Though Roxbury boasts historical landmarks, breweries and restaurants, the predominantly Black neighborhood of Boston has struggled to attract tourists for decades. Visitors from out of town and suburbanites alike have stayed away because of the neighborhood’s reputation, a pattern local tourism professionals say the city has historically done little to change.
“Usually you hear a very negative, dysfunctional narrative about Roxbury,” said Kelley Chunn, founder of the Roxbury Cultural District. “It's typically violent. It's not to say that negative things don't happen, but it's very one-sided. It's only one dimension of the community, of the neighborhood.”
Chunn is not the only one hoping to rewrite Roxbury's narrative. Since 2019, Collin Knight has been giving tours of the neighborhood where he grew up.
“This has been a thriving epicenter of Black culture for many, many years. I just think the city ignored that for a long time," he said.
That could be about to change. Earlier this month, Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey announced a $2 million program — developed during the Walsh administration — to promote tourism in Boston neighborhoods that are often overlooked. “The All Inclusive Boston campaign boldly puts our people and our neighborhoods front and center for the very first time,” she said at a new conference.
Roxbury, originally inhabited by the Massachusett Nation and formally founded by Puritans in the 1600s, is home to landmarks that still stand from the colonial era, Revolutionary War, abolitionist era and civil rights movement.
The Eliot Burial Ground, one of the city's oldest colonial cemeteries, is in Nubian Square. Visitors can see the home of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and look out at the Boston skyline from the Dillaway Thomas House, a museum that served as the headquarters for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
In the 1800s, Germans flooded into Roxbury, creating a brewery culture that still exists, but with new brew houses and eateries.
It's where Malcolm X came of age in a house that still stands and Martin Luther King Jr. started the city's first civil rights march, in 1965.
But it's hard to find a brochure directing tourists to Roxbury or Dorchester. Not many hotels exist in those neighborhoods, and ones downtown are closer to attractions like Fenway Park, Boston Duck Tours and the Freedom Trail.
In Roxbury, Chunn has been working to promote arts and culture events like Nubian Nights, a jazz and multimedia show in Nubian Square. She says Janey's new campaign is the first time the city has really put resources into attracting tourists to the neighborhood.
“It's probably the biggest effort that's been made in the city's history to connect downtown to uptown,” Chunn said. “And in that way, I think it's unique, because back in the day, I would get very frustrated that tourists didn't seem to want to go much beyond Darryl's Corner Bar and Grill.”
Cindy Brown, the CEO of Boston Duck Tours and the vice president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the tourism budget for Boston is smaller than for other cities, and tourists won't go where they're not told to.
“There's a promotion that needs to happen to get people [there],” she said. “Not everyone from, you know, random city, random state feels comfortable getting on a subway to go to ... anywhere.”
David O’Donnell, the bureau’s vice president of communications, says the organization has put effort into amplifying the voices of diverse neighborhoods.
“I'd say any commentary around the bureau not being focused on these neighborhoods reflects an outdated viewpoint,” he said. “Yes, we failed for many years to be energized and engaged outside of membership, but over the past few years we've been so committed to making sure that those stories are being told.”
Former State Representative Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, says the city — and its visitors bureau — hasn't been doing enough to encourage tourists to visit Roxbury.
“You walk into that hotel and you say to the concierge, I want to have some soul food. Where do you think he's going to send you? One restaurant in Boston,” Darryl's, Rushing said. “He's going to send you to one restaurant in Boston, because it's the only one that he thinks is safe for white people — and it happens to be in the South End.”
Rushing has been leading trolley and walking tours through Roxbury for decades.
“We used to send out postcards to everybody's house that we knew we were going to stop in front of,” he said. “We said, you know, you're going to see me walking down the street with a whole bunch of white people following.”
The popular Boston Duck Tours roll through downtown, driving those same vehicles down Columbia Avenue, without stopping, to park in Dorchester.
Knight wants those tours to make Dorchester a priority.
“It's not like they couldn't be doing tours here,” he said. “There's history here that they could be riding through, but they’re just not. And we have to ask ourselves — why?”
Brown, who runs Boston Duck Tours, says expanding tourism to these neighborhoods is an important goal — but the vehicles need timely access to the Charles River at the ramp in Cambridge.
“We feel like an hour and a half is basically as long as someone wants to sit on a vehicle without access to bathrooms for any period of time,” she said.
Tourism is about making money, largely. But for Knight, who leads Live Like A Local Tours, it's also about preserving the history of his birthplace — including the block where his mother raised him.
Knight met a GBH reporter one Saturday morning at the Silver Slipper in Nubian Square — a landmark restaurant established in 1972 that’s frequented mostly by locals looking for a cup of coffee or eggs and links.
Over the sound of greetings shouted over the counter, takeaway orders getting rushed out and the cacophony of the dishwasher, Knight called his mom and asked if he could bring the reporter by to ask a few questions.
On the way up Fort Hill, Knight pointed out landmarks: the chapel of the First Church of Roxbury founded in 1632, the Dillaway Thomas House and the House of Hits, a recording studio that sparked the success of boy bands New Kids on the Block and New Edition.
At the apartment where Knight grew up, his mother, Cordelia Heflin, stood outside on her steps. She's spent 45 years on that same block.
“It's part of history to me, a part of history,” Heflin said. “I mean, I've seen it because I've lived here, but it'd be good for people to come in and really look and get to know the neighborhood.”
Janey's efforts to revitalize tourism in Roxbury could help to preserve the stories of the neighborhood, whose history Knight said he's long been ready to share.
“I'm going to keep pushing because this is my mission,” he said. “I'm going to keep showing people that it's not always the perception that they see in the media, that this is a real community and it has a lot of layered history.”