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Roxbury celebrates cultural district designation this month

Residents collaborate to showcase neighborhood arts and culture

Karen Morales

On May 18 and 19, the Roxbury Cultural District is hosting an inaugural launch celebration on the one-year anniversary of its designation.

The community celebration includes a fundraising gala on Friday and an outdoor block party in Dudley Square on Saturday with live music, food and activities.

On May 18, 2017, the RCD was formally designated by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and recognized by Mayor Martin Walsh, the Boston City Council and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Cultural significance

Only one of three cultural districts in Boston, RCD adheres to the MCC’s guidelines of a walkable district with a dense collection of arts and cultural assets.

As the geographic center of Boston, including areas like Dudley Square, Highland Park, Fort Hill, John Eliot Square, Ruggles and Roxbury Crossing, RCD is recognized for its socially and ethnically diverse populations, its historic ties with waves of immigrant settlements, jazz music, and the civil rights movement.

Daniel Callahan, a multimedia artist and designer from Roxbury, will be auctioning off his art at the Roxbury Cultural District gala reception and fundraiser. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Callahan

According to Christine Araujo, executive director of The American City Coalition, (TACC) a partner of RCD, the founders of the district have considered Roxbury as the center of African American culture in Boston since the mid-20th century and up to today.

As an organization, RCD’s mission is “to identify and recognize Roxbury’s cultural assets and establish the tools, strategies, resources and spaces that elevate the community as a living repository of arts and cultural expression — past, present and future,” according to the official website.

Araujo said the foundation for the cultural district’s formation was laid down in 1987 when the Roxbury Heritage State Park Master Plan identified the need for a cultural infrastructure, but the process began in earnest when Haley House, Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC), TACC, and individuals such as Rep. Byron Rushing and Barry Gaither, Director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists became involved.

Systems in place

While seeking designation, the founders organized a lengthy series of community meetings that  informed the mission and identity of the district.

“Over the past year, we’ve been ensuring it’s a solid organization,” said Araujo. “We’re making sure all the organic systems that make any nonprofit organization work are in place.”

Those systems include the inaugural board of directors, which is comprised of local artists, entrepreneurs and community organizers with ties to the neighborhood.

Hakim Raquib will auction off his works at RCD.

One of the district’s immediate goals is to become a 501(c) nonprofit. “The board met for the first time in January and has been frantically moving ahead to create this month’s event, apply for grants and just doing all the work to get a 501(c) in place,” said Araujo.

Another crucial goal for the district is fundraising. Araujo said about the inaugural celebration, “We’re excited that this will be our introduction to the larger community that will help get the word out and raise money.”

Napoleon Jones-Henderson, the newly elected president of RCD, is a local artist known for his mural, “Roxbury Rhapsody” displayed in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building. He has been organizing the silent auction fundraiser for Friday’s gala, which will auction off works by artists from the community including Ekua Holmes, Hakim Raquib, Daniel Callahan and Susan Thompson.

According to Jones-Henderson, there will also be prints by AfriCOBRA, an African American artist collective formed in Chicago, up for auction.

As president and artist, he hopes to start a collection of fine prints to add to RCD’s assets. Jones-Henderson also has a long term vision: build a public art facility for artist studios, exhibitions, rehearsal space and educational space.

“We have physical boundaries, but for the district to be meaningful to Roxbury and the rest of the city, physical activity has to exist,” he said.

He continued, “In Fort Point, there is a large concentration of artist studio spaces from refurbished factories, but in Roxbury there is a dearth of that kind of real estate.”

Adding music to the mix

Abria Smith is the associate director of community engagement at Berklee College of Music and organizer for the musical component of Saturday’s outdoor event.

As a Berklee faculty member, she was able to identify jazz and R&B musicians to perform at the RCD inaugural celebration.

Smith said she decided to get involved with RCD because she grew up in Roxbury as an artist herself. “A lot of what I did was poetry, music and acting,” she said while also mentioning there were many opportunities in the neighborhood for youth performers.

“I know the arts are powerful and through my work here, it’s going to be an important step for people to value the arts and talent that exists in Roxbury and provide more opportunities for artists of all ages,” said Smith.

On Friday, May 18, the RCD gala reception will take place in the Bolling Building from 6 to 9 p.m., and on Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m., there will be an outdoor celebration at Dudley Square’s Blair Lot with live performances, food and artist vendors, and kids’ activities.