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Redrawing Boston

Arts & Culture | October 23, 2017

Amazon’s job listing website describes Boston as, “One of the oldest cities in the US… an international center of education, medicine, and technology. The city is also known for its devoted sports fans and award-winning news publications.” This is a standard characterization of Boston. There is nothing unique about describing Boston as old, as tech-focused, as Revolutionary War nostalgic, as elite universities, as fiery Red Sox fans. But Boston is also Chinese immigrant communities, a history of Apartheid activism, and Puerto Rican organizers. It’s the home of Malcolm X and Bobby Brown. It’s Cape Verdean churches, queer nightlife, and Jewish delis. And many of Boston’s works of public art depict this erased history.

Dr. Adriana Zavala, a professor of Art History at Tufts, named some factors that go into creating the popular understanding of Boston’s history, which often leaves out the diverse lived experiences of the city’s residents. “You have the walking tours of Boston, the duck boat tours, the founding fathers, and that whole US colonial narrative,” Zavala says. “Part of what interests me is how certain historical narratives are privileged over others.” In Boston, the history of the Revolutionary War takes center stage. Popular tourist attractions like the Freedom Trail narrate the nation’s origin story, and take up much of the space dedicated to public memory. As a result, the history of immigrants, the working class, and people of color in the city frequently go erased or unremembered. Public Art like “Roxbury Love” by Richard Gomez and Thomas Burns, “Betances Mural” by Lilli Annkillen, and “Home Town” by Wen-ti Tsen makes that history visible.

On the corner of Warren Avenue and Clifford Street in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston, stretches the 100 foot “Roxbury Love” mural. The wall, which was painted by Richard Gomez and Thomas Burns in 2014, is emblazoned with the face of Nelson Mandela. The mural celebrates Roxbury’s history, culture, and people. Mandela’s face is both a nod to his visit to the neighborhood in the 1990s, but is also a reminder of a piece of Boston’s history that is not often mentioned— ballot question #5, a 1986 Boston referendum.

This historical vote proposed the question of whether the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan should secede from the city of Greater Boston to form an autonomous, and non-White majority city, which they would name Mandela. The grassroots organizing that lead up to the ballot question stemmed from what activist Andrew Jones describes to The Bay State Banner as a “colonial relationship with the city of Boston.” Jones says, “we feel that the city of Boston has treated us like second-class citizens and we’re fighting for basic rights of citizenship.” The proposal was eventually defeated. But the image of Mandela in “Roxbury Love” continues to viewers of the call for neighborhood autonomy and community control in the age of gentrification.

In “Home Town,” artist Wen-ti Tsen created bright, life-sized cut out images of Chinese immigrants and placed them in Chinatown to bring the community’s history into a public space. Chinatown has been a home base of Asian-Americans for hundreds of years, and “Home Town” invites viewers to remember and honor Chinatown as home. “Home Town” is currently on display in the Remis Sculpture Court on the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus. At Tufts, these statues take on a new role as visual reminders of students’ connections to Chinatown. The presence of the Tufts Medical School functions as part of the forces gentrification related to the displacement of the Chinatown community.

Dr. Lisa Lowe, a professor in the consortium for Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora and director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, spoke about why these departments chose to bring “Home Town” and Wen-ti Tsen to Tufts as an Artist-in-Residence. “I think public art is really important to memory,” says Lowe, “not just in making us remember particular events and things, and people and processes, but also in making us think and imagine differently.” When artists like Wen-ti Tsen, Richard Gomez, and Thomas Burns create physical and material markers of their communities in their neighborhood, they are asserting a relationship between community and place that goes beyond property ownership.

Challenging forces of gentrification and creating new forms of land ownership may seem impossible or utopian, but artist Lilli Ann Killen builds the reality of community land ownership into the city of Boston. Her colorful, tactile “Betances Mural” documents the history of the South End’s Puerto Rican community. This community, organizing under the title Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, fought gentrification in 1968 and won. Through this organizing, community members were able to keep their homes, secured over 500 units of affordable housing, and developed centers for artistic and other forms of family-oriented programing. The “Betances Mural” illustrates this history and this story of the Puerto Rican diaspora at large. Written onto the mural is the phrase “sepamos combatir por nuestro honor nuestra libertad” or, we knew how to fight for our honor, our freedom.

Collectively, these public works of art illuminate a history that too often goes unacknowledged. Boston Historian and Tufts Professor, Dr. Kerri Greenidge, speaks to the power of this art in a Boston context. “People are putting a stake in the land and saying, we are here. We exist,” she says. “There may be a big multibillion dollar building put up across the street, but this place is actually more complex, and has a complete history behind it.”