A Case Study on Creative Placemaking without Displacement

UEP students and faculty have been working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) since 1990. In recent years, UEP and DSNI piloted a Co-Research/Co-Education (CORE) partnership and have been working on a joint action research project funded by a Community Conversations grant from the Corporation for National Community Service.

Through this grant, UEP senior lecturer Penn Loh and second year MA student Molly Kaviar have been working with DSNI to examine the effectiveness of resident engagement through creative placemaking. Below is an excerpt from their article, “Arts for Community Control“, published in Shelterforce on their research findings.

DSNI and its community partners are collaborating with the city of Boston to revitalize the Upham’s Corner commercial district into an “arts and innovation” district. Their vision is development without displacement, a tall order given that arts development has often led to gentrification. And Boston has already been experiencing the pressures of a hot real estate market over the last decade.

What makes this redevelopment process different from most is that a democratically-controlled community-based organization owns one of the redevelopment sites and as a result, is a partner in guiding the overall process. DSNI is a co-facilitator with the city of Boston of the Upham’s Corner Implementation (UCI) process. Like many neighborhood groups, DSNI was formed in the mid-1980s to establish community control over development. But DSNI stands apart from most groups with its community land trust (known as Dudley Neighbors Inc.), which now owns over 30 acres on which they’ve developed hundreds of units of permanently affordable housing, as well as parks, urban farms, and a greenhouse.

Upham’s Corner is a commercial district on the northeastern side of DSNI’s territory with a surrounding population of 30,000. It has been described as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, and houses the historic Strand Theater, an arts and culture anchor for the area. After the city designated Upham’s Corner as the first “Enhanced Neighborhood Pilot” in its comprehensive plan Imagine Boston 2030 (published in 2017), it made a commitment to build a new public library branch (at the cost of $18 million) and revitalize the Strand, which it already owned. The city bought another former bank building and included a municipal parking lot as part of the project. To assemble even more land for this multi-site redevelopment, the city worked with DSNI’s land trust, providing it a $1.7 million loan, to acquire the former Citizens Bank building.

This ambitious undertaking, led by an unprecedented collaboration between the city and a community group, was not formed overnight. Rather it builds on almost four decades of organizing and planning by DSNI and its community partners and deep relationships with the city of Boston.

Integrating Arts into City Planning

While the UCI process has been delayed due to COVID-19, it was kicked off in Fall 2017 with discussions among the city, DSNI, and other partners about the timeline for drafting requests for proposals (RFPs) and recruiting developers. A key moment for DSNI in the UCI process was the community meeting at the Strand Theater in November 2017.

DSNI took the lead in planning the Strand meeting and brought in Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) to help design it. Several hundred people came to the event, which included an interactive timeline of the Strand Theater, performances by local artists, and open dialogue about hopes and fears community members held about the process.

“If we’re talking about arts and innovation, we have to have 1) food, 2) translation, and we have to have art. We have to have something that is going to be engaging.”

Ramona Lisa Alexander, DSNI Director of Programs

DSNI and DS4SI enlisted Red Sage Stories Playback Theater, a partner they were already working with in the FCC, to help synthesize the discussions “so it’s not just people reading off of a piece of paper,” according to Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture Kara Elliot-Ortega. The Red Sage actors observed the meeting, had one-on-one conversations with participants, and at the meeting’s conclusion performed a 10-minute skit dramatizing what they heard. According to DSNI’s Kieta, “When they performed, you could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet and everybody was listening. All the city staff were there. We must’ve had at least 300 people there.”

Red Sage’s four actors, all people of color, performed skits centered around people’s fears and hopes. For DS4SI’s Lori Lobenstine, “The ones that I remember the most are the ones that I felt like were the bravest for them to tell because they were stories of people already feeling pushed out of Upham’s and feeling like this was part of a large scale gentrification [project]. Participants were telling stories about people that they knew, or their own experiences of being pushed out and experiencing racism.” Elliot-Ortega described a scene where the actor “folded up into a ball” while another actor covered him, as he said, “Is this for me? Can I stay here?” For Elliot-Ortega, it “was showing real fear and vulnerability. And it was really, really serious.”

For community participants, the Strand meeting signaled that the UCI was not going to be the same as other city processes. For the city, it showed that DSNI and its partners could deliver in terms of getting people out and engaging them in deeper and more creative ways. And it set the tone for the next year and a half of the UCI process, which included nine major community meetings featuring various creative and interactive engagements.

Conventional approaches to development can often lead to the seeming inevitability of gentrification, despite community input. Arts-based and creative-class theories of development have often been criticized as strategies for displacing lower-income residents to pave the way for more wealthy ones. But in Upham’s Corner in Boston, the usual story has been disrupted by community ownership of land, collaborative control over the development process itself, and the integration of arts-based planning and engagement methods. Whatever the next steps may bring, the decisions will be made collectively between the city, DSNI, and community stakeholders, and together they will navigate the uncertainties and choices ahead.