Dudley Square Main Streets then & now
Stanley reflects on 20 years aiding local businesses
As Dudley Square Main Streets Revitalization Corporation prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in a gala next week, Executive Director Joyce Stanley spoke with the Banner on two decades of promoting and supporting the Roxbury commercial district.
Stanley worked for the Model Cities program in the 1970s, then in Boston’s Department of Public Facilities, before leading Dudley Square Main Streets. Among Boston Main Streets executive directors, she is the only one who has held her post from its inception.
“I’m the catalyst to get people to start talking, to help developers get money, to market the area, to work with the small businesses,” she said about her role. As executive director, she is the sole staff member and oversees a volunteer board comprising business owners, residents, property owners, youth representatives and other advisers.
Over the years, the Main Streets tackled critical issues to help revitalize the area, with new phase bringing its own menu of concerns.
At the start
In 1992, two years before Dudley Square’s Main Streets district was established, the area was suffering. Upper floors lay vacant in larger buildings and banks redlined the area, refusing to extend loans to redevelop or repair the sites. The elevated Orange Line had been dismantled, and buses picked up passengers on Warren and Washington Streets, eliminating parking spaces. The area around the Haley House was distressed: A homeless camp had taken root and prostitution and drug-use were rife, Stanley said.
At the time, a group of local merchants began working to bring back the old Merchants’ Association and revitalize the commercial area.
Their efforts would lead to the creation of the nonprofit Dudley Square Main Streets, which brought together government officials with local residents and business owners to collaborate on area improvements.
In those days, utility companies did not take the district seriously and would not provide critical upgrades, Stanley said. Tropical Foods, which opened in Roxbury in the ’70s, installed its own generator to prevent food loss when freezers shut off during rolling blackouts, she recalled. When Stanley and others presented detailed improvement requests to Boston Edison, a representative dismissed them.
“He said, ‘You want a Cadillac system for a Buick neighborhood. We can’t do that,’” Stanley recounted to the Banner.
Then there were the voices that doubted the ability of local landlords to develop, advising them to sell to franchises. Many —utility companies, developers and some City Hall employees included — treated development plans as a joke, until the coalition secured millions in a federal Economic Empowerment Zone grant, she said. They directed the funding toward three large rehabilitation projects, including the old Roxbury Boys Club and Paladio Hall.
The fight to get attention and assistance for Dudley also included a focus on the troubled block around Haley House.
“Elected officials said, if you can develop this block, you can develop Dudley,” Stanley told the Banner. “That was our first target, to encourage people to do those buildings.”
That effort ultimately would take ten years, but it drew support, including from officials such as U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, who shared advice garnered from his experience as Somerville mayor working to revitalize Davis Square.
Many banks also were leery of lending to develop buildings with only small businesses as tenants, without a franchise or government office representing a more reliable revenue stream. Stanley and others appealed to the local Social Security offices to stay in the area and act as an anchor tenant.
Since those days, public and private developers have created or redeveloped 32 large anchor buildings in Dudley and about 194 housing unit, not including redevelopment of Orchard Gardens, bringing 800 new jobs, Stanley said. Utilities were upgraded, although the fight has continued — only recently was cable access extended in the area, she said. Eventually the Silver Line was introduced, helping bridge some of the access gap left in the wake of the elevated Orange Line’s loss.
In the early days, collaborators met each week in the backroom of Bank of America. Stanley credited much of the Dudley Square Main Street District’s success to its ability to bring together people from across sectors around a shared vision of what the district needed and could become.
“We started with partnerships. Partnerships are what make things happen,” Stanley said. “We got people who couldn’t stand each other to work together because they had a vision for the district.”
They were able to pull together not only local businesses and residents but also government officials and support from Bank of America. Among financial contributors were The Boston Foundation and Heinz Foundation.
Now, however goals of profit, not local improvement, increasingly are driving activity in the area, she said.
“That is different from now. Now we have people who want to make money off what we’ve done,” she said.
Another struggle is that that visions have fragmented, with several competing planning sessions dividing energy and focus, Stanley said, noting City Councilor Tito Jackson’s Reclaim Roxbury, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now Boston Planning and Development Agency)’s PLAN JP/Rox and smaller community efforts around combating gentrification.
Tension also arises from clashing priorities among some residents, who wish both to prevent gentrification and bring in the kinds of establishments that rely on higher-income clientele, Stanley said. Many in the district live off monthly incomes and oppose the displacement potential of more market-rate housing. Yet they also express strong desire for cafes, which require middle-class earners who can spend consistently throughout the month.
“There’s a push and pull in this community: gentrification versus disposable income,” Stanley said. “If you’re going to support the café society that they want, somebody has to have the money to buy stuff.”
While Dudley Main Street’s early efforts focused on fixing up and filling up old buildings, today stores new and old struggle to find space in Dudley Square. Development interest is high and many renting businesses are forced to move as their landlords repair or redevelop these properties.
“In the beginning, [business concerns were] mostly storefronts and getting things done. Now, many are fighting for their lives,” Stanley said.
Businesses that have retained their space confront losses as the construction generated by new development — such as streets torn up for utility improvement work — deters customer traffic.
On the web
What: Dudley Square Main Streets 20th Anniversary Gala
When: 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct 12.
Where: Bruce Bolling Building
For more information: http://tinyurl.com/z6nkw3l
Following the removal of the Orange Line, residents divided over whether to continue requesting underground transportation or accept the Silver Line buses as a replacement. Meanwhile, the city said it was holding off making capital improvements in the area until it had consensus, Stanley said. Sidewalks between Roxbury and Chinatown were failing into disrepair.
Dudley Square Main Streets, along with activist from other neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Egleston, worked together and ultimately decided, despite some strong objections, to put propriety on securing the infrastructure repairs. They requested a Silver Line bus so that improvements would go through soon, she said.
A new transit concern now confronts the Main Streets District: The BPDA has expressed interest in moving Dudley Station, Stanley said, which she said could divert critical customer traffic.