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Fun and fresh air in Nubian Square

Roxbury Main Streets supports local businesses during COVID with weekend outdoor events

Saphia Suarez
Fun and fresh air in Nubian Square
Planters on Washington Street were part of the city’s efforts to spruce up the Nubian Square shopping district. COURTESY PHOTO

If you have noticed an abundance of flowers and a resurgence of outdoor events in Roxbury’s Nubian Square, you are likely witnessing the efforts of Roxbury Main Streets to bring patrons back into local businesses in the area.

Roxbury Main Streets is one of 20 organizations in the Boston Main Streets network dedicated to revitalizing and sustaining local commercial districts.

“One of the things we tend to do on the weekend is remind people we have a square,” says Robert M. George, who was appointed executive director of Roxbury Main Streets in May.

That’s why Roxbury Main Streets collaborated with The American City Coalition to launch the “Savor the Square” series, four outdoor events designed to support Roxbury’s local economy and culture. Local entrepreneurs, artists and artisans are invited to bring their products, art, and crafts into the square. The events are held in the Blair parking lot on Harrison Avenue. The series began last month with the Re-Imagine Roxbury event and the Roxbury Family Festival. The next event is an Indigenous Peoples’ Celebration this Saturday, Oct. 10.

But in working to revitalize local businesses during a pandemic, safety is still top priority.

“Face masks are required at our Savor the Square events,” says George, “and at no point were there more than 50 people. We followed all city guidelines, and the series has been pretty successful so far.”

Savor the Square is just the latest in a series of efforts to get local businesses back on their feet.

Back in spring, as COVID-19 rates rose exponentially across the state, Roxbury Main Streets started with the basics — mainly, obtaining sufficient personal protection equipment for workers.

“Our first priority was the health and safety of those who work in Nubian Square,” says George. “We went to the mayor’s office’s Small Business Development team to make sure we had PPE and other necessary equipment for businesses.”

Next came the question, how will businesses begin to recover some of their lost revenue?

According to Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, small businesses in the Boston area have lost a higher percentage of their revenue during COVID-19 than almost every other major American city, with total small business revenue dropping 74.9% in Suffolk County as of April.

In working to recover that loss, Roxbury Main Streets and the neighborhood’s local businesses turned again to the city for authorization.

“Both Haley House and Soleil Restaurant and Catering were able to obtain from the city permission to open their outdoor seating,” says George, naming two popular restaurants in Nubian Square.

But not all businesses were able to opt for outdoor seating, and some had to get creative.

“With no sit-down seating, Arizona BBQ House of Pizza petitioned to stay open for delivery and pickup past midnight,” says George. “With students back in school, they’re hoping to attract them while they’re studying.”

Business owners in other markets, like clothing, have not had as much luck.

“A lot of clothing outlets in the square continue to struggle because people are not going out,” says George. “Not many events are being held where you need to buy new clothes.”

At least one business has shut down entirely because of financial constraints due to COVID-19. Essential Body Herbs, formerly located on Warren Street, closed almost immediately after the city moved into phase one of reopening.

“Essential Body Herbs, that took us by surprise,” says George. “That was about the same week I came on board, so I don’t know the specifics, but apparently the landlord wouldn’t let up on rent and they couldn’t afford it, so they left.”

George says rent continues to be a struggle for local businesses.

“Revenue is down, and concessions are being made here and there, but the double-edged sword is landlords have mortgages to pay too,” says George.

While Main Streets has not gotten involved in the ongoing conversations between business owners and landlords, George says his organization has “encouraged understanding conversations.”

However, despite the best efforts on the part of business owners and Main Streets, business revenue in Nubian Square is nowhere near what it once was. George says this boils down to the MBTA.

“We heard from the MBTA that travel is down,” says George. “That affects Nubian Square as a hub of public transport. When those numbers are up, business flies, because more people come through, but right now the only people coming through are people who have to.”

And while restaurants like Haley House and Soleil Restaurant and Catering are relying on outdoor dining, and events like Savor the Square are helping entrepreneurs and vendors get back in touch with customers, winter is quickly approaching. The city has decided to allow outdoor seating until Dec. 1, but customers may opt out as temperatures drop.

“I think business owners are hoping numbers and regulations will change so that they can seat more people indoors, though obviously not at full capacity,” says George.

But the reality is, George says, “Until people are moving around the way they were before, the numbers will stay down.”

George remains hopeful, however, that local business revenue will increase with the coming holidays.

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