As planned, the Greater Roxbury Arts and Cultural Center would be one of the largest investments in the neighborhood’s arts community in recent memory. The $35 million, 35,000-square-foot venture — targeted to open in 2025 — would provide a state-of-the-art proscenium theater, black box theater and ample community space for the area’s sizable arts scene.
Proponents called the plan an overdue investment in Roxbury’s deep pool of creative talent and a strategy to bring Roxbury back to its glory days ― when Bostonians flocked there as an arts destination and neighborhood residents accessed entertainment and leisure in a 10-minute walk.
“I see nothing but opportunity and excitement in Roxbury,” said Taneshia Nash Laird, inaugural president and chief executive of the center, which has been established as a nonprofit.
She added, though, that the center will need to strike a balancing act in a neighborhood that has been overcome by new development in recent years: How to add much-needed resources in Roxbury and the arts community without displacing the people and diversity that make the neighborhood unique.
“My focus is Roxbury first, always, because the talent is right here in the community,” Nash Laird said, adding, “We have a clear vision to transform the cultural landscape, bringing together this vibrant, diverse community that shapes the spirit of Boston.”
The center, which is still a ways from its $35 million fund-raising goal, is one piece of Nubian Square Ascends, a sweeping private development partnership aimed at revitalizing the heart of Roxbury. Along with the performance center, the Ascends initiative would add affordable homeownership units, commercial and lab space, indoor and outdoor gathering spaces, artists’ housing, and a 300-space parking garage along Washington Street.
The center would sit on what is known as the Blair Lot, a 2-acre parcel the city acquired in the 1980s through urban renewal. The property, located between Washington Street and Harrison Avenue, is currently a parking lot. The arts center would complement Black Market and Nubian Gallery, two culture-focused businesses in Nubian Square, and the Ascends development initiative would also join other existing businesses such as Nubian Markets, a grocery store and fast-casual spot focused on lifting up the area’s Black culinary entrepreneurs.
Richard Taylor, a developer behind Nubian Square Ascends, who also sits on the center’s board, said the center is one step toward making Nubian Square an all-in-one stop for shopping and entertainment.
“If these performance venues don’t exist, and they’re not part of an ecosystem that includes restaurants, apparel stores, and art, there’s no ecosystem for people to spend money before and after the performance,” Taylor said.
Kai Grant, who co-operates Black Market and sits on the arts center’s board, said such a venue would also help in shifting the national narrative that’s often peddled about Boston ― that it is a notoriously racist, whitewashed city that ignores the artistic contributions of creative giants like Elma Lewis, Donna Summer, and New Edition.
“Boston has extreme diversity within the African diaspora,” Grant said. With the proposed arts center, “we can have a place that really sees us, and understands that we are just as important as the mainstream culture.”
The center would also boost the limited stock of physical spaces devoted to Roxbury arts, which currently includes the National Center for Afro-American Artists and Nubian Gallery, which provides space for galleries, art creation, and community gatherings. Hibernian Hall, an Irish gathering spot-turned-venue space for political events, arts performances, and private banquets also sits here.
Haris Lefteri, Hibernian Hall’s artistic director, sees another local venue as an opportunity to collaborate and innovate to make it stand out from similar spaces.
“We’re open to doing anything together that will make Roxbury thrive,” Lefteri said.
The development of the center is still in its infancy. Nash Laird said fund-raising has been a challenge. Her strategy is two-pronged: philanthropic donations and “community development incentive dollars” that offer tax incentives for investing in low-income communities.
“What I’m asking them to do is not just buy into culture, there’s also the economic development aspect of this,” Nash Laird said, adding that the center expects to borrow loans to pay the balance of development costs.
The total costs and the grandeur of the proposal have some artists questioning whether the vision will include them, too.
Shane Faiteau, a music artist based in the neighborhood, said he and a handful of local creatives have hosted “Show and Tell Boston,” a free-flowing social platform where residents gather to discuss various topics. They record at a small studio in Roxbury and pay minimal rent. The space feels like home, he said.
He questions whether the new center will be equally inviting.
“When I walk into a space like that, I want to know, ‘Can I be comfortable to just be myself?’” Faiteau said. “When it’s like ‘don’t touch that, gotta pay this much money, gotta do this’ — that’s not conducive to creativity.”
As Faiteau sat with a reporter on the second floor of the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building for a recent interview, he pointed toward a crane in the distance towering over a construction site. He worries that adding more buildings will make it more expensive for artists to stay in Roxbury.
“[Artists] aren’t making six figures a year,” he said. “If you build that thing over there, then the price goes up even more in the area.”
Other artists, though, do see some perks. Valerie Stephens, a performing artist and educator with Boston roots, said that unlike arts programming, which may disappear when funding runs out, a physical center could signal that support for the arts is in the neighborhood to stay.
“When you commit to a building or land, it gives hope for longevity,” Stephens said.
Taylor said the center will be longstanding and inviting for all of the area’s artists.
“What we’re trying to do is create a facility so the local talent can enjoy the neighborhood,” he said.