Decades in the making, a new cultural center celebrating the history and rich culture of Boston’s Haitian community — the first of its kind in New England — is slated to open next May in the city’s West End neighborhood.
The Toussaint L’Ouverture Cultural Center secured a 25-year lease in September on the ground level of the new Lovejoy Wharf, a 2,000-square-foot storefront space near North Station and TD Garden. Members of the center’s task force are hosting a fundraiser at Ula Café in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday, the first of several events in the “Road to TLCC” campaign in the hopes of raising north of $100,000 for the venture.
“We want to give the community an update on what’s going on with the TLCC, how we’re progressing, what the designs will look like, just to get people excited about it,” said Marvin Dee Mathelier, who chairs the center’s executive committee and co-owns Ula Café. “We want to make sure we’re doing the proper outreach so that this can be around for a very, very long time.”
The cultural center will be named for the Haitian revolutionary who was enslaved and led a key successful slave revolt. It will offer a visitor center with a cafe, a gallery and display exhibits, events including author talks, Haitian art, language and dance classes, youth programming, and a cultural library focused on Haitian print, digital materials, books, music and other resources.
The hope, Mathelier says, is to create a space that’s welcoming to members of the state’s Haitian diaspora — one of the largest immigrant populations in Massachusetts — and visitors from all backgrounds.
“I really want this place to be a beacon that shows all the great work Haiti has done around the world and shows Haiti in a positive light,” he said.
Several cultural and educational initiatives have cropped up to celebrate the city’s Haitian diaspora over the years, such as Mattahunt Elementary School’s Haitian Creole dual language pre-K program.
“We have all these great Haitian organizations, but we don’t really have a central hub where they can get together, showcase their artistic talents or cross-pollinate ideas when it comes to addressing certain issues,” Mathelier said. “We’re hoping this cultural center can be a centerpiece for that as well.”
Charlot Lucien, the founder of the Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts, is a member of the cultural center’s executive committee. He says the creation of this space is the result of the hard work of organizations and activists around the state.
“It’s the happy outcome of a movement, one that has been building for decades,” he said. “There has been a longing for something that will memorialize Toussaint L’Ouverture and be a space where we can also educate, engage the community, embrace all the communities and bring the younger generation into the fold.”
Greater Boston is home to the third-largest Haitian community in the country. But Lucien says the region has been “tragically behind” in creating a center of this scope and dimension.
The 25-year lease comes with free rent and a $50,000 building stipend from the city and the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
The center secured the contract when the city sought to bring a new “civic/cultural space” to the space, going up against intimidating proposals from more established organizations.
“When we got the space, tears came down my eyes. It was a very humbling moment,” Mathelier said. “The city of Boston has put a lot of faith in us moving forward with this. We want this to be an amazing experience that people come back to and talk about.”
The location — at 131 Beverly Street, just off the Freedom Trail — is likely to bring in people visiting the city for the first time, “coming from different countries or from the Boston area who just don’t know very much about Haitian culture,” Mathelier said. “It’s an amazing area for us to be able to share this experience and share our culture.”
Ruthzee Louijeune, Boston’s first Haitian American city councilor, celebrated that the center has “finally found a home” in a statement.
“This is a fantastic opportunity not only to support Boston’s Haitian community but to ensure that the West End continues to embrace the rich diversity we see across the city,” Louijeune said.
The next step is to hire and appoint permanent staff, including an executive director, Mathelier said.
The goal is to open the center on May 25 — the Saturday before L’Ouverture’s birthday — in 2024, following a process to enlist the support of community members and secure donations to meet the task force’s ambitious goals, Mathelier said.
“We’re working aggressively because we owe it not just to the city of Boston, the citizens and residents of Boston and the Greater Boston area to make sure that we have a great showpiece,” he said, “but also the Haitian community.”