It’s happening through concerted community efforts in Boston’s southern neighborhoods: affixing ethnic and cultural names to commercial centers.
In Jamaica Plain, advocates last year established the Latin Quarter cultural district. In Fields Corner, the Vietnamese community is now looking to form a Little Saigon cultural district. And in Roxbury, members of the Nubian Square Coalition are celebrating victory after a years-long lobbying process to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square.
As Boston wrestles with a housing shortage, and the gentrification and displacement that accompany its housing production strategy, the city's minority communities are exploring formal ways of reflecting their ethnic and cultural centers through official name designations.
It's no coincidence that the two are happening at the same time, said James Jennings, professor emeritus at Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. He sees the ethnic labeling as a “positive counter response.”
“I think it’s absolutely critical to acknowledge not just the presence, but the value, [and] the contributions of our ethnic neighborhoods,” Jennings said. “As people seek to celebrate their cultural histories, and share those cultural histories by naming places, these same places are under major threat and challenge from gentrification, displacement [and] the movement of wealth within those areas without protecting the economic well-being of residents who have been there for a long time.”
Jennings also dismissed the idea that ethnic labels are exclusive.
“It doesn’t mean because a place is [called] Nubian Square that a white person can’t go there,” he said through huffs of laughter. “That’s a ridiculous notion.”
“Using cultural labels is actually strengthening America, in my opinion, and also challenging a history that has been very, very exclusive. So, this new naming in different parts is a counter response, but it’s a positive counter response,” he said.
In the cases of Nubian Square and Little Saigon, advocates cite resistance to gentrification as a factor in their renaming effort.
Sadiki Kambon, a leader within the Nubian Square Coalition, said economic development is another goal.
“We need to focus on what we need to do for us,” he told reporters Thursday after his group went before the city’s Public Improvement Commission. “We want this to be working for us and be our family shopping district.”
But Edward Glaser, a professor of economics at Harvard, cautioned against asserting that modest changes like a name-change, or rebranding strategy, will necessarily catalyze economic growth.
“Many advocates in the urban arena try to make the case that their preferred intervention will have far-reaching economic benefits,” Glaser said, raising the example of someone lobbying for a sports stadium with a grand, but vague promise of economic development. “Most of the time, these claims have very little basis in solid statistical work.”
“Certainly, we know that there are many thriving, wonderful ethnic neighborhoods, which succeed in drawing in tourists, which generate business for the local neighborhoods, which provide a sense of identity for the people that live there,” Glaser said. “I would say the jury is still out on whether or not it clears that these districts are critical in terms of the economic survival and strength of the city, but we certainly know that many of them can be successful and can be a lot of fun.”
“The best argument for renaming Dudley Square is that the local residents want to rename it,” he continued. “Sometimes, a neighborhood’s identity is more valuable than the dollars and cents that could possibly be associated with it.”
Another encouraging and cautionary note on the topic comes from Chinatown, one of Boston’s oldest recognized ethnic enclaves. Giles Li, CEO of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, said having a place called Chinatown has been beneficial for Chinese-speaking immigrants for generations.
“They know that there’s a place where they will find other people who have similar culture, language, experiences, down to religious, social and food [resources],” Li said. “They know that they will find familiarity here in Chinatown. I think that’s a big plus.”
But even there, the community is still struggling with the displacement of its working-class, long-time residents.
“I have not really heard from people saying that they don’t think there should be a Chinatown, but Chinatown’s future is threatened by the fact that people want to be downtown,” Li said, pointing to new, expensive buildings sprouting up in the area. “We end up being hurt by those developments because they price out working-class Chinese immigrants and bring people into the neighborhood who may not have anything against Chinatown, but may not feel this is a community they’re a part of.”
Jennings also said cultural naming “is only part of the strategy” to improve the economic vitality of a neighborhood. Government, schools, and faith-based organizations need to contribute to the development of thriving neighborhoods for everyone.
Li said he would like to see development thought of in a more equitable way so that the community can see some of the financial benefits that business sectors do.
“It would be good for us, as a city and region, to be thinking about the most marginalized among us," Li said, "because if we can design a future for all of them, then everybody will benefit.”