Surrounded by concrete and the cacophony of automobiles, Ngoc-Tran Vu crouched last week in front of a utility box in downtown’s Financial District. The goal was lending some tranquillity to the space, she said, by painting a single sprig of basil.
Vu calls her painting “A Closer Look at Pho,” a reference to the delicious Vietnamese noodle soup. “I wanted to highlight the healthy herbs in it and add some green to the space and [perform] kind of a deconstruction of this popular soup,” said Vu, a Dorchester resident who emigrated from Vietnam as a child.
Meanwhile, at the intersection of Winter and Tremont streets, Robyn Thompson-Duong worked through frequent disruptions to fill her table with Ethiopian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and classic New England fare.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said the Savin Hill resident of painting plein-air in the city.
As for the diversity of her scene, she said, “I’m Black, my husband is Asian. It’s just a reflection of how I am and not a political statement."
These are just two examples of the 11 utility boxes brimming with fresh food and fresh paint, courtesy of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District’s “Tasteful Boston” project. The initiative turns ugly utility boxes into canvases that celebrate the area’s history and culture through food.
“The idea of having something on the utility boxes was to convey a very, very strong attribute of this 34-block area, which is our restaurant industry,” said Rosemarie Sansone, president and CEO of Downtown Boston BID. "A plate of food is not just a plate of food. There’s absolutely no question that all the aspects of food signify and illustrate the cultural diversity, especially of this particular area of Boston.”
The zone, which encompasses the Financial District, Downtown Crossing, the Ladder District, the Theater District, and parts of Chinatown, boasted 150 restaurants before the coronavirus pandemic forced Boston into lockdown.
About one-third of those food businesses are now closed, according to Sansone.
So the project carries a message for the business owners and workers who remain: “It’s a way to support the restaurant and food industry by saying, ‘We think that what you do is important,’” Sansone said.
Also featured is a box on the Washington Mall, painted by April Jakubec, that captures the joy of that first bite into a cannoli. Brighton muralist Eli Portman takes visitors to a Jewish Deli at Federal and Franklin streets. Artists Jasmine Lee, Ellie MacQueen, and Carolyn Depot populate Washington Street with their memories of city food. And at Downtown Crossing along Summer Street, Jamaica native and Hyde Park resident Khyle Park recalls the city’s iconic foods such as Fenway Franks and Boston Bowl pizza.
“The goal is to make something cheery and give people something nice to look at,” Thompson-Duong said of the project.
"It’s so important for community engagement to help heal and bring people together,” said Vu, who works as an artist and organizer. “It’s a hot mess out there and I’m for anything that can give people hope.”
Kevin G. Andrade tweets @KevinGAndrade.