Tired of applying their talents downtown, creatives and entrepreneurs set up shop on Blue Hill Ave
About a year before WeWork met its inevitable doom and became a laughingstock of the investment world, Jeffrey Similien tried to lure the co-working giant to Mattapan Square. Unlike some other corners of the Hub’s Black community, the area has remained consistently bustling through bright and dark times alike, with plenty of local shops and restaurants. Still, opportunities for people looking to open new businesses were nil, and so Similien, a commercial realtor, figured that one of the enormous vacant spaces in the square would be attractive to a business looking to rent desks to young, potentially trendsetting entrepreneurs.
“You would think that,” Similien says on a tour of Mattapan Square. In addition to WeWork, he contacted several of their competitors.
“From some of them I didn’t even get a call back.”
Similien is a commercial broker, and has built the Mattapen-based Boston Trust Realty Group Commercial (BTRGC) into a significant neighborhood force in the four years since getting his broker license. He wasn’t looking for a handout, just a partner, so when the WeWorks of the world ignored him, his team made things work out another way, as they often do. The building he deemed prime for startup and creative activity, 1601 Blue Hill Ave, had sat mostly vacant for years, with the owner happy to collect rent on the cell towers atop the roof while leaving several-thousand square feet of office space empty.
BTRGC was created “with the goal of providing small business owners who lack the technical know-how the support and knowledge they need to attain or lease a commercial property space.” A lot of brokers feature wording like that on their websites, but Similien has walked the walk. At 1601, a former movie theater with hallways that stretch back a block opening onto enormous industrial floors, last year Similien finally convinced the landlord to let him parse the space; but with COVID raging at the time and people largely stuck in their homes, his team needed to tweak the typical coworking model with its individual memberships. Instead, they handpicked friends and friends of friends and colleagues from the neighboring community who were bringing their skills elsewhere.
“I was working out of my trunk, carrying a [massage] table up and down the steps, and [Similien] peeped that and was like, Just work smarter, not harder,” says Yoga Mike, a longtime friend of Similien’s who owns 33 Degree Yoga & Bodywork on the second floor of 1601. “People tell me all the time, I thought I’d have to go to Newton or Wellesley for this type of [body] work. There’s lots of talented people here, they’re just hurtin’ for an opportunity.”
Mike continues, “Jeff said, Look, this is a main square that’s going under renovation. At first I was shook, most places were closing, but that’s what Jeff’s all about, having the right mindset. He knows me—I have skills, but my mindset is stuck in the hood, limited by what the hood will allow. He knows that we have to supersede that, and the only way to do that is to have the right mindset. Now I see the growth that’s happening when I look out my window—the cranes, the foot traffic. He’s a visionary, that’s why I roll with him.”
Down the hall, I meet Numero of Nushine Studios, a one-stop multimedia lab for everything from podcast recording to having birthday pic sessions. Before this, the Nushine team was hopping from studio to studio, but Numero says he “didn’t feel like, for the level I was at, I was able to get my skills on point.” They were also based in Dedham for a short time, and were mostly working with commercial clients on ads and marketing. Since moving back over the Boston border to Mattapan, Nushine has been able to retain some of those higher-paying suburban customers, all while offering a full-service studio to locals.
“Being in a place like Mattapan, where there are people who look like me, they’re not really getting the resources at all,” Numero says. “[Nushine] is a place where people feel like they can invest in their story, and they can invest in themselves. It’s a community, and we’re all looking out for each other.”
In the opposite wing of the building, Similien opens a door to reveal a sleek common area that serves as a gateway to several micro offices. One belongs to Seasoned by the Sun, a local skincare CBD line, another to Don Firearms, which provides gun certification and safety courses. Behind a door with a nameplate that says Kings Amongst Kings, I meet Daniel Villanueva, an artist and photographer.
“Before this, I had everything in my backpack, I was nomadic,” Villanueva says. “Now I have an office. It’s about being able to differentiate, and separate work from home, and having a focus spot. … I tell people that once a month, Black and brown people meet up. And then I tell them where, that we’re right in the middle of Mattapan Square, and they’re not expecting it.”
Beside him, collaborator Sean Webster explains, “This is a space that we can work collaboratively. I’m here because I want to learn about audio-visual stuff. It’s that component where I can come and learn from the people around me.”
Stan Smooth runs Cloud 9aint, a cannabis-friendly community art school that holds events in the large room adjacent to us. “Jeff got us in here, which is great,” Smooth says. “I was a commission-based artist, and that’s hella draining for me. This is something mission-based, not commission-based.”
“It’s about getting it done,” Similien says. “Some people just need a little more help. It’s about being patient and understanding that people may not have certain resources. I haven’t really asked the city for help, or anything like that. It’s just about planning and execution and having the knowledge of how to do certain things.”
For all he’s done to build up the square, Similien is humble, shy even. So I head across the street from the Mattapan T station to speak with additional business owners he recently helped. Other areas could use a similar grassroots lift, and it would be nice to see how he works his magic. As everybody tells it, though, he’s simply in the right place at the right time, and he’s not making a secret about that either. Similien is currently looking for someone to open a coffee shop in a first-floor space on Cummins Highway, just outside the square. Locals who are interested ought to hit him up.
“I grew up five minutes down the street, I still live there,” says Melissa Dell-Lamey, who owns the new Caribbean fusion restaurant Mellow Vibez across from the bus station. “I needed to do something for my community and for my people to make sure we have a presence in this area. Forever I thought Mattapan Square was just a commuter area, with people passing through, but what I wanted to bring to life here was a place where you could sit down and have a meal, feel at home, and relax.”
“Mattapan as a whole is a very vibrant community—you have West Indian cultures, Caribbean cultures, there’s no shortage of places to get [takeout and fast] food,” says Webster of Kings Amongst Kings. “But it’s also a place that needs a little bit of revitalization. Obviously there could be more commerce here, there could be more businesses, and this is like an incubator for that. It’s an opportunity to build your capacity and get some bread so that eventually, as things happen, when more storefronts come, we can be in those spaces.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.