Renowned photographer Nicholas Nixon captures the people of a community long neglected but now on a rising tide of renewal.
This article is featured in the Nov. 30 issue of the Magazine.
Tom Menino was nicknamed the Urban Mechanic, and one of the things he fixed was Roxbury’s Dudley Square. His funeral procession passed by 10 places in Boston with special meaning for him, and Dudley Square was one of them. He always believed in its potential, recalling its glory days when it was known as “Boston’s other Downtown.”
Only a couple of miles from the Financial District, Dudley Square was an important retail and transit hub for half a century. In the heart of the square was Ferdinand’s, once New England’s largest furniture retailer, boasting “over four acres of floor space” and a grand staircase that went directly to the elevated Orange Line train station. The train hugged the wedge-shaped Baroque Revival building so tightly as it screeched around the corner on Washington Street that passengers could window-shop from their seats.
This was before the era of “disinvestment,” a polite term for the blight and neglect that followed a series of disastrous urban renewal efforts in the 1960s and ’70s. By then, Dudley Square was largely an African-American neighborhood. “Any time you saw a person who was not black in the area, they were generally lost,” says Ayanna Hines, who has lived there for decades.
The neighborhood went into free fall. “It was not an area that people with money wanted to invest in,” says Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The Ferdinand Building was boarded up, others were gutted. The elevated train was removed. The infrastructure of the neighborhood was allowed to crumble, signs of widespread indifference and discrimination.
In time, though, fear and anger drove community members to organize and demand reinvestment, and now people with money and the City of Boston are doing just that. In 2008, Menino announced that rebuilding Dudley was one of his top priorities, maintaining that a revitalized Ferdinand Building would be the catalyst for Dudley’s redevelopment. Boston, he said, would invest in public buildings and expand city services.
Six years later, Dudley Square is humming with construction and confidence. A light-filled District B-2 police station has space for community members to meet about things that have nothing to do with crime. Hibernian Hall, once a venerable Irish social club and dance hall, has undergone a $7 million rehabilitation and is now a performance and exhibition venue. The Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library has a new, more inviting entryway, the first step in a larger planned renovation. And once again, the Ferdinand will be the centerpiece of Dudley Square. Renamed the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, it will house the new headquarters of Boston Public Schools, retail shops, a restaurant or two, and an incubator for startups, as well as public space in the lobby and on the roof.
Architecturally, the building is a showstopper, designed by Netherlands-based firm Mecanoo, in collaboration with Watertown-based Sasaki Associates. They retained the facade of the old Ferdinand and incorporated two other historic buildings next door, stitching them together with jazzy brickwork, staggered rooflines, and a train-like sense of movement.
The building will open in the next few months, but already people have strong opinions. Some love it. Some hate it. Some are worried that if their neighborhood gets too fancy, they’ll be priced right out of it. But one thing seems certain — the buzz has come back to Dudley Square.
“I like the old part and not the new part [of the revamped Ferdinand Building]. It’s modern architecture, and this area is historic. Definitely, they were going the modern way.”
“Overall, it’s good for the community. I own property in the Dudley Square area and it increases my property value. It’s what you work hard for. But what happens to people who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into building the community, like the people who cleaned houses to keep a roof over their heads, or the people who built the buildings and houses and can’t afford to stay? I hope there is some protection for elders of that time who can’t afford higher taxes or higher rent to stay in the community they built.”
“I’m thinking, who approved the design [of the new municipal building]? Between the two end caps you throw in the Jetsons? I don’t get it.”
“I see a lot of construction going on. It looks nice. What’s going on there? Honestly? I don’t know.”
“Some don’t really understand the impact of what it really means to get the building done. People who would never have given Dudley a look are now taking a second look at Dudley Square. They don’t get it yet, but in time they will. Look at it — it’s gorgeous. I am in awe of that building.”
“My real name is Roger Garvin. I’ve worked in Dudley Square 51 years. Roxbury is a gold mine. Everyone wants to come to Roxbury. I sit here and I wonder about who’s going to come.”
“When I grew up, Dudley was my square. There were probably four or five white families still there. And now they’re coming back. But you’ve got to give some consideration to the ones who have been there. Once the neighborhood becomes desirable, we shouldn’t be pushed aside. I hope my kids will still have a place in Roxbury. I have a son at West Point. I always thought he’d come back and have a piece of the city.”
“I love it, especially that my hands are in that building. I share a mother with my younger sister. She has a different dad and he was murdered at Dudley Station. I feel like I was able to help build [the area] back up.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever do a building that will transform a neighborhood as much.”
“There will probably be some displacement as far as gentrification is concerned, but there are benefits. Hopefully, businesses will hire people from the community.”
Nicholas Nixon is a Brookline-based photographer whose work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art, among many others. He is perhaps best known for his series “The Brown Sisters.” Linda Matchan is a Globe reporter. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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