When Kai Grant and her husband, Chris Grant, started the Black Market retail incubator in Nubian Square in 2017, they wanted it to be a place where Black entrepreneurs could launch and grow small businesses in the heart of Roxbury. Their bigger goal was to help bridge the wealth gap between Black and white Bostonians.
Now, the couple is planning to acquire the two-story, 4,300-square-foot building at 2136 Washington St. that has housed the market, a move they say will cement their place in Roxbury and help their network of small businesses thrive.
“This is a signature moment for our community. Typically it doesn’t work like this — it’s almost the antithesis,” Grant said, adding that she felt fortunate to “have the positioning and opportunity to remain and bring further impact on the creative economy.”
The couple is working to purchase the building in partnership with Madison Park, a 55-year-old community development corporation that has helped build affordable housing in the city and restore Hibernian Hall. Madison Park will provide technical assistance, helping to usher the Grants through the purchase.
The move is a new one for Madison Park, said its chief executive, Leslie Reid, one she hopes it will be able to replicate with other Black-owned businesses.
“The goal is for Kai and Chris to be owners,” Reid said, drawing a parallel between the organization’s efforts to support home ownership in the city’s Black communities, which has been widely acknowledged as a way to increase wealth. Helping Black business owners purchase buildings, she said, “prevents displacement, promotes wealth-building, and creates a path to self-determination and control, especially in Nubian Square, which is the beating heart of the Black community.”
The Grants, like so many other small-business owners, have struggled to keep their footing during the pandemic. They already faced foot traffic and security challenges due to their proximity to so-called Methadone Mile, the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis, Grant said. The schedule of their pop-up markets, art, and event series was upended by COVID-19 restrictions, jeopardizing their finances.
“We’ve been paying over 50 percent of our income in our rent, and it’s just not sustainable,” Grant said. She had approached her landlord in the spring last year about acquiring the building, but those talks fizzled. “In the middle of a global pandemic we’ve been trying to understand what our next move was.”
Grant reached out to Boston’s chief of economic development, John Barros, who made the connection with Madison Park. Reid said Madison Park will work “quickly and aggressively” to help the Grants establish the financial wherewithal to acquire the building.
“This allows Kai and Chris the breathing room to finish their building plan and the time to pursue resources beyond traditional debt,” she said. “They can get a mortgage but also seek resources from the city or foundations or other donors. And it all contributes to a long-term repositioning of the property that’s done sustainably and builds equity.”
Barros said the city is committed to helping businesses that have been hard-hit by the pandemic, particularly those owned by people of color, which have disproportionately felt the economic fallout.
“The COVID pandemic made it clear to a lot of businesses that if you don’t own and you’re renting, you have less control over how you can find ways to negotiate the cost of your space,” he said, adding that he hopes the opportunity provided by the Madison Park partnership can be replicated for other small businesses in the square. “The goal is how do we increase local and Black ownership, and how can the people who live in Roxbury have more stake in the improvement of Roxbury?”
The Grants’ acquisition of the building is still being finalized, but should it go through, it will be another promising piece in Nubian Square’s redevelopment, said Richard Taylor, a developer who has partnered with the Grants on plans for the Nubian Ascends project, which will be built on the Blair Lot parcel in the square. The 329,000-square-foot project would bring market-rate office space, a marketplace, and a cultural hall with artists’ work spaces to the neighborhood. It was approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency in December.
Other nearby projects that include new housing, retail space, and event venues will continue to transform the community, Taylor said.
“The ownership by this new entity will assure that the wonderful programs, including Black Joy and others that Black Market has been hosting, will remain a viable part of the art, cultural, and small business activity in the square,” he said.
For Reid, helping the Grants is an extension of Madison Park’s mission to build “a community that is owned and developed by its residents,” she said. “How privileged are we to facilitate this opportunity for Black Market and for the next generation of development in our community?”