A vital downtown starts with Main Street
Boston is the first city in the US to adopt a national revitalization program for most of its neighborhoods
In order to get Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to attend the grand opening of Ampersand Designs, a boutique that is her first business, Kristen Keefe had to reschedule the event once and generally exercise a lot of patience.Skip to next paragraph
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"It took a long time, but he did come and was very gracious," says Ms. Keefe, recalling the 20 or 25 minutes the mayor spent at the ribbon-cutting.
While this may seem an unremarkable vignette, it captures the essence of an urban-revitalization effort that is attracting increasing attention.
In fact, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls the Boston Main Streets program, which brought the mayor and Keefe together, a model for the entire nation.
The National Trust has long fostered grass-roots revitalization in historic and traditional commercial districts through its Main Street program, but Boston, in 1995, became the first community to take the program citywide.
Baltimore has begun to follow Boston's lead and officials from other major cities keep visiting Boston to find out for themselves how this urban neighborhood renaissance works.
From her experience, Keefe knows the benefits can begin early for a budding entrepreneur. In seeking the best home for her shop, which sells furnishings, decorative accessories, and gifts, she needed dependable demographic data. She struggled to find some that didn't come with a stiff marketing-analysis fee.
Once she was steered to the Roslindale Village Main Street program, she immediately got the needed information - for free. "The fact that I could make a phone call, meet with someone, and they would hand over the research to me and share their experiences was a huge comfort," she says. "I had a sense there was a community here."
Getting everybody on the bandwagon
That is precisely the point: to get local people - merchants, residents, and property owners - to create a shared vision, which can be pursued with the help of professional planners, architects, public-services personnel, and corporate backers.
Kennedy Smith, the director of National Main Street Center, says the program provides a matrix for self-help in four areas - promotion, design, organization, and economic restructuring.
"Boston is taking the Main Street program in a new direction because it's really pushing the envelope and packing as much into that matrix as it can," Ms. Kennedy says. In particular, she points to the way Boston's Office of Business Development helps businesses access the full range of city services.
The Boston Main Streets program provides a wealth of technical assistance and a six-year funding package that is gradually scaled back to encourage self-sustainability. In addition, each group is matched with a corporation that contributes professional help and $10,000 a year over four years.
"This program came out of the mayor's desire to make sure the neighborhoods get their share, that everything isn't just focused on downtown development," says Emily Haber, director of Boston Main Streets.
As a city councilor in the mid-1980s, Mr. Menino convinced the National Trust for Historic Preservation to try out its Main Street concept in Roslindale.
Though once-sleepy Roslindale began to make a comeback, the Trust found little receptivity in other cities. "Mayors kind of laughed at us when we knocked on their doors," says the Trust's Ms. Smith. "They said if it isn't a multimillion-dollar federal grant program, they couldn't imagine it being successful."
Still, the Roslindale experiment worked well enough to take it citywide. Originally 10 neighborhoods were selected in a competitive application process, and now 19 of 32 commercial districts in Boston are participants.
Ms. Haber says the program attempts to help each community define and express its own character. In Boston, this means tapping the African-American heritage of Dudley Square, the ethnically eclectic shops of Allston Village, and the Latino image of the Hyde/Jackson area.