Arts Today: South End

By Brandon Palmer

 Upscale Union St. community in South End. Photo by Brandon Palmer

Upscale Union St. community in South End. Photo by Brandon Palmer

 

Families looking for a home in Boston have likely heard of the South End neighborhood. This busy historical area is known as a thriving incubator of visual art, music, theater, dinning, and more. Whether out and about for an evening of unique food with fusion jazz, or exploring the latest offerings at a nearby gallery, South End has delicious and intriguing offerings for the visiting art lover. For those looking to move here, however, this neighborhood’s sky-high price tag is a huge problem that may be draining the life out of the art scene.

The word seems to be that South End has lost its edge. The self-proclaimed wise-ass blog “The South End Is Over” venomously raves against the gentrification that has been steadily moving in since at least 2006 (when the blog was first created). More recently in 2015, there was a book published about the topic by Sylvie Tissot called, “Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End.” These sources are saying that South End has lost diversity to gentrification; The art I noticed in the galleries seems to be reflecting this, but I wouldn’t blow it out of proportion. There does seem to be quite a bit of “safe” subject matter, such as nature and non-objective abstraction. Matter + Light, one of the most visible galleries in the SoWa district, contained mostly abstract expressionism of nature during my visit. The artists studios I visited also mostly contained these kinds of art subjects. From the opinions off authors, residents, and my own observations, South End is now a more exclusive middle to upper class neighborhood with art to match. This is not a bad thing, but is a reflection of the changing demographics in South End.

If you are an artist and are planning on moving to South End, this neighborhood could use your innovation and passion for change. Boston is enthusiastic about art, and there are several ways you can get help kickstarting your career; the Boston Cultural Council, for example, supports artists financially by offering Grants. There are currently three offered: Organizational grants, an opportunity fund, and an Artist Fellowship Award. These are awarded to a few people each year (5-10, depending on the grant) and provide up to $10,000 in funds. Other options include the Boston AIR (Boston Artists-in-Residence) grant and organizational grants, to name a few.

 The SOWA District. Photo by Brandon Palmer

The SOWA District. Photo by Brandon Palmer

 Artists who are seeking a home might find one at the SoWa guild. The SoWa (South Of Washington) art and design district is perhaps the most visible art hub in South End, and it effectively attracts the audiences that creatives need to  drive their work. This area used to be only warehouses, but today it thrives with over forty galleries, many unique restaurants, boutiques, and artist studios. The guild is a non-profit association who’s artists, “…Share dedication to their work, pursuit of artistic quality, and unwavering commitment to art and community,” according to their website. The popularity and desirability of this association is evidenced by it’s two year waiting list.

SoWa’s effectiveness revolves around the First Friday event and the famous Summer Open Market, Winter Market, and Vintage Market. These events are very popular and attract huge  numbers of residents from all over Boston. In the summer, visitors are treated to a variety of  handmade creations from local artists, including edibles from food trucks. All through the year, visitors can also visit the studios on First Fridays, a once-a-month open studio event. The SoWa guild is home to more then 100 artists, many of who’s studios share a single building. These artists open up their doors once a month for an open house event where all can visit with individual artists and see their work. First Friday is an experience unlike any museum; It’s not a refined experience, but is meant to be a casual meet and greet between the art, artist, and the curious consumer. Paintings, photographs, sculptures, fashion, jewelry, and even furniture and interior design elements are on display. If you fall in love with a work, and you most likely will, it is available for purchase on the spot; just ask the artist! You are sure to meet some very friendly people who absolutely love to chat about their passion.

Overall, these events seem to do good work of uniting the artistic community. The studios, galleries and other elements of the SoWa district are all highly visible, but the creators themselves are not as visible as they could be. In person, they are as friendly and open as anyone could hope, but some kind of monthly artist spotlight would be very welcome here; perhaps a video highlighting a particular piece, or a publication sharing individual stories. This would not only help the community at large make a personal connection, but would support the artist culture as well.

After taking in the galleries and studios, there are many diverse restaurants in the area to be enjoyed. Cuisine options include (but are certainly not limited to): Cambodian and French at The Elephant Walk; Italian at Cinquecento; and steak at Boston Chops. The number and diversity of eateries in South End is overwhelming; cafe’s, bakeries, and taverns can all be found in abundance. With so many options, you could eat out once a week for a year and never find the same restaurant twice. Expect quality food and a high level of service from most establishments, many of whom proudly display “A” sanitary inspection ratings from the city of Boston. Food prices seem neither too low or too high, especially if you pair your dinner with free live music.

 Brunch crowd at the Beehive. Photo by Brandon Palmer

Brunch crowd at the Beehive. Photo by Brandon Palmer

Several restaurants in South End, such as The Beehive, feature small venues for live music. This particular venue is very popular with musicians, judging by the monthly calendar, which is often packed with jazz groups. While you enjoy the music, there are many deliciously simple brunch and dinner options to choose from. For brunch, I highly recommend the duck hash with sweet potato, squash, parsnip, apple, and scrambled eggs. The Beehive is located in the Boston Center for the Arts complex on Tremont Street.

Though the fine restaurants and art galleries make South End an engaging neighborhood for the family, the cost might be difficult to reconcile. Average home prices here are $817,900 and are expected to rise 2.8% in the next year, according to zillow.com. The site southendapartments.com reports that South End ranks as the third most expensive area in Boston for one and two-bedroom apartment rentals. The SOWA guild promotes three inner-city living spaces, with prices ranging from $2,500 for 600-800 square-feet to $4,750 for 1400 square-feet. Those who are considering living in South End will find high prices that exceed Boston averages. Few families can handle those prices, and I suspect that is going to rob South End of innovation and experimentation brought in by new emerging (and poor) artists. This problem can only get worse if the status quo remains. Contemporary art has gained strength in Boston through the Institute of Contemporary Art and additions to the MFA, but South End seems to have been left behind with new condo buildings and high costs of living.  

 “Rise To Change”. Facilitating artist Ruth K. Henry. Photo by Brandon Palmer

“Rise To Change”. Facilitating artist Ruth K. Henry. Photo by Brandon Palmer

Thankfully, recent street art has offered some  encouragement to South End. One new piece made in summer 2017, called Rise to Change, is a mural that hangs in the O’Day Playground. This detailed and colorful piece shows hand-drawn images and quotes that show the problems of racial violence and the American prison system. The piece overall conveys a message of flowering hope for change that springs from the gears, which I assume represents systematic racism. This piece, which received no media attention that I could find, came as a breath of fresh air after visiting the SoWa galleries. 

Also added this year is a new park called Ink Underground, located underneath the Southeast Expressway in the north-corner of South End where South Boston connects. This reclaimed space is now a park filled with 150,000 square-feet of murals painted by mostly Boston artists, but including several from New York, Puerto Rico, and LA. As the space is barely four months old at this point, the calendar is empty of new events now. National Development, who leases the space (and owns the Ink Block apartment building close by), has promised to update the calendar this winter with “new and amazing events” for 2018.

The South End is still a fun and active arts destination, despite the lack of challenging subjects and the subdued diversity. Every shop and cafe seemingly has life, character, and art tucked into every corner. Events seem to be happening every evening, be it at the Huntington Theater, Boston Ballet, SoWa district, or the Beehive. Entertainment and art are here in abundance for families to enjoy, provided they can make the trip; living here is certainly out of the question for many low-income families. Affordable housing is important in keeping life flowing through this art scene. If South End doesn’t see a drop in home prices, the young and daring artists will go elsewhere to create.