El Barrio

"Letter to Egleston" Poem by Urbano artist, Marc Anthony, 2015.

Urbano is located in Egleston Square —a historic Boston neighborhood spanning the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Its main artery is a primarily Spanish-speaking commercial district running along Washington Avenue and Columbus Street, composed mostly of small businesses including barbershops and beauty salons, bodegas, dry cleaners and tailors, dollar stores, and takeout restaurants. On either side of Washington are residential neighborhoods. Many absentee landlords have failed to maintain or repair their properties, creating blight in the area. Still, working immigrant families have made Egleston Square home over years and multiple generations. The neighborhood has a strong Dominican cultural identity and predominantly Latino, African American, and working-class residents who rent apartment housing.

The Jamaica Plain side of Egleston Square is in the process of rapid gentrification. In the last few years, these neighborhoods have experienced an influx of new homeowners and landlords made up mostly of white, college-educated young families, hipsters and professionals. Market property values have risen precipitously. With some exceptions, the newer, more affluent residents also prefer to patronize businesses west of Washington Street and further into Jamaica Plain. Lower-income residents and small business owners face the prospect of rent increases and displacement. Jamaica Plain has a long history of activism and community engagement. In fact, Latino residents recently obtained support from local city councilors to designate our area as an official Latin Quarter in recognition of the Latinos who have long called the area home. 40% of residents in our neighborhood speak Spanish, yet there is an ongoing cultural and economic struggle against displacement.

Community organizations and citizen groups have been experimenting with arts, culture, and urban agriculture projects to improve neighborhood aesthetics and quality of life. One example, the guerilla takeover of an abandoned lot that is now Egleston Community Orchard, has yielded many positive results. But a homogenous group of newer residents tend to shape these initiatives. A close look at these efforts reveals a pattern of exclusivity, whether intentional or not. Community response to a new mixed-use development proposed for Washington Street near Montebello Avenue has raised concerns that revitalization plans are moving forward without significant input or participation from residents of color who do not belong to the professional/managerial class. We have noted a general lack of interaction between residents and stakeholders of different classes and ethnicities, as well as sentiment among many renters and immigrants that they cannot or should not opine.

Another barrier may be the very language and mediums of community cultural revitalization. Well-meaning efforts to reach out to working-class residents of color can be hampered when organizers 1) make unilateral decisions or assumptions about what residents want or need, 2) assume the role of community educator or savior in a context in which they lack experience and expertise, 3) partner exclusively with members of a familiar class, culture, professional and social status, and 4) overlook legitimate variables in culturally-specific values, spaces, signifiers and ways of communicating.

Egleston Square is home to a large number of people from the Dominican Republic town of Baní. This town is known for its poetry, was the setting for part of Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and is the place where bachata superstars Aventura got their start. Music lends itself to activating the commons; literature invites sustained reflection and self-examination. As a professional arts organization, even with a social justice mission, we are part of the gentrification process. As artists preparing to create conditions for change in a neighborhood over an extended period of time, and especially introducing youth as leaders, we can experiment with artmaking during the planning process to engage in self-scrutiny and understand the existing community’s history, concerns, values, and narratives. This understanding is essential as we develop all aspects of our project and collaborations.

If community cultural development is to benefit everyone, then processes must be inclusive. As one of our partners said, “People of a specific demographic are only hanging out with each other. How can we get people to hang together and look out for each other?” How can the process be open and positive for everyone? How can we find authentic, meaningful ways to communicate and activate the commons with a diverse community—whether these commons are geographic or more abstract?

Want to learn more about Egleston Square and Jamaica Plain? Teaching Artist Lina Maria Giraldo and a group of our youth Urbano artists documented the daily life of our neighborhood and its people.

More Resources on Egleston Square Community and History