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Acting up
Candelaria Silva and ACT Roxbury use the arts to enliven a long-underserved community

WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of art in Boston, they think of the galleries of Newbury Street. The city’s renowned museums. Fort Point Channel. They do not, as a general rule, think of Roxbury.

Candelaria Silva and ACT Roxbury are working to change that.

ACT Roxbury is the cultural economic-development program of the Madison Park Development Corporation, a 37-year-old community-development organization whose mission is the social, physical, and spiritual renewal of long-embattled Roxbury. In the six-plus years since its inception, ACT — it stands for Arts, Culture, and Trade — has put together a host of events and initiatives to enrich the community, including Roxbury Open Studios, the Roxbury Literary Annual, and the Roxbury Film Festival, this year attended by such Hollywood luminaries as CCH Pounder and Victoria Rowell.

As she prepared for ACT’s next major event, the fifth annual Open Studios, Silva took time out from her busy schedule to talk about the effect of the arts on the community she calls home.

Q: In addition to the more visible events like the Film Festival and Open Studios, what are some of ACT’s other initiatives?

A: We also do entrepreneurial courses for artists; it’s called the Danette Jones Businesses Culture Series. Those are everything from proposal-writing for artists to property-buying for artists, that we’re going to do in conjunction with the BRA and the city’s home-ownership program. We’re doing a Web-design class for artists, and other things. We have a building, which is a big initiative; the former Hibernian Hall that Madison Park Development Corporation purchased in 2000, and we’re in a capital campaign now, planning to raise money to underwrite the cost of operating the ballroom, which is the last Irish dance hall that’s intact in Roxbury; there used to be five. We’re going to have the ballroom as a flexible performance space, so we hope to do film screenings as part of our film festival, as well as the Color of Film series that we do with another organization. We’re hoping to have staged readings of plays and scripts. We hope to have it be a site for Roxbury Open Studios, at least one group show. We’re talking to galleries now about coming in, and restaurants, because that’s one of the biggest things, having a sit-down restaurant that’s open evening hours in Roxbury; it’s something we don’t have right now.

Our goal is to use arts and culture to enliven the community ... just doing home remodeling or homebuilding and doing traditional businesses don’t enliven a community the way that arts and cultural activities do.

Q: How did you come to be involved with ACT Roxbury? What’s your background?

A: I’m a long-time community resident, and I’m a writer; I used to work for the Bay State Banner. There was an ad in the paper for this initiative, and I wrote a cover letter talking about my vision for the community, and they supported me. I used to review plays and review books, and I always attended lots of arts events. My background is facilitation and training, but I think it was more my community activism and the fact that I had had a multicultural children’s book-selling enterprise and had done a big conference for that in the early ’80s, so people always saw that I tried to do things to make a difference in the community, and I think that’s what I was hired for.

Q: Were you born and raised in Roxbury?

A: Not at all. I came here to go to college; I came to Northeastern, but I was born in St. Louis. So I always tell people that I love Roxbury as only a non-native can; I can probably see things that are special about it that people who live here don’t always see.

Q: ACT Roxbury lost its Mass Cultural Council funding this year?

A: We all did. The [Cultural Economic Development] program was eliminated because of the decimation of the budget. Mass Cultural Council was cut 62 percent.

Q: How do you survive despite the setback?

A: One of the things that Mass Cultural Council had done for several of the original fundees is that they had us meet with a development consultant and begin to do things to try and diversify our funding base. So we started a membership program, we’re beginning to go after individual investors, we’ve gone after some larger national grants, we’re looking at products and branding ourselves to get more corporate sponsorships. We’ve been doing all that and trying not to solely rely on grant funding. Also, looking at revenue streams from the building, we’re hoping — we have a feasibility study that we’ve almost completed — that the revenue from the ballroom will pay for some ACT activities. And we’re trying to underwrite the cost so that some of those activities can be more affordable for community residents. But you know, a ballroom can also hold things like a wedding, and that’s a way you can generate certainly more money than a performing-arts group would be able to afford. So definitely diversifying our revenue stream has been one of the things that we’ve worked very hard to do.

Q: What are the common misperceptions about Roxbury, and how do you go about changing them?

A: You don’t set out to change people’s perceptions; what you do is try to broadcast widely the cultural and historical and architectural riches that you know to exist. Having consistent annual activities — I mean, this is the fifth Roxbury Open Studios. We just had the fifth Film Festival, and the Film Festival has grown from a local event to becoming national in knowledge and scope. So I think it’s consistency: consistent, high-quality programming. We try to have good marketing materials, we try to keep our Web site updated. All those things I think are the things that build quality.

You’re not going to undo television media’s propensity to show the sensational and the negative. Television media, because of its very nature and the shortness of its programs, they tend to do the yellow tape and flashing-lights kind of stories. It’s very hard to undo those. You get to go on community programs, the few that are left on television, but those are not viewed as widely, obviously, as the evening news. So you keep doing it. My fantasy is that one day Chronicle will cover us, but even then, the Chronicle audience is much smaller than the news audience. So I think you have to keep doing what you’re doing.

Q: You bring people in from other communities for ACT events. If you’re busing people in from, say, Newton, people who may be more familiar with Newbury Street galleries, how do you convince them that Roxbury is a worthwhile destination for art?

A: I think that people who are art aficionados are always looking for something new, and we let them know that there are people who live in Roxbury who actually have shown on Newbury Street. They know that artists will come to communities and to parts of communities that other people won’t because artists have different space needs, particularly visual artists. You throw out some names that they’re familiar with, and you try to do things visually, and you rely on word-of-mouth.

You look at the Metco program, where there are students being bused into the suburbs, but Metco has twin goals, which was partially to right some educational inequities from the city, but also to broaden the experience of suburban students who would be in a very homogenous community. We’re all living in a more multicultural world, and Metco’s one of the programs that works towards that. So you let those communities know that they can bring a tour bus in. A couple years ago, Newton Public Schools brought a tour bus in for Open Studios; Weston has always done a lot with our tours. We’re doing a pilot of monthly tours called Discover Roxbury.

You try to do a lot of different things, but quality has to be your first task, and then educating and cultivating people is your second task. Again, I think it’s one of those things where you do consistent, high-quality programming, and you consistently send out a message that you’re here, and I think it just reaches out to different communities. Sometimes it takes 10 times of hearing about an organization or an event before they come.

Q: We’ve seen places like Jamaica Plain and the South End go from being depressed, downtrodden areas to being very vibrant and culturally rich, but at the same time they’ve obviously become very expensive, and in a lot of cases, prohibitively so. Is that a concern, that a similar gentrification will happen in Roxbury?

A: Well, it’s already begun. The way I put it into context is this: one of the mistakes that Roxbury as a community I think made years ago, we were much more into affordable rental, and people weren’t pushing homeownership as much. I mean, Boston as a city had fairly low homeownership rates, and Roxbury as a community has had low homeownership rates. Also, the thing is, Boston’s a very small community, and so all communities are going to get developed eventually, just because you’ve run out of land. One of the things that Madison Park Development Corporation [did] is we tried to build mixed-income homeownership units, so that there’s the chance for people who have been paying rent and are moderate income to own, as well as some market-rate units for those of us who can afford a little bit more but do want to live in the city. We have first-time homebuyers’ classes in English and Spanish. It would have been nice if the initiatives that are going on now had been around 10, 15 years ago when property was more affordable, but they weren’t. So we’re trying to do a lot to have mixed income — I mean, the community doesn’t want to only have ownership for low-income people. You don’t want to be accused of gentrifying, but we also want to have a vibrant community that has decent property values, that has nightlife and galleries and restaurants. Our dollars should not always go into other communities for some of the things that we need.

Q: That seems like such a delicate balance.

A: It is a delicate balance. But communities are dynamic and change; Roxbury did not always look like it looks today, and it won’t always look like it looks today. There’s development, and a lot of that development is good. There are all kinds of innovative ways to try to make some of this property affordable for the people who’ve always lived here, but there’s no way you can prevent people from other communities or other income groups from coming in. That’s just not possible.

Q: Why doesn’t Roxbury have a dining scene, with sit-down restaurants?

A: We had a really nice restaurant, Café Dudley, which closed a few months ago, and it was nice because it was high-quality food, it was a sit-down restaurant. They’re now doing catering and hoping they’ll be able to return to open another spot, but the restaurant business is notoriously slow. I think it’s hard because you have to have a lot of cash reserves in the first year to build the word of mouth. People have to hear about a restaurant several times before they’ll try it, and I think in a place like Dudley [Square], when a restaurant closes, it’s not necessarily as immediately turned around or as immediately turned around in the same kind of quality as you would find in the South End or Jamaica Plain. [The Café Dudley space] has been vacant; we now understand there’s a Chinese place going in there, but unless it’s a sit-down Chinese place that’s kept high quality, it’ll just be more of the same. We don’t necessarily need that kind of restaurant. I think this community, because we’re fragile in terms of building our economic base, anything that happens negatively hits us deeper and lasts longer.

Q: Where would you hope to see ACT Roxbury in five years, and in 10 years?

A: I definitely would hope for us to be in the new building, with a very successful function hall, Hibernian Hall, with regular performing-arts events; that we have an infrastructure with a staff; that our facility is known for being well-run; that people look forward to coming to some of the restaurants in that building; that the tours go on at least every week and not just monthly; that our programming has solidified and expanded as it needs to because we’re operating from a centralized space instead of being a little more spread out the way we’ve been. I hope that coming into the Dudley business district and lower Roxbury for your evening ice cream or dinner or to see a staged reading or to see a play is a usual experience, and people don’t even remember when it didn’t exist.

Q: On a personal level, can you imagine yourself living anywhere else?

A: Well, yeah. I’m a citizen of the world. I think that we belong wherever we want. My goal is just to make all communities recognized and equitable. I think that there might come a time when personally I’m ready to move on, but that I’ve created an institution whose vision and mission is so strong that someone else steps in to take it to another level. I only have my vision and what I’ve been able to do with the consortium and with the collaborators, but someone else may have a vision that’s even bigger or that’s different or that takes us on a little different turn. You want to build something that lasts beyond you, because that’s when it really belongs.

The fifth annual Roxbury Open Studios are held on October 4 and 5, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., throughout Greater Roxbury and Mission Hill. For information, call (617) 541-3900 ext. 223, or visit www.actroxbury.org. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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