"DOES BOSTON BELIEVE in equity?" That's the provocative question posed by Daniel Callahan, a member of the Cross-Cultural Collective, one of four finalists in a competition to program 13,000 square feet of insanely valuable cultural space on the Fan Pier in the Seaport. The group proposes to build "a hub for black creatives" and an art gallery "rooted in the African diaspora" on the first two floors of 50 Liberty, a sleek luxury condominium that fairly epitomizes the exclusivity of the neighborhood.
If this group's proposal seems incongruous for one of the most segregated districts in the city, consider Medicine Wheel Productions, another finalist. This gritty group promotes the healing power of art by working with drug abusers, former prisoners, court-involved young people, victims of gun violence, and AIDS patients. The organization, located on K Street, worked to include gay and lesbian marchers in the St. Patrick's Day parade. "We are the true face of South Boston," said founder Michael Dowling.
At a public hearing last week that was more like a rally, presenters emphasized their work with communities of color and their plans to "close the cultural equity gap," as Dowling put it. They liberally quoted from the recent Boston Globe Spotlight Team report on race, which found that the Seaport is the richest, and probably the whitest, ZIP code in the city. Julie Burros, Boston's arts and culture chief, mostly kept order as supporters cheered proposals to inject life — and color — into a neighborhood many Bostonians see as soulless and corporate. It was a striking display of frustration and hope: that communities long shut out of the city's development boom might at last get a piece of the action, while enriching the emerging district with a new spirit of diversity and inclusion.
The local writers' organization Grub Street offered its proposal, in partnership with Mass Poetry and the Harvard Book Store, to create a Narrative Arts Center in the space. They cited their work with Boston public schoolchildren, hip-hop Shakespeare performances, and writing classes offered in Spanish and Haitian Creole. Grub Street has secured a $2 million challenge grant from the Calderwood Foundation to help build out the space into a bookstore/café/performance stage and creative writing classrooms. (I have worked with or served on boards with several different bidders, their partners, or their supporters.)
The fourth finalist, the Boston Center for the Arts, proposes to build a maker space and workshop for multi-disciplinary craftspeople and short-term studios for a revolving group of artists. The center, with an impressive group of sponsors and partners, is well established and might be the expected choice. But it also seems clear that Mayor Martin Walsh and the Fallon Company, developers of 50 Liberty, want to make a statement about opening doors. Or, as Burros put it, creating "a vibrant, popular, year-round public destination for a diverse demographic." The prize for the winning group is enormous — rent of just $1, plus taxes, maintenance, utilities, and insurance costs — and the city must walk a fine line, choosing a bidder that offers inclusion while having a long enough track record to succeed. A decision is expected by the fall.
The Globe's Spotlight report found that of 660 mortgages issued for the Seaport's main census tracts in the past decade, only three have gone to black buyers. That is a testament to the dizzying prices in the district (50 Liberty's units sell for well over $1,000 a square foot) but also to a serious lack of urban planning foresight as the city and developers rushed to take advantage of a hot real estate market. "Space: it matters," said Tiffany Cogell, a member of the Cross-Cultural Collective. "Being on the water's edge matters. It signals the values of the city."
It is a heavy lift to expect one cultural center to overturn a neighborhood's character once it starts to gel. But that's the surprising power of art.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.