This blog post is not about the usual suspects discussed when the phrase “Black on Black Crime” is discussed. I’m not talking about boys in the hood, domestic violence or drug wars.
I’m talking about the Black-on-Black crime of the eradication of Black cultural businesses and institutions in Boston.
Taken as individual cases, each may make sense for the people involved. Taken together, I see a pattern of Black people either hurting other Black people by selling Black businesses or helping set up the failure of Black politicians or losing community-based organizations (CBOs).
In a city like Boston where the population of Black people is small to begin with, any loss of a political seat, a restaurant or club, or a CBO has a deleterious impact because a business or institutions is lost, they tend to be loss forever. (Anyone remember Connolly’s?)
I started to thinking about this the other night and these examples jumped quickly to my mind:
The selling of WILD Radio 1090 by the widow of its original owner to Black-owned Radio One who summarily moved the offices from their beloved community-based space to a suburban office. They got rid of the local talent and put the station up for sale. It languishes a shadow of its former self, while it waits for someone to purchase it. Radio One didn’t care about preserving a community institution or Black presence on radio in Boston. (Worth noting that the station was always limited because of the lack of evening programming.)
The former Bob-the-Chef’s restaurant, which existed for 50 years, was a place you could count on to get your soul food grub on. Located at the edge of Roxbury, on Columbus Ave. near Mass. Ave., it was just over the border from the South End. A new Black owner buys it, remodels it, changes the name and the atmosphere, broadens the food selection a little (and adds liquor) – all of it within his right. It is no longer a spot where families will come so much but it is lively. Then he sells it. The restaurant/bistro no longer exists. (A white owner gutted the space and opened something that stayed open less than six months.)
Because of this sale there is no sit-down restaurant in Roxbury or Dorchester where you can have soulful Southern cuisines in comfort or that you would bring out-of-town guests to. (Yes there are a few places that sell soul food like Slade’s but Slade’s is a bar that sells food and has a limited menu. Chef Lee’s is no longer located in Uphams Corner with a few tables, it is now in Grove Hall and is basically take-out.) With Bob’s gone, there’s one less reminder that this part of Roxbury was home to the African-American community and not to Northeastern College students – not that there’s anything wrong with college students.
Speaking of Slade’s – the son of the original owner sold it and it is now owned by someone who’s not Black. So far the music and food haven’t changed but the countdown to a change has begun. (Just down the street, Estelle’s changed from Black ownership and patronage a few years ago.)
Does anyone remember Café Dudley, which had ambience and delicious food (if slow service)? It was right next to Dudley Station and it’s demise was a Black-on-Black catastrophe.
Thank goodness that Wally’s is holding on and remains owned by its original Black family and the last example of the jazz clubs that thrived in the area.
OF COURSE OWNERS HAVE THE RIGHT TO SELL WHAT THEY OWN. Like I said at the start of this entry – taken alone these incidents don’t seem like much, but taken together and looking at the fact that this has all happened within the last 5 years, it feels like there’s a pattern…only this time “the man” is “the us.” We are doing it to ourselves, getting rid of our own businesses and organizations, cutting off our legacy, and erasing living evidence that Black people owned businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs in Boston that thrived for a good while.
Ron Wilburn, a Black businessman who wanted to open a jazz club in Roxbury dropped a dime on former State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (the only state senator of color) when she asked him to pay for her to help him get a liquor license. (I thought everybody had to pay to play especially when it comes to liquor licenses.) Now, Dianne’s financial house has been in disarray for sometime and she has done her share of tacky stuff, but she was a brilliant politician who’d put in years of service and had some clout and pull. So this brother helped set her up. Now, after a few months, he realizes that he was used by “the man” to help eliminate her and Councilor Chuck Turner…too bad he couldn’t have seen this ahead of time.
Chuck’s not going down, however, without a fight. Luckily he has run his organization professionally and has a reputation that is sterling which means that many more people will go to bat on his behalf.
A Nubian Notion, Inc.(ANN), a family owned business for almost 40 years and an anchor store in the Dudley Business district throughout the lean years with two locations a half-block apart was done in by “the community man.” Nuestra Comunidad who rehabbed the Dartmouth Hotel where ANN was located and ANN anchor store, a freestanding one story building. (Like many people, I’d always assumed that ANN owned that building – turns out, they didn’t.) A new but much smaller space was given to ANN. Things went south and now the cultural store (where led many shopping tours for Discover Roxbury) is now back in one space – cramped inside the convenience store.
While Nuestra, a CBO, wasn’t headed by a Black or other person of color – it was still a CBO that was supposed to help not hinder or help eliminate the best interests of the community. In presentations I attended when Nuestra was acquiring the Dartmouth Hotel, they pledged to support the existing business. Now ANN is a shadow of its former self. (Perhaps the original crime was that the A Nubian Notion Family didn’t buy a building back when no developers were looking at Dudley and the getting was good.)
(I do give props to Nuestra for restoring the Dartmouth hotel and removing decades of grime and renovating and occupying the upper floors with residential units. Congrats to them on erecting the new building where ANN was, although, since the ground floor retains retail it seems that they could have added floors to the original building and kept ANN in that space where they were doing, to quote Mary J. Blige “just fine-fine-fine-fine-fine!)
Ownership nearly always trumps renting.
On the brink:
Lena Park, Roxbury Multiservice Center, and the Urban League are being dismantled or are on life-support. Ditto ACT Roxbury, my old haunt. The reasons include lack of proper stewardship, lack of investment before the economic downturn, paltry giving by individuals, leadership that doesn’t represent community interests (not that anyone can agree what this means), and over-reliance on philanthropic dollars (a fickle source of support if there was one).
Boston’s Black community is hurting from a steady erosion of its institutions and political power. And the shame is – we are doing it to ourselves!
(Yeah, I know, the white power structure over the years has done the lion’s share of damage to the Black community. But I expect that. Depending on the project, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been foe or friend. Connolly’s Tavern/ played live jazz for 55 years but was shut down in 1997 by the BRA. The parcel still sits vacant. At the very least, the music could still have been going on until a developer was actually ready to start building. Currently, the National Center of African-American Artists is in a struggle to secure funding for their vision for the parcel, because the BRA has de-designated them as developers.)
What we’ve done to ourselves as Black people is short-sighted and self-destructive. Power comes from the ability to employ our own family members and neighbors, have our own gathering spots, donate to our own schools and organizations, and have voices* that represent our own interest. At this, we are failing Black Boston.
Can you imagine all the Irish pubs, Italian restaurants, Latino bodegas going down one-after-the-other like Black businesses have?
A Parting Thought
Thank goodness for more than 45 years of the Bay State Banner, Boston’s Black newspaper, but, wait-a-minute, there is potential trouble there as well. I don’t know what publisher Mel Miller’s succession plan is. Our lone Black newspaper could be owned, upon its owner’s death, by his white wife (who has toiled there and improved its marketing and advertising) but who, champion that she is, is not Black. And another Black-founded and owned cultural institution could bite-the-dust.
(*I acknowledge the efforts of Touch 106.1 FM but they lack the bandwidth that WILD had.)