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Walk Down the Block: Nubian Square ponders its past, present and future as Black Boston’s center

Paris Alston
Walk Down the Block: Nubian Square ponders its past, present and future as Black Boston’s center
The “Faces of Dudley” mural in Nubian Square. PHOTO: EMILY JUDEM GBH NEWS

Let’s take a walk down the block.

Today, we’re in Nubian Square. We’re standing on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Washington Street, right in front of the “Faces of Dudley” mural on the side of Silver Slipper Cafe, a neighborhood staple.

If you’ve ever driven through here or caught a bus at Nubian Station, you’ve likely seen it: A dreamy cloud of pink fills in the spaces between Black faces, looking sharp in their crisp white shirts and colorful suits.

The mural features faces of homegrown activists mixed in with everyday people playing chess, getting their hair done, or just passing through what was then called Dudley Station.

“This has always just sort of captured what my neighborhood has meant,” said Rufus J. Faulk, who’s lived in Roxbury most of his 41 years. “We got a picture of Brother Malcolm. A picture of Melnea Cass. Everything in between. It’s sort of the Roxbury I grew up with and love.”

In his lifetime, Faulk has seen a lot of changes, like the elevated railway being reduced to a bus terminal in the 1980s and voters renaming the area in 2019, from Dudley Square to Nubian Square, to better reflect the people who live and work here.

“My earliest memories of Dudley, now Nubian Square, is riding in the elevated rail with my mother,” he said. “Once we hit this curve to go into the actual train station, it was like, sparks would fly, and it always felt like there was a lot of commotion. But once you got off the train, you saw local stores, you saw local people. It felt so vibrant. It felt like sort of the center of Black Boston.”

Black Boston has been a big topic this year, from the unveiling of “The Embrace” in January, a monument that honors Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, to the NAACP National Convention in July.

Plus, events like the Boston While Black Summit and Family Reunion, or the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts’ Mass Black Expo — all highlighting the city’s Black culture and power.

But what have they meant for this neighborhood, long-considered the center of Black culture in Boston?

Of course, there are exceptions. But overall, there are notable socioeconomic differences between here and the rest of the city. In 2020, the American City Coalition found the area’s median household income is a little over $41,000 — nearly $30,000 lower than the city of Boston as a whole.

While dozens of businesses here are Black-owned, many of them have been struggling since the pandemic. That’s been true for Final Touch boutique, where we met Roxbury Main Streets Executive Director Robert George.

Businesses like these didn’t get the foot traffic they were hoping for during events like the convention, he said.

“I heard basically from 90 to 95% of them that the NAACP conference had no effect on our community, and it was designed for, as some put it, elite Boston,” George said. “And Nubian Square and Roxbury is not considered elite Boston.”

The Boston NAACP did organize a tour of Nubian Square during the convention and met with members of the community during their planning process.

But branch President Tanisha Sullivan said that for too long, a lack of investment in Nubian Square hasn’t positioned it to support something like a national convention.

“I want to celebrate Nubian Square and every opportunity I get, I will do so,” Sullivan said. “At the same time we’ve got to do more to hold both governments and the private sector accountable for making reinvestment in that particular part of the city so that it has something more to offer to folks when they’re coming to Boston.”

So whether it’s public art recognizing a global civil rights figure or the convening of the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S., how can the momentum spark a shift here?

It may already be happening in the form of redevelopment.

Private developers with ties to the neighborhood say projects like the long-awaited Parcel 3 will help revitalize the area. It’s set to break ground in the coming years just outside of Nubian Square.

It’s also expected to bring affordable housing, retail and cultural spaces, such as the center promised by Embrace Boston to accompany the new monument on the Common.

Executive Director Imari Paris Jeffries said there’s also a monument coming to Nubian Square.

“We hope to break ground in 18 months, and then 30 months after that we should be opening our doors,” Paris Jeffries said. “So there will be another monument, and I think those two monuments will be in relationship to each other. We’re creating a pipeline. One thing leads to something bigger and better, and I think the Embrace Center has the potential to be bigger than The Embrace.”

There’s also the new memorial to Justice Edward O. Gourdin in Veterans Memorial Park that was unveiled in August.

Plus Nubian Ascends, a pedestrian-focused development set to come to Washington Street, promises life science labs and a new cultural center. And there’s another mixed-use development coming to the area, where the Boston NAACP branch plans to relocate its office from its current home in Roxbury’s Washington Park Mall.

But with new development comes concerns about gentrification for residents and businesses alike.

That’s something Roxbury native and Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson is trying to safeguard against. She’s also pushing for more investment from the city in this neighborhood.

She said it will take a lot more than fancy buildings for things to change.

“As long as you can build a box for me and you put me in it and all I have to come out to is clean kitchens and work your restaurants, then that is not real economic mobility,” Fernandes Anderson said. “I would say then that you would support a housing ecosystem, so that I live a higher quality of life.”

We met at Nubian Markets, a café and grocery store that opened this year offering Halal and other culturally specific foods.

The councilor sees businesses like these as vital to Nubian Square’s future. And she has a message for newcomers.

“I would just say to my fellow gentrifiers: Welcome to Boston, but please partake in the mom and pop shops,” she said. “Please go to the bodegas, please, please invest in the small business in our corridors.”

With recent talks about bringing a Black Wall Street to Boston, sparked by Celtics player Jaylen Brown, some are pointing to Nubian Square as its obvious home — not just for its potential future, but because of the wealth in its past.

It’s one that Rufus J. Faulk said any economic revival here should honor, especially since the familiar hustle and bustle has faded away.

“There aren’t as many stores, isn’t as much activity,” he said. “But I think, I feel like there’s so much potential to sort of rebuild that. So we talk about the old and the new: How do we bring the sort of traditions that made Roxbury what it was, and sort of update them so now we can sort of expand upon it to make sure that it’s like the culture hasn’t died?”

Keeping that culture alive here could be the key to having it all over the city.

Paris Alston is co-host of Morning Edition and The Wake Up podcast at GBH News.