As shiny new buildings pop up along Harrison Avenue and 20-somethings invade weekend festivals, artists cling to their hope that SoWa district won’t lose too much of its soul.

When AREA founder David Guerra was searching for a brick-and-mortar headquarters for his multidisciplinary art initiative—first launched from his South End apartment, where he tested the model by hosting hip happenings—SoWa seemed like an obvious choice.

After all, AREA is most interested in showcasing emerging artists creating edgy and innovative works in all mediums, particularly people of color and other underrepresented communities “not always reflected in the Boston arts scene,” Guerra says. He’s been fulfilling that promise since AREA opened its doors in December at 460 Harrison Ave., the latest of dozens of ground-floor galleries nestled among the art district’s industrial-chic condo buildings. So far the space has hosted intimate, conceptual dinners with Boston star chefs, interactive events where guests use wearable technology to engage with artwork through movement and sound, and exciting exhibitions like the just-opened Transparent?, an exploration of personal and political themes by artists from Guerra’s native Cuba.

AREA fits into the popular narrative that SoWa offers Boston’s best arts scene, and is strong evidence its coveted status remains intact. SoWa is currently home to 300 working artist studios and Boston’s largest concentration of contemporary galleries, according to GTI Properties, the neighborhood’s dominant real estate developer.

“It’s transformed from a downtrodden area into one of the most vibrant communities in the city,” says Debby Krim of the SoWa Artists Guild.

But as the upscale-trending locale writes new chapters in its grit-to-glitz story, its reputation for destination-worthy fine art becomes increasingly eclipsed by an association with weekend fairs, food truck fleets and crowded beer fests. Some longtime locals are now wondering how long art can remain at the beating heart of SoWa.

The “south of Washington Street” stretch of the South End received its catchy, modern marketing-friendly moniker in the late ’90s from GTI. Founder Mario Nicosia scooped up millions of square feet of abandoned brick factories he successfully used to cultivate the area’s arts scene and build up a bona fide sanctuary for gallery-strollers. Long before then, SoWa streets sold the kind of spunky urban rawness that invariably appeals to creatives. Known by some as the New York Streets, the area was populated largely by artists—many of them struggling squatters in semi-vacant buildings—as well as public housing tenants and residents at Pine Street Inn, a long-standing homeless shelter barely into its current 99-year lease. Old-timers eagerly tell tales involving grimier strains of charm, higher crime and lower rents.

Today, that history is hard to see. With exponential acceleration in recent years—and no signs of slowing anytime soon—SoWa has transformed into a booming enclave for the very-upwardly mobile. GTI paved the way, renovating its portfolio of manufacturing-era properties into artist lofts and galleries, high-end shops and buzzy restaurants like Gaslight Brasserie du Coin and Cinquecento.

“The transformation has been nothing short of incredible,” says Seth Woods, founder of those restaurants’ parent company, the Aquitaine Group. A New York native, Woods was attracted to the “grit” of SoWa and saw the potential in Nicosia’s plans for the district. With its 2009 opening, Gaslight helped expand the literal boundaries of the South End’s booming dining scene.

More recently, expensive doors have opened at mixed-use developments like Ink Block and Troy Boston, the kind of practically self-sustainable communities where you can rent a $3,000/month studio apartment upstairs, take a $27 yoga class at a ground-level tenant and refuel with salad bowls from neighboring Whole Foods, official flag-planter of gentrified ’hoods.

Urban redevelopment is itself an art, and right now, deep-pocketed investors are sculpting an entirely new face for this part of the South End. As with all art, the result is open to interpretation. And in speaking with neighborhood gallerists, artists and other creatives, it becomes clear that most folks view the evolution of SoWa from two different angles.

Some see a hub of exciting change and inspired dynamism: “It’s fantastic; I see nothing but new opportunities,” says milliner Marie Galvin. For more than a decade, she has kept a design studio and boutique among the art-retail spaces in 450 Harrison Ave., a massive GTI-owned building. “Harrison Avenue used to be sketchy. Now it’s so posh,” says the hard-working hat-maker, whose business booms around the Kentucky Derby. The more bustling the neighborhood becomes, the more prospective clients might see her street-side, Parisian-style window display filled with mannequins modeling her handcrafted high-fashion fascinators.

Others see a loss of authenticity and a squeezing-out of the artistic energy that originally fueled the district. “It’s just so slick and commercial now,” says Jennifer Moses, director of Kingston Gallery, located just a few doors down from Galvin’s millinery. Kingston, founded downtown in 1982 and the second-oldest artist-run gallery in Boston, moved to SoWa in 1997, when Moses says the scene appealed to fringe-flirting artists seeking an avant-garde alternative to the Newbury Street establishment. Ironically, a number of longtime Newbury Street institutions, like Alpha Gallery and International Poster Gallery, have recently relocated to SoWa as the even pricier Back Bay hemorrhages art spaces.

Arlette Kayafas (left), Seth Woods (right)

Overall, SoWa creatives share positive perspectives on GTI. They praise the developer for fostering SoWa’s arts scene and continuing to offer artists below-market rents. There’s some grousing, though, that the longtime landlord is playing harder ball since other developers started descending in the area, introducing rent hikes and lease stipulations, like a requirement that tenants stay open on Sundays to accommodate the thick throngs of the seasonal SoWa Open Market.

Kingston Gallery sticks to a long-held business plan of covering expenses mainly through member dues, making its space less reliant on sales than other galleries and freeing artists to exhibit more challenging and experimental works. Still, Moses is among several gallerists reporting that area artists are increasingly whispering about a future in even more affordable East Boston, home to underdeveloped industrial swaths (sound familiar?) and burgeoning art-world potential. This summer, the Institute of Contemporary Art opens a 15,000-square-foot, $10 million satellite location in a former Eastie copper pipe factory.

“It has been the case, for a very long time, that artists sort of make a neighborhood vital and then get displaced,” Moses says.

That reciprocal relationship between financially fragile artists and the well-heeled, culture-loving clients who can afford to keep them afloat—a weird dance of interdependence, trust and tension—is not a new story. What’s happening in SoWa, some say, is just another manifestation of that familiar tale.   

“Artists depend on wealthy people even while we poke them in the eye,” says James Hull, an established Boston artist, art educator and museum installation technician whose resume includes converting an Orange Line MBTA station into the one-time Green Street Gallery. Hull lives in Laconia Lofts, a 2000-built pioneer of SoWa luxury living, and is the president of its ground-floor gallery. He scored his space through the “little miracle” of a Boston Redevelopment Authority initiative that designated certain units as affordable live-work lofts for artists. Hull says without such programs, many fellow creatives couldn’t afford to live in the arts-embracing South End. 

Stephen Silver

Then again, “hobnobbing above your station and class” is a historic hallmark of the artist experience, Hull says, recalling the relationships between poor Renaissance artists and the wealthy families who paid them for portraits and frescos. It’s not yet clear whether the new money pouring into SoWa will result in the same kind of patronage the Pope paid.

The Abbey Group, which is currently developing a $1 billion tech-and-life science campus for the 5.6-acre SoWa site of the former Boston Flower Exchange, has included a cultural center in its plans, though details are scarce. At now-leasing 345 Harrison, where rates start at $2,800 for studios, a diverse art collection will be a “signature design element” of the building, according to a spokesperson. So far,
significant commissioned works include installations from artists based in Cambridge and Michigan. Some SoWa creatives say they’ve been surprised to not receive more contact from developers about partnering specifically with neighborhood-based artists.

“As more buildings get built, it would be great if they utilized the creative people who are right here,” says Patrick Planeta, whose design group and fine art brokerage practice is housed in a former mill building on Albany Street, where, he says, affordability has been protected by an art-champion landlord. “There’s so much talent already in the neighborhood, and I don’t think they always [utilize it].”

The recently opened AC Hotel at Ink Block has its own art gallery; the current exhibition represents several South End artists. And Underground at Ink Block, a new park under the I-93 overpass, is covered in 150,000-square feet of mural walls painted by street artists tapped from near and far. The park will be activated with a calendar of happenings, including a Castle Island Brewing Co. beer garden slinging suds Thursday through Sunday from mid-May to mid-October.

Thanks to pedestrian-friendly side-streets, still-empty parcels and parking lots, SoWa has become a popular site for special events—many of them organized by GTI, which produces recurring activities like the SoWa Art Walk and that aforementioned hugely popular SoWa Open Market, a weekly sea of white tents where vendors hawk artisan wares, farmers market groceries and more. GTI even has a designated staff member, Aida Villarreal-Licona, dedicated to coordinating and marketing community and arts events. Villarreal-Licona is developing new initiatives, including a series of workshops designed to better connect residents with their artist neighbors.

Whether it comes from new developers or GTI’s own events, the more activity in the neighborhood, the better for everyone, says Brad St. Amand, director of operations for GTI.

“It’s great to see all the new developments going ahead,” Amand says. “We like that, the more people that are here. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Plenty agree, including Stephen Silver, founder of the SoWa Artists Guild, and Debby Krim, who co-runs the nonprofit collective of 84 members (the largest number since the Guild’s 2005 launch) housed inside 450 Harrison. They’re enthusiastic cheerleaders for the transformation of SoWa, and understandably so. The area has blossomed brightly, they say, becoming a safer and more exciting arts district. The influx of new residents and festive events, including the guild’s long-running First Fridays series, only enhance SoWa’s vibrancy and encourage more visitors to studio spaces at 450 Harrison, where artists of every stripe—painters, photographers, sculptors, jewelers—ply their craft to share their passion and pay the rent, if not necessarily to make a living. Anecdotally speaking, Silver and Krim say the majority of guild members are older and established professionals, some semi-retired, for whom artmaking is a second career.

Debbie Krim

Where margins matter more for full-time artists, there’s less consensus that a bigger, bustling SoWa is paying dividends. Some gallerists say that the hangout-friendly, weekend carnival-like atmosphere brings plenty of traffic, baby strollers and hip-seeking 20- and 30-somethings who spend cash on trinkets, craft beers and local restaurants but don’t bother to explore the highbrow gallery spaces that gave SoWa its arts-district rep. Crowds are bigger but less, well, curated than the more motivated fine art buyers who previously descended on the district with purchasing intent.

“They’re interested in the beer garden that’s down there on Sunday and the food trucks,” says Arlette Kayafas, whose Gallery Kayafas has been a SoWa stalwart since 2002. “I’m not being facetious and I’m not putting that down. I think that’s an important part of the community. But they’re not interested in coming through the door of a gallery. There’s something about coming through the door of a gallery that seems unwelcoming to some, and that’s the thing I would like to see overcome.”

“What anchored the place in the beginning—the art—still has to be a priority,” adds Kayafas, whose exhibits of always-powerful, frequently political and occasionally provocative work are far removed from SoWa’s more commercial side.

Artistic integrity can be expensive overhead in an upmarket neighborhood, so even some highly lauded SoWa galleries, including Galeria Cubana, have recently closed their brick-and-mortar doors to reinvent as art-advisory and pop-up projects.

“The tenor of the neighborhood has changed,” says Camilo Alvarez, who shuttered his Samsøn Projects in November after 14 years. Alvarez’s SoWa gallery was widely considered one of the most exciting in Boston, highlighting the kind of diverse communities, experimental works and interdisciplinary approaches that garner national notice.

It’s the same ethos adopted by promising newcomer AREA, which opened across the street mere weeks after Samsøn’s shuttering.

Alvarez saved a subversive artistic statement for his final SoWa show: Immigrancy. He propped open the gallery door with a sculpture from queer Boston artist Steve Locke, a bright yellow road sign bearing the term “gentrification.”

How to read it, exactly? Depends which way you’re going: moving in, or moving on. ■


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