Posted by David Price /  May 30, 2013

On May 18 of this year, over 1,000 people travelled to an abandoned industrial site in Roxbury’s Dudley Square on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to attend a day-long mural festival sponsored by   The event was part of Nuestra Comunidad’s strategy to redevelop an 8 acre vacant bus yard into a creative village, aimed at drawing new tenants, homeowners, shoppers and others to the housing and stores to be built there, and opening opportunities for local small businesses including artists.  Seen from a longer-term perspective, the mural festival was the latest success of a well-established cultural economic development strategy crafted and implemented by local development organizations, cultural agencies, local artists and the City of Boston’s planning agency.



Photo above: Dance off at May 18th Mural Fest; Photo by Jeremy Alliger

There’s no question that artists are playing a key role in Roxbury’s economic revitalization.   It’s easy to find other examples of artists playing a leading role in community development in Roxbury.

  • This past February, local artists played a prominent role in a community health visioning session held at the Whittier Street Health Center sponsored by the Roxbury Alliance for Community Health, the Boston Alliance for Community Health and the Boston Public Health Commission.  The participants included numerous local artists who creatively helped draws out the dreams and goals of  over 100 participants.  Perhaps the most striking contribution was by writer Myia X, who took a set of one-word vision goals created by participants and at the workshop wrap-up presented a poem composed only of those words.
  • The Mission 180 Community Contract released earlier this year features an action plan for Arts, Activism and Community Growth, with action steps under way to promote more public placemaking in Dudley Square and Grove Hall, to provide technical assistance for local artists and other arts businesses and to expand opportunities for local artists to earn from their art.
  • There is regular arts activities programming in Dudley Square’s galleries, performance spaces and outdoor public spaces, sponsored by organizations such as Discover Roxbury, ACT Roxbury, Gallery Mus!kvanhu and associations such as the Roxbury Cultural Network and Common Thread.

A creative economy is clearly emerging in Roxbury, led in part by cultural economic development.

But with this growing success comes a concern among many Roxbury residents – is this upsurge in arts programming an opportunity to improve local families’ economic status, or is it a harbinger of gentrification that will displace our families?  I thought it would be helpful to draw on the experience of arts-based placemaking and economic development around the country in answering this question.  The answer is encouraging – we have a chance in Roxbury to mitigate pressures for displacement because of the underlying strategy behind the current arts-based development underway.

One important conclusion is that the idea that artists moving into the neighborhood is a sure sign of gentrification turns out to be false.  Studies of arts-focused economic development strategies around the country seem to have found only one case of arts-focused gentrification, SoHo in Manhattan.   A study by Sharon Zukin of the SoHo experience identifies as key factors the absence of an affordable housing strategy and the relatively passive role of artists in shaping development, compared to the careful planning of real-estate and banking interests, and local government, to market the bohemian lifestyle  in order to revitalize old warehouses and attract upper-income people to SoHo.  Community development analyst Anne Gadwa Nicodemus has concluded that the unique pressures created by the general Manhattan real estate market made gentrification in SoHo happen.


Photo above: Rufus Faulk Sr.’s mural in tribute to iconic Roxbury arts leader Elma Lewis; Photo by Mark Matel 

Another important conclusion of the research is that artists are not the key to gentrification, despite the notoriety of the SoHo experience.  Over the past four decades, hundreds of neighborhoods have experienced gentrification without artists’ involvement, simply though marketing of urban neighborhoods by developers and local government to young professionals and suburban retirees.

A final conclusion from the research is that artists can play a role in long-term community redevelopment without displacement, if that is part of a plan to create and maintain affordable rental homes and homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents.    One example of successful arts-focused development without displacement is in Philadelphia, where researchers have tracked the positive outcomes from concentrated cultural economic development carried by out nonprofit arts organizations, commercial cultural firms, and resident artists.   These Philadelphia neighborhoods show little displacement of residents of color and show increased voting rates, population growth, higher home values and reduced poverty.

Roxbury has the potential to implement placemaking strategies using arts programming and avoiding displacement, just as Philadelphia neighborhoods have done.  One reason for this conclusion is that community-based organizations such as ACT Roxbury and Discover Roxbury a decade ago put into place proactive development strategies designed to prevent or minimize displacement.  These include the following key steps identified by a Building Creative Economies conference held in 2002:

  • Identify and conserve cultural traditions
  • Conduct asset-based community planning
  • Engage artists in planning
  • Build coalitions
  • Plan appropriate scale to fit local lifestyles
  • Build local leadership and community capacity
  • Integrate the arts into community economic development plans
  • Stimulate cultural heritage tourism

So artists coming to Roxbury are not the first sign of the Apocalypse, thanks to well-established cultural economic development planning and the affordable housing strategies promoted by community development corporations and the City of Boston.  To avoid displacement, it is critical that residents continue to advocate for these plans and strategies as the Roxbury housing market heats up in coming years.   Please contact Nuestra Comunidad if you would like to be part of this effort.


Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Artists and Gentrification: Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities 4/11/2103

Building Creative Economies: The Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainable Development, monograph published by Institute for Community Development and the Arts March 2003