In the 1970s, artists in search of affordable, wide-open studios set out to fill the abandoned warehouses that once were home to the wool and leather workers of Boston’s Fort Point Channel. The newcomers infused the city with hundreds of painters, sculptors, and musicians, a vast magnitude of talent.
And then they were gone. Antiquated zoning laws prevented their ability to live in the studios in which they worked, unlike in other cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. By the time Boston would catch on —1988 — it would be too late. By then, the neighborhood that artists had made great was too expensive for them.
Many simply left the area. One group formed Brickbottom Artists Association, now one of the oldest living and working artist communities in the country, on the site of the old A&P bakery in Somerville.
It should surprise no one that Boston is an expensive place for artists to live and work. It always has been. But what if we had a second chance to redefine a place for artists to gather, grow, and thrive? We do. It’s called Newmarket, an area best described as the neighborhood next to the South Bay shopping center. A sort of no-mans-land between Dorchester, Roxbury, South Boston, and the South End, it is home to a collection of meatpacking and food processing wholesalers including the Chinese Spaghetti Factory, Lun Fat Produce, J. Carter Veal, and Katsiroubas Bros. Its direct access to I-93 makes it the perfect location for commerce, fed day and night by a steady stream of large commercial truck deliveries.
But there’s another side of Newmarket that has been organically taking shape since the mid-’80s. First came the artisans — the cabinetmakers and metal workers who added to the industrial activities already occurring within the area. Then came the painters, potters, and sculptors, drawn by the same empty warehouses and giant windows of light that attracted artists to Fort Point years earlier — people like Bill Thompson, whose vivid shocks of artwork fill galleries and museums throughout the world.
Young artists tell of taking over decaying industrial spaces, filled with birds and rodents, and scrubbing them clean with ammonia and bleach while suspended from massive steel girders. Armed with caulking guns, they brought back spaces that had been caked with filth for decades. Today, they are home to people like 25-year-old musician Paul Beri of Paris, who recently graduated from Berklee College of Music. Without the support of a broader artist community, he would likely have returned to France, or moved elsewhere, in search of a place to begin his career. Instead, he found a growing community and decided to stay and help build something larger.
As it happens, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is in the midst of rezoning Newmarket, with phase one already complete. At the helm is a veteran of urban reclamation. Randi Lathrop was an activist before she was a planner, fighting the BRA in the ’80s to make her South End neighborhood a place where people wanted to be. She subsequently helped to revitalize the Fenway and Downtown Crossing areas, as an official at the agency she once battled.
Lathrop sees Newmarket as a cohesive neighborhood, not an industrial park. The first phase of her plan has invited new uses that will make the area more open and inviting, such as allowing for breweries, distilleries, and retail uses. The next phase should fully incorporate the artists as residents.
For its part, the Newmarket Business Association views new mixed-use development with an understandably cautious eye. It fears that residential and retail tenants could lead to angry neighbors who might seek to limit the flow of trucks that are the lifeblood of its members’ businesses, many of which had been pushed out of the Haymarket and Faneuil Hall areas 40 years ago. But they have friends in the artists who themselves worry about neighbors complaining of noises from music studios, the pounding of metals, or the odors of paints. There is plenty of room for the arts to live alongside industry.
In the ’80s, that place was Fort Point; today it’s Newmarket. But unlike then, today’s city planners have tools that weren’t available, such as artist live/work space zoning. They should utilize them. But they shouldn’t stop there. The city government should use linkage funds to help subsidize the housing.
Supporting places for artists to live and work helps Boston retain creative talent and gives new life to many empty and dilapidated warehouses. Today, very few artists can afford to make Boston their home. But now in a part of town long overlooked and unimagined, promise and potential awaits.
We have another chance to get it right.
Mike Ross is a former Boston city councilor.