Leonard Lee, the executive director of the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury, is sounding a bit fed up.
He’s relaying a story about a Back Bay organization that was debating whether to hold a morning event at the beautifully restored Colonial-era home, which, after a five-year, $3.6 million renovation is now a pristine museum that shows what Colonial life was like in Roxbury. It’s a beautiful place situated in Roxbury Heritage State Park with sweeping views of the city.
Then he heard the dreaded question.
“They wanted to know if it was safe to have their breakfast event here,” he says somewhat incredulously. “There is this perception that Roxbury is some kind of war zone. It’s because people haven’t spent time here. They don’t know the history we have.”
Enter Collin Knight. The Roxbury native has launched a company called Live Like a Local Tours which brings tourists to places of interest in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. While most of the city’s tour companies put their focus on downtown Boston — think Freedom Trail, North End food tours, and Irish pub crawls — Knight wants to show visitors what the rest of the city has to offer.
“I realized that there isn’t a tour that brings people into these neighborhoods,” he said at a beer tasting stop at the Dorchester Brewing Company. “Let’s walk through Nubian Square. Let’s walk through Hyde Square. Let’s walk through Uphams Corner and just feel what’s here. People come to visit and they stay downtown the whole time, and it’s because they don’t know what you can find in Boston. It’s my passion, my mission to get people up here.”
On a frigid day with bone-chilling winds, Knight led me through Dorchester, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain on stops highlighting food, beer, and spirits at local establishments while sharing the history of the area, from its Revolutionary War roots to the 1967 Roxbury riots that changed the face of the neighborhood. He often talks about the layers of history that can be found as one group came in and replaced another. He relays it all with buoyant energy. Knight was an actor, and on the tour he played the role of native son, neighborhood advocate, and genial beer lover.
“There’s a ton of little tidbits and history, and I think that’s fun to pair with what we’re doing. We’re not just going and hanging out like a regular beer tour,” he said. “There’s some of that. But there’s also a look at how people really live.”
He points out that these are places that hotel concierges don’t necessarily tell guests to visit. Tourists looking for Black history in Boston are often sent to the Black Heritage Trail in Beacon Hill, but not into Roxbury or Dorchester. I tested Knight’s theory and played the part of tourist at several hotels in the city. When I asked about finding Black history, I was often referred to Beacon Hill. When I asked about going into Roxbury and Dorchester I was met with blank or concerned looks, and few practical suggestions.
Of course not all history on Knight’s Live Like a Local Tour is Black. Roxbury, which is currently 53 percent Black, 28 percent Latino, and 12 percent white, began as a Puritan settlement and there were few, if any, Blacks living there during its first 300 years. Knight, who started the company last year, is still figuring out his target demographic.
“It would be easy for me to say that this is a tour for people of color and just let it be that. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one type of tour.” he said. “I do want people of color to experience it. When they think of Boston, they don’t think of good things, they think busing, they think it’s all white people. Just because you watch “The Town” and you watch “The Departed” doesn’t mean that’s the only part of Boston. When people of color come to Boston they want to know: ‘Where are all the people who look like me?’.”
‘Just because you watch “The Town” and you watch “The Departed” doesn’t mean that’s the only part of Boston.’
Former State Representative Byron Rushing, who is president of the Roxbury Historical Society and often gives historical tours of the city himself, was a bit more blunt when explaining the lack of tourism in Roxbury.
“I mean, we’re a fundamentally racist city,” he said. “It would never dawn on city officials to sit down and spend some economic development money here. It’s not just Roxbury, although I think Roxbury’s the most extreme case, because I think Roxbury has so much history.”
Rushing, who is leading a tour of former Green Book sites in Boston on March 21 with community organizer and minister June Cooper, said he is happy to know that Knight is now bringing much-needed tourism into the area.
Kelley Chun, who specializes in public relations and marketing with a focus on multicultural and cause-related projects, said bringing tourism to Roxbury is something she’s worked on for decades.
“We started with the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau 20 years ago," she said. “We did a campaign called Welcome to the Neighborhood where we tried to encourage visitors to go beyond Mass. Ave. and Columbus, beyond Darryl’s [Bar and Kitchen] because there’s a whole other city out there. So, trying to promote some of the cultural assets that reside in Roxbury is something I’m happy to see.”
Chun thinks part of the reason why Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain aren’t on the radar of tourists coming into Boston is “willful ignorance” when it comes to promoting those areas.
All of which leaves Knight with an underserved market for tourists, along with an uphill climb to change perceptions of the area.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say that things don’t happen,” he said. “This is a neighborhood. This is a city. Things do happen, but things are changing a lot. I want to show my neighborhood as a local sees it. The Freedom Trail and that stuff for me is cool, but it’s not this.”
Knight’s tours touch on politics, but his focus is on history, food, and, of course, libations. His tour includes some walking, but is primarily hop-on, hop-off. In addition to strolling around neighborhoods, we also stopped at Turtle Swamp Brewery and the Ethiopian Cafe in Jamaica Plain. Back in Roxbury, we ended the day sipping cocktails at Bully Boy Distillers. He explained to me that he wants to build a successful tour company and help community businesses, but beyond it all, he seemed to have a larger mission in mind.
“I want to change minds,” he said with a smile. “It’s not all about race. Sometimes it’s about love and history.”