Without a lot of fanfare, the heart of Roxbury is changing.
The latest sign of that transformation was a groundbreaking — one that heralds the move of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology from the South End to Roxbury.
As dignitaries and public officials gathered Tuesday for the symbolic event, developer Richard Taylor summed up its significance perfectly.
“This is the first step in the transformation of Dudley Square into Nubian Square,” he said.
What Taylor meant was that an area that has long gone neglected and shunned is finally realizing its potential.
Plans for developments are sprouting all over the neighborhood, giving rise to the hope that — for once — economic progress in Boston won’t bypass the heart of the Black community.
As for Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, the two-year technical college is taking over a longtime eyesore on Harrison Avenue. Once the site was home to a lumber supply company, but it’s been a big, vacant hulk for the past decade.
That will change by 2024. That’s when it will become a new college campus.
I’ve followed the progress of the former Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology for years. In a welcome and uncommon trajectory, the news about the school has gone from bad to worse to excellent.
The latest good news was a $12.5 million gift a few weeks ago from the Cummings Foundation, which will fund a lot of change at the school — the first being the change of its name to add its new donors.
But you could argue that an equally significant turning point came a couple of years ago, with the decision to sell its campus in the South End and move to Roxbury — closer to its student body, and its community.
“It puts us closer to the heart of the city of Boston and closer to where our students are from,” said Aisha Francis, the school’s president. “We’re more T accessible here. And we get to be part of the economic development of an area that is vital to the city.”
The school, which specializes in training students to enter a variety of trades, traces its history to Benjamin Franklin’s will — he left half of his estate to opening a school for vocational training in Boston.
Franklin wouldn’t recognize the school it has become. The student body is one of the most diverse of any college in the area, and unique as well for being largely working class. Simply put, moving from the South End to Roxbury will place the school where it belongs.
In his remarks Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker, a strong supporter of the institute, recalled his first impressions of the school and its students, which he visited shortly before taking office.
The campus itself was underwhelming, he said.
“But inside that building amazing things were happening for kids who were gathering amazing skills and capabilities that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives,” Baker said.
For my money, this school is a marker of a changing city. For the first time in a long time, an institution mostly dedicated to the education of Black and brown students has real support — not just flowery words, but dollars — behind it. For the first time, an institution led by a Black woman has attracted an eight-figure donation. And for the first time in far too long, we’re talking about Roxbury in terms of progress and growth.
Obviously, big question marks remain for the neighborhood. The site on Harrison Avenue is surrounded by other parcels where plans for development have gone unrealized for decades, including the suddenly coveted Parcel 3, across from the police headquarters, on Tremont Street. Some of the optimism people are feeling is speculative.
But Boston is a booming town. And in a place where every previous economic initiative has tended to bypass people of color, there’s a real opportunity now to rewrite the script.
This school now will be part of that change, training students who can help drive it.
“I’m sure this will be a beautiful building,” Baker said. " But it’s what’s going on inside the building that will be far more beautiful than the glory of the building itself.”