Councilor, professor work to create arts corridor through Roxbury
City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson and professor Lily Song stared happily at yet another large brick wall on Dudley Street, probably the fourth or fifth of the day that’s seized their attention.
“What a great canvas,” Fernandes Anderson said of the bland side wall gazing back at them.
It’s a thought process they’re applying to a whole 3-mile stretch of roads in the heart of Boston, one that snakes from the to-be-designated “Jazz Square” in the South End through Roxbury and to Grove Hall — a path they’re calling “the ARTery” that’s meant to beautify long-disinvested-in stretches of heavily minority neighborhoods with an eye on improving life for locals and bringing in new business.
The corridor is a multipart idea that will need city buy-in, though Fernandes Anderson said the city departments she’s been in contact with have been more than receptive.
Fernandes Anderson, a freshman district councilor who represents the area, and Song, a Northeastern professor, partnered together last year on the initiative that the pair expect to gain steam in the coming weeks and transform the area in the next year or two.
They envision murals on many of those empty walls, eye-catching facades drawing people to storefronts, public art adorning the sidewalks and parks, and vacant lots turned into gathering places, all under a unified branding for an arts corridor.
“There’s so many different kinds of talent here and this would be a way to bring it together,” Song said.
Both said they want local artists and that the art should represent the mix of cultures of the people who live in the area.
“It’s the diaspora come to life,” said Fernandes Anderson, who at a moment’s notice will prompt a listener with “Imagine …” and wax poetic on locals and outsiders alike enjoying the food, arts and outdoor life in her vision of the area.
“It’s a real true melting pot” she said. “That’s what Roxbury is.”
Both women say there’s an inherent balancing act to be struck here. They want to help local businesses, both by improving foot traffic in the area and by drawing people from around the city and from outside. But while they want it to appeal to tourists and outsiders, it’s not supposed to be just catering to them.
The changes should, in the pair’s estimation, be aimed at making this a safer, more appealing place to walk around for residents and help the existing local businesses remain in place, as Song said, before they’re priced out.
Plenty of parts of town have been subsumed by the gentrifying swanky restaurant chains and expensive condos, and they want to stop Roxbury, long one of the core neighborhoods for Black Bostonians — both from generational families and recent immigrants alike — from meeting such a fate.
“It’s a community revitalization plan,” Song said. “It’s an anti-displacement strategy, basically, for local businesses.”
The route would start at the corner of Columbus and Massachusetts avenues in the South End — the future Jazz Square — before snaking down Northampton, Shawmut, Melnea Cass and Washington to Roxbury’s Nubian Square. From there, it hangs left on Dudley before zipping down Blue Hill Avenue to Grove Hall.
The council approved a resolution in May naming the ARTery. Now the rubber hits the road.
On a sunny day this week, Fernandes Anderson, Song and Song’s research assistants, Sushant Kumar and Beyer Bullard, started around Nubian Square and trotted down Dudley Street, stopping in at various local bodegas, restaurants and other storefronts on a stretch of the corridor.
Visits largely went the same when the owner was there. Fernandes Anderson would give a spiel in either English or Spanish about how they were looking to beautify the area, and if the owner would be interested in the city replacing their unappealing outside metal security gate with one that was inside the windows and, hopefully, a bit more attractive.
It’s a straightforward step one in outreach to to the shopkeepers — who didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and, after a few prudently probing questions about whether the new grate would really be free, happily acquiesced.
“Wonderful — absolutely wonderful,” Mariama Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean immigrant running Jalloh’s African Market, a corner store, said as she cleaned. She added to Fernandes Anderson, “That’s some good work that you guys are doing.”