It’s a story that’s far too familiar in Boston. Artists carve out space in an abandoned industrial building. They transform it from a stagnant eyesore into a thriving creative workspace that brings life and energy to the property and the neighborhood. Supportive landlords keep the rent low and the space accessible. But after a change in ownership and the financial pressure of development, the artists face the threat of displacement.
For the artists of the Humphreys Street Studios in Uphams Corner, this threat arose after the building’s longtime owners passed away last year and partial ownership transferred to their widows. The building went up for sale in 2019. The artists have secured a partner who has pledged to work with them and the city and is ready to purchase the building, help build an artist-run nonprofit, and build new affordable housing for the Uphams Corner neighborhood. But instead, the building is set to be sold to a developer.
Stories like this happen every year in Boston because the city has not developed a system that supports the acquisition and preservation of existing art spaces. This issue is too important to ignore because artists are not only an important part of our economy but also a fundamental element of the fabric of Boston. Artists build bridges, bolster the economy, and help us celebrate our culture and diversity.
This is the central question facing Boston: How can we get the jobs, economic benefits, and quality-of-life improvements that accompany development without the displacement and economic hardship that far too often shows up alongside the increase in property values?
I know it’s possible because we’ve done it before in Boston. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative acquired over half of the 1,300 vacant lots in our neighborhood and converted 36 acres into 225 homes, gardens, parks, playgrounds, and a greenhouse. This property became the largest urban community land trust in the country, and the arts were at the center of the neighborhood revitalization effort. The Fairmount Cultural Corridor project commissioned public art, hosted outdoor markets, and gave support to creative economy businesses around the Uphams Corner Fairmount Line train stop.
More recently, the city partnered with the community to create the Uphams Corner Arts and Innovation District. True community-led planning ensured that residents were in the driver’s seat when plans were developed, and the city worked with civic associations, local businesses, and local artists to reimagine what can be done to enhance Uphams Corner and bring new life to the historic Strand Theatre as a place to create art, as well as experience it. As a result, a new Boston Public Library branch is coming to the neighborhood, new affordable housing is being built, and affordable commercial space for local businesses is being developed.
The same needs to be done citywide. The mayor of Boston has a unique ability to convene all the stakeholders and make sure that developers are talking with local residents, artists, and creative institutions. Once all the parties are together, we need to ensure that the city has the ability to bring flexible and powerful tools to the table. Boston needs a new independent entity, the Boston Arts Development Agency, that is empowered to raise money, purchase property, and finance the acquisition and development of housing and commercial space.
By getting ahead of the market, the Boston Arts Development Agency would preserve our neighborhoods’ unique identities by acquiring property and working with the local communities interested in developing affordable artist housing and commercial spaces for arts and cultural businesses to reduce displacement.
Boston can guide growth in its neighborhoods that doesn’t leave anyone behind. We can invest in our local artistic talent to maintain the vibrancy of our communities. If we want Boston to remain a great place to live, work, and raise a family, we have to.
John Barros is a candidate for mayor of Boston. Previously, he served as chief of economic development for the City of Boston and as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.