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Nia Grace opens new Lower Roxbury restaurant

Avery Bleichfeld
Nia Grace opens new Lower Roxbury restaurant
Underground Cafe + Lounge owner Nia Grace during the opening of her new restaurant. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

In a packed, warmly lit room looking out on Columbus Avenue toward the Northeastern University campus, speakers celebrated the grand opening of The Underground Cafe + Lounge Sept. 20.

The cafe, which is owned by Roxbury resident Nia Grace, first opened to the public Sept. 7. It operates out of retail space on the first floor of LightView, an apartment-style housing building for Northeastern, Emerson and Boston University students. The building is owned by Northeastern University and managed by American Campus Communities.

Grace said opening The Underground, as well as Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen a few blocks down the street, was a way for her to give back to her community.

“I just wanted to take my talents and give it back to the neighborhoods that I felt made me who I am, from then and even today,” Grace said. “That has always been my drive and my passion.”

Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who was present at the event, said that a spot like The Underground fills a community need for togetherness.

The crowd at the opening of The Underground Cafe + Lounge. PHOTO: Avery Bleichfeld

“This is what we’re hungry for,” Janey said. “We’re so hungry for places we can come together, where we can convene, we can meet, we can work, we can play, we can enjoy the arts, we can celebrate each other.”

The launch of the cafe, which gets its name from the historic underground railroad, according to a press release, also marks the addition of a Black-owned business as restaurants across the city continue to struggle in the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Rep. Chynah Tyler commended Grace at the event for opening the restaurant in tough times.

“It’s really, really hard for Black businesses, particularly, like this one to thrive — especially now, during COVID, those issue topics have heightened,” Tyler said. “And Nia has persevered and been able to open up a successful cafe, and I just wanted to give you kudos to that, because you’ve worked really, really hard.”

Janey, too, emphasized the importance of supporting minority-owned businesses.

“It is so important to make sure that she is successful, because as she is successful so many others that come after her will be successful,” Janey said. “And so, it’s important that we continue to support Black business in the city of Boston, that we invest in Black business, that we support woman-owned business, that we support businesses owned by immigrants.”

The event also represents what speakers said they hope is a bridge between the Roxbury community and Northeastern University, which has long faced concerns about its interactions with abutting neighborhoods.

In 2016, when the building that is now LightView was first in the works, a tense history marred the process. Late last year, developers sued the university over a proposed housing development that would operate in the same style as LightView, as a joint partnership between Northeastern and American Campus Communities.

But John Tobin, Northeastern University vice president of city and community engagement, said he hopes The Underground Cafe is a move towards more connected communities.

“I’m optimistic that this gathering tonight is just the beginning of the university and local small businesses — particularly our woman- and minority-owned small businesses — working in partnership to bring our communities together,” Tobin said.

Tyler, who is a Northeastern alumna, said she is often asked about what the university is doing for surrounding communities. She pointed to the new restaurant as a point of success.

“It’s partnerships like this [between Northeastern and the community] that actually change the game, so I actually want to thank Northeastern for continuing to invite us all to the table as we invite them to our table to figure out what we can do to be able to change that narrative,” Tyler said.

Rae Pearson, regional manager for American Campus Communities, called The Underground Cafe “the cornerstone of what it means to have campus meet community.”

“[Community] does not stop with creating rapport with our residents, but it’s about being a good partner, being a good neighbor in the environments that we serve and the people that we serve,” Pearson said.

Grace said The Underground is designed to be a place not only to eat and gather, but also to experience and celebrate art. The cafe will serve as an exhibition space for Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit that employs under-resourced teens in apprenticeships in the visual arts and creative industries to help develop self-sufficiency.

That connection to the arts, she said, creates a connection to the community.

“More than food and beverage, it is about culture, it is about artistry. It is, in fact, about the art on the walls, you know, bringing in who is living here,” Grace said.

To celebrate the cafe’s link to the arts, the opening featured live music from saxophonist Gregory Groover Jr. and his band, as well as a spoken word performance by South End native Valerie Stephens. The first exhibition through Artists for Humanity was already hung on the walls.

Rob ‘ProBlak’ Gibbs, co-founder of Artists for Humanity, said he hopes The Underground Cafe will remain a feature of the community.

“I’m speaking it into fruition,” Gibbs said. “This place is going to be here to stay.”

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