”

Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, at the Piano Factory on Tremont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, at the Piano Factory on Tremont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the 1990s, the artists became embroiled in a legal dispute with the owner of the Piano Factory, Simeon Bruner, who sought to convert the subsidized studios into market-rate apartments. The artists successfully fought their eviction, but over time they were gradually replaced by tenants paying market rate.

Now, the building is home to luxury apartments. Robinson-Goodnight believes Bruner, who bought the building using an affordable housing loan, only ever saw artists as an opportunity to cash in. "I can see a mile away when somebody is going to use the artists for their advantage,” she says. (Bruner could not be reached for comment.)

The Piano Factory on Tremont Street, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Piano Factory on Tremont Street, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

To Robinson-Goodnight, Nubian Square Ascends looks like more of the same.

“The project is going to raise the rents and the property values,” she says. “It's a wonderful project. I'm not going to say it's not a wonderful project. But I just see the Piano Factory again, regardless of the face of the person that's presenting the project.”

It’s a fear that developers know well.

“There have been promises that have been made and broken. And there's been harm done to the neighborhood. There's been trauma,” says Greg Minott, principal of DREAM Development, a co-developer on another large, mixed-use project in Nubian Square.

The parking lot at 2147 Washington Street where the new 6-story mixed-use passive house building will be developed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The parking lot at 2147 Washington St., where the new six-story mixed-use passive house building will be developed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Minott believes his project meets the criteria for a development that will not displace local residents. The six-story building at 2147 Washington St. includes 62 affordable rental units for artists, 12 mixed-income condos, an artist maker space and commercial retail space.

But the lynchpin of the project is a new, 2,500 square-foot facility for the Haley House Bakery Café, a beloved Boston nonprofit that began as a South End soup kitchen in 1966. The new building will allow Haley House to expand its operations in Nubian Square, where it employs people transitioning out of prison and runs a youth culinary training program. The nonprofit will acquire the space for free in exchange for donating some of its land to the project. In 15 years, Haley House will have the opportunity to take over the entire development. The project recently secured financing and is set to be completed in 2024.

Both 2147 Washington St. and Nubian Square Ascends underwent a community planning process supervised by the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee. But when it comes to the neighborhood's fears about displacement, “I don't think we can ignore it or just kind of dismiss it or move past it,” Minott says. Developers, he says, need to live up to their promises. “Hold us accountable. We are working for the community.”

This segment aired on June 22, 2022.

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Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.

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