Speedway Produce Program Awarded Harvard Grant

Architectural Heritage Foundation’s COVID-19 relief efforts in Allston-Brighton got a big boost last month from Harvard University. On May 27, the school named twenty-seven local nonprofits – among them AHF – as recipients of its new Allston-Brighton Emergency Response Grant.

When historic sites are vandalized, what does that say about the society that created them?

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti
Backside of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti, June 1, 2020. Photo credit: Friends of the Public Garden.

When the sun rose above Boston on June 1, illuminating hand-lettered posters left behind from the previous day’s Black Lives Matter protests, it shone also on a different kind of sign. Spray-paint stood out like a scar on downtown Boston’s historic landmarks: Park Street Church, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Women’s Memorial, the George Washington statue, the 9/11 Memorial, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, and many other historic statues and buildings had been graffitied overnight following the peaceful demonstrations. Like the rest of the preservation community, AHF was dismayed by the vandalism, yet still more dismayed by what it said about the perpetrators’ apparent estrangement from Boston’s cultural landscape.

For many of us, it is easy to take place for granted. The buildings, street names, and memorials that comprise a neighborhood can become so familiar that it is possible to forget how they came to be there. Those who feel at home in a particular area may never consider the meanings embedded in its cultural landscape, or may assume that those meanings ring true for everyone. Equally easy to overlook are the sociocultural markers that exist alongside those features, are relevant to their creation and retention, and no less subtly assert who belongs: shop prices, rental rates, the faces of residents and business owners. In Boston, these indicators are the result of policies and choices, from redlining to gentrification, that have blocked African-Americans and low-income residents from the economic and political opportunities so often prerequisite to telling one’s story publicly.

When one recognizes the impact of structural racism and inequality on preservation in Boston, it is no wonder that some people may feel little connection to many of the city’s historic sites. Consider the following:

  • The Freedom Trail, whose primary purpose is to celebrate the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution, is one of Boston’s main tourist attractions. Marked clearly in red brick, it is impossible to miss and draws four million visitors each year. The Black Heritage Trail, which celebrates the achievements of Boston’s African-American community and calls attention to the systemic racism that undercuts our country’s ideals, attracts just ten percent of the Freedom Trail’s visitation. This is unsurprising, as it poorly marked and located in a quiet residential neighborhood – one that was historically black and immigrant, but is now largely white and unaffordable.
  • Faneuil Hall is widely known as the Cradle of Liberty. Since the construction of its predecessor building in 1742, it has hosted orations by Revolutionary leaders, abolitionists, and suffragists, as well as citizenship ceremonies and political events. It has
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston

rightly been celebrated throughout Boston’s history as a bastion of free speech. Yet its funder and namesake, Peter Faneuil, was a slaveowner who made much of his wealth through kidnapping and trading in African people. Today, hip-hop troupes regularly perform outside the building on the former site Dock Square, where, unbeknownst to the large crowds of spectators, human beings were sold alongside household goods. The continued existence of many of Boston’s historic neighborhoods is usually attributed to predominantly white and affluent preservation groups. In the past, less thought was given to the neighborhoods’ minority, immigrant, and working-class residents who, unable to afford relocating to the suburbs, cared for their urban homes and kept their neighborhoods intact. Former State Representative and preservationist Byron Rushing has noted that the poor are seldom recognized as the true preservationists of Boston’s residential working-class neighborhoods. Many of Boston’s historically designated neighborhoods are gentrified. Beacon Hill, the North End, and the South End have become prohibitively expensive to the populations who have inhabited them through time. Meanwhile, the no less historic, but undesignated areas where low-income populations currently live, such as Chinatown and parts of Roxbury, face development pressures that threaten not only to displace their current residents but to erase their heritage.

The things we choose to preserve and the way we preserve them sends a message about whose heritage matters, whose contributions to society are valued, and who is invited to the conversation; in short, who belongs. This message is glaringly obvious to those who are underrepresented in the cultural landscape. If iconic historic landmarks like the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial are vandalized, it is because the perpetrators are either ignorant of the sites’ meanings or alienated from the process that produced those meanings. Graffiti becomes the way that marginalized voices insert themselves into the city’s narrative. There is a link between the underpaid, undervalued, and martyred 54th MA Regiment, and the fury sprayed across the soldiers’ names.

In his book Place, Race, and Story, Ned Kaufman writes that preservation “is a social practice, part history and part planning. Its ultimate goal is not fixing or saving old things, but rather creating places where people can live well and connect to meaningful narratives about history, culture, and identity.” For too long, the preservation movement in Boston and the systems surrounding it failed the city’s most vulnerable. The more recent push to create a more inclusive cultural landscape, from the 1980 establishment of Boston African-American National Historic Site to today’s allocation of Community Preservation funds in Boston’s disinvested neighborhoods, is a laudable (if belated) effort to empower marginalized communities by helping them to tell their full story. Yet preserving the heritage of marginalized communities will fall short if the communities themselves are not preserved.

Addressing the structural inequities that destabilize Boston’s communities of color and low-income neighborhoods is a preservation issue. Converting historic buildings into affordable housing, partnering with community members on projects that enhance economic and social wellbeing, supporting local business owners, advocating for policies that stabilize neighborhoods – these are among the preservation movement’s responsibilities in the twenty-first century. Together, we can create a better Boston that honors all of its residents’ pasts while ensuring their futures.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

AHF Stands with Black Lives Matter

Architectural Heritage Foundation joins the calls for racial justice and equity that have resounded in American cities for hundreds of years, and most recently following the murder of George Floyd. As an historic preservation organization founded during the urban renewal movement, AHF recognizes the policies and structures that have hobbled communities of color, undermined their narratives, and whitewashed the history of systemic racism that permeates every facet of our society. At the same time, we are aware of the way in which preservation has been used, in many instances, to entrench segregation and to obscure the rich heritage of black and brown Americans. We stand with our neighbors of color and their allies who are laboring to undo centuries of oppression by transforming our communities into places where all people, regardless of color and income, can participate fully and safely in daily life.

How a Small Group of Volunteers is Transforming a Rural Town through Historic Preservation and the Arts

North Brookfield Town House framed against a deep blue sky. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preservation consultant to the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
North Brookfield Town House

What if a vacant town hall in a small Massachusetts community were granted a new life as an arts center devoted to solving the national problem of rural isolation? For the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House, this vision holds the key to their community’s revitalization.

Not many people know about North Brookfield. Nestled among orchards and state forests, this town of 4,800 could, at first glance, be any rural New England village. Modest single-family homes line Main Street, which runs north to south through a small downtown. The white steeple of the First Congregational Church rises above a sprawling green, opposite the Romanesque bulk of the Haston Free Public Library. Dark storefront windows of low-rise commercial blocks turn blank stares to the street. The “For Rent” posters are offset here and there with “Open” signs that wink redly from the businesses that have managed to hold on: Angel Nails Salon, St. Jeans Country Package Store, Jim’s Pizza… Near the center of town, Vibram employs over two hundred in manufacturing rubber soles for outdoor boots – a modern incarnation of the Batcheller Shoe Factory, which fueled the community’s growth during the nineteenth century. And rising above it all is the North Brookfield Town House.

A For Rent sign in an empty storefront on Main Street.

“The center of everything.” That’s how North Brookfield residents characterize the Town House, whose tall, arched windows and Italianate bell tower reflect the importance that its nineteenth-century designers and subsequent users attached to it. Once a town hall, theater, retail venue, and jail, the building has been vacant since 2002, victim to the same forces that have challenged North Brookfield and other rural communities throughout the country: reduced industry, the success of big box stores at the expense of small businesses, an exodus of young people seeking opportunity elsewhere. For many residents, the Town House’s peeling paint and locked doors came to symbolize these problems. Restoring the building would have to be part of the solution.

The Town House still stands today thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House were founded in 2006 to raise awareness and money for preserving the building. During the first several years, they focused on stabilization, such as repairing the roof and bell tower following Hurricane Irene. Yet the building’s future use was a persistent question. The Friends wanted the Town House to become a community hub – a coffee shop or artisan bakery, something to draw people downtown. But how to accomplish this multimillion-dollar restoration project in a financially sustainable way?

A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the building as an arts center.
A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House.

Finding an answer required the Friends to transform their approach to the project from fundraising around a predetermined use to amplifying the building’s unlimited possibilities. In 2017, AHF began consulting for the Friends and soon discovered that the plans for a coffee shop and bakery were infeasible in the local economic climate. There was simply not enough traffic downtown or expendable income locally to support a dining establishment. Rehabilitating the Town House as a destination café, or any other commercial venue, would require a full-scale downtown development plan to create a more business-friendly environment.

Far from being discouraged, the Friends ran with AHF’s advice – and ran further even than they thought possible. They forged a strong relationship with the North Brookfield Board of Selectmen, Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), and Main Street America, leading to the creation of a Downtown Development Committee. They broadened their vision for the Town House to encompass a wide variety of future uses, from commercial to cultural. They raised the visibility of the building online, in classrooms, and at community events. At AHF’s suggestion, they organized a community-wide effort to repaint the Town House façade, transforming what appeared to be a shabby building into one brimming with potential. And people noticed.

The North Brookfield Town House being repainted. Architectural Heritage Foundation is preservation consultant for the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
Repainting the North Brookfield Town House

Bonnie Milner, Owner and General Manager of local recording company Long View Farm Studios, was astounded when she saw the repainted Town House – a building that she had often passed, but seldom noticed. The Friends invited her to tour the building in hopes that she might furnish an idea for its reuse. She realized that it would the perfect location for her to fulfill a lifelong dream of establishing an arts center for rural at-risk youth. Several months of collaboration later, the Creative Life Center concept was born.

The Creative Life Center (CLC) at the North Brookfield Town House is intended to be a replicable model for addressing rural disfranchisement through the artistic reuse of cherished historic properties. Under Bonnie’s leadership and in partnership with Berklee College of Music, the CLC will offer educational programming in music, theater, and the visual arts for local youth and seniors, provide a performance venue for the broader Central Massachusetts community, and give emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their work. In so doing, the CLC will foster connection and stimulate economic development in an oft-overlooked rural region. Yet it’s only the beginning of North Brookfield’s revitalization.

An audience watches young dancers perform on the Great Hall stage at the North Brookfield Town House during MayFest, 2019. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the historic building.
Young performers at the Town House during MayFest, 2019

While the Friends and Bonnie were refining the CLC concept, the Downtown Development Committee was working with CMRPC and Main Street America to create a business-friendly environment around the Town House.  Their plans include streetscape improvements, such as handicapped-accessible sidewalks, bike lanes, benches, and plantings; renovations to the Common, its playing fields, and playgrounds; and the rehabilitation of other vacant historic properties for commercial and nonprofit uses. These improvements will be driven by the Town House restoration and the expected increase in foot traffic downtown around the CLC.

By doggedly trying to preserve an historic building, the Friends catalyzed a downtown revitalization project. Their perseverance, diligence, and flexibility are putting North Brookfield on the map and giving other rural communities throughout the country reason to hope. Not even the pandemic has slowed them as they embark on a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the Town House’s rehabilitation. Each day brings them closer to their goal of reinvigorating rural communities through historic preservation and the arts.

To help the Friends realize their vision, visit their website to donate.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

AHF Launches Speedway Produce Program in Brighton

This week the Architectural Heritage Foundation, through the Charles River Speedway project, announced the Speedway Produce Program, an initiative to expand food access in Brighton during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of state Representative Michael Moran, AHF has teamed up with the Speedway’s next-door neighbor, Charles River Community Health (CRCH), and local wholesaler Katsiroubas brothers, to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to CRCH patients facing food insecurity as a result of the shutdown. AHF is offering the general public an opportunity to contribute to this program.

AHF launched the Speedway Produce Program last Thursday with a delivery of forty produce boxes to CRCH, each of which contained enough fruits and vegetables to feed a family for up to a week. A Katsiroubas Brothers truck dropped off the boxes at the health center in the morning, and CRCH staff arranged for them to be safely picked up later that day. AHF also contributed eighty hand-made masks donated by a Wellesley-based volunteer sewing group. We plan to contribute 120 more produce boxes to CRCH’s constituency over the next three weeks. With additional support, we can increase the number of households served and even extend the program into June.

Even before the pandemic, many CRCH patients were struggling to get by. Seventy-one percent were living at 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, and many were forced to work two jobs to make ends meet – jobs that have disappeared or become much more hazardous due to the public health crisis. Now food insecurity – an ever-present issue for so many households – has become a dire problem.

AHF and the Speedway team invite the public to participate in the Speedway Produce Program through the GoFundMe Link below. A donation of $25 will sponsor one produce box; $100 will provide four boxes over the next three weeks; $1000 will enable us to extend the program by another week. (As of this writing, we have raised $850, nearly a fifth of the way to our goal of $5000!) With this initiative, we hope to play a small role in the much wider regional efforts to ensure food access for the most vulnerable members of our community.

Support the Speedway Produce Program

For updates on the Speedway Produce Program, follow AHF’s blog and FacebookInstagram, and Twitter pages, or sign up for the The Speedway newsletter.

Staff from the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) and Charles River Community Health pose with the first batch of Speedway Produce boxes.
Staff from AHF and Charles River Community Health with the first batch of Speedway Produce boxes.

From Markets Insider – “Twain Financial Provides $1.6 Million in Historic Tax Credit Equity to Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA”

Twain Financial Partners announced the investment of $1.6 million in federal historic tax credit equity for the historic renovation and adaptive reuse of the Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA. The Speedway is located in the North Brighton section of the growing Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2010. The 1.28-acre site includes three adjoining parcels, including the original 1899 former historic racetrack administrative building and garage facility.

The “Why” of Preservation Matters Now More than Ever

When life as we have known it comes to a halt; when the bonds holding society together grow brittle; when we cannot gather for fear of harming each other – what remains to us are the stories we keep. The reminders of those stories take many forms. A building. A battlefield. A burying ground. These physical affirmations of our histories and values are all around us. They help us to see ourselves as part of a community spanning generations and, in so doing, make us feel less alone.

Let’s work together.