A united front to rescue Dudley meets at Black Market, will convene again
There weren’t enough chairs to hold the nearly 130 community leaders, activists, business owners, and residents who gathered at the emergency roundtable inside Black Market in Roxbury earlier this month to address concerns over the recent closing of several businesses in and around Dudley Square.
Designed for people to discuss economic problems and identify possible solutions for commercial improvement, the roundtable was a community-driven affair. Food donations of chicken and rice rolled in from local restaurant Suya Joint, while all attendees were given a chance to introduce themselves to the room.
“Let’s respect the person who holds the microphone,” said Kai Grant, co-owner of Black Market and co-moderator of the event. “This is a safe space where opinions are heard and respected.”
Grant and her husband Christopher founded Black Market in 2016 with the idea that they could foster the economic change they want to see in their backyard. Like the effort with her business, for Grant, the roundtable was a chance to take on a leadership role in the economic future of the neighborhood.
“Us pivoting into more of an accelerator and looking at ways that we can transform these businesses, and also still give the community a space that really does drive economic development and is an economic multiplier—those are the things that we want to do,” Grant said.
To start, attendees shared concerns about the economic vitality of Dudley Square. As a follow-up, people split into breakout sessions, where smaller groups voiced ideas for community-oriented economic improvement.
“[The meeting focused on] how to empower the ideas of people who are here vs looking to other people,” Destiny Polk said. Polk is the founder of Radical Black Girl, a creative activist platform for artists of color.
“People were coming up with their creative ideas like how to spread good news about what’s happening in the area vs just perpetuating stereotypes,” Polk said. ”One of the main things we’re still thinking about is community education on language. Also around development and planning, and educating people on what’s really possible.”
The Boston city councilor for the district, Kim Janey, echoed her enthusiasm about the solution-oriented goals of the meeting. “This is so important because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Janey said.
In the meantime, over the past year alone, Dudley has lost at least six commercial businesses including Tasty Burger, Ashley Stewart, Payless Shoes, and New York Fashion. Haley House, a popular meet-up for residents, organizers, and artists, also closed, albeit temporarily.
Reginald Brown, a lifelong resident of Roxbury, attended the roundtable to hear what people had to say. Like a lot of others in the room, he noted the significant negative changes along the Washington Street corridor over the past several decades.
“The city’s just not doing what they need to do with Roxbury like they’re doing with the rest of the parts of Boston,” Brown said. “If you are part of the haves, then you’re good. If you’re part of the have-nots, [it’s] see you later. That’s how I see South Boston versus Roxbury.”
Sizewise, Dudley Square is the second largest commercial district in Boston. Yet residents say businesses that should be thriving there are disappearing despite some municipal efforts to reverse that course.
As the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh recently noted in a cheery press release about the area, in 2017, the city invested 115 million into the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, home to Boston Public Schools headquarters. In his State of the City address last month, Walsh detailed efforts to reduce vacancies around Dudley with the creation of a jazz cafe inside the Bolling.
“We’re working to create opportunity in every neighborhood and every community in Boston, and the JazzUrbane Cafe will serve as a place for families and friends to gather for community conversations, civic meetings, entertainment and so much more,” his office announced in January. “I’m proud to … continue creating spaces and opportunities for all.”
Such pledges aside, foot traffic remains low, which is a problem for businesses around Dudley. More than 30,000 people pass through the square on public transit every day, but getting them to remain in the neighborhood and spend money remains an issue for community members.
“The Bolling Building did not float all boats,” Grant said at the roundtable. “It was not the catalyst for development inside Dudley Square the way it was supposed to be.”
She continued: “There are ways to do development deals where the community really benefits. And literally putting together some type of plan of action is our goal.”
The discussion over Dudley’s economic future will move forward with two additional upcoming roundtable meetings. The second of three roundtables takes place on March 2 at Black Market and will act as a continuation of the first meeting. At a third meeting on April 6, organizers will design solutions and ideas that can be sent to stakeholders, as well as politicians like Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker.
Grant hopes that despite the economic pressure, community members can rally together through roundtable discussions and in time make serious progress.
“All of these things are going on, there’s a crisis,” Grant said. “But in the middle of the crisis is a glimmer of hope.
“Like, can we have some glimmer? Please. That meeting was a glimmer of hope.”