Though Roxbury has historic landmarks, breweries, and restaurants, Boston’s predominantly black neighborhood has had problems attracting tourists for decades. Out of town and suburban visitors have stayed away because of the neighborhood’s reputation. One pattern local tourism professionals say is that the city has historically done little to change.
“You usually hear a very negative, dysfunctional narrative about Roxbury,” said Kelley Chunn, founder of the Roxbury Cultural District. “It’s usually violent. It’s not to say that negative things don’t happen, but it’s very one-sided. It’s just one dimension of community, the neighborhood. ”
Chunn isn’t the only one hoping to rewrite Roxbury’s narrative. Collin Knight has been guiding the neighborhood in which he grew up since 2019.
“This has been a thriving epicenter of black culture for many, many years. I just think the city ignored that for a long time, “he said.
This could change soon. Earlier this month, incumbent Mayor of Boston Kim Janey announced a $ 2 million program developed during the Walsh administration to promote tourism in the often overlooked neighborhoods of Boston. “The all-inclusive campaign in Boston boldly puts our employees and our neighborhoods at the fore for the first time,” she said at a new conference.
Roxbury, originally inhabited by the Massachusett Nation and founded by Puritans in the 17th century, is home to landmarks that date back to colonial times, the War of Independence, the Abolitionist era and the civil rights movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd with a bull’s horn on April 22, 1965 in the Roxbury section of Boston. King in Boston to lead a civil rights march toured the Roxbury section to see some of the schools in a predominantly African-American district. He urged the audience to take part in the march. He will address a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature. (AP photo)
Anonymous / AP
The Eliot burial ground, one of the city’s oldest colonial cemeteries, is on Nubian Square. Visitors can tour the home of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and see the Boston skyline from the Dillaway Thomas House, a museum that served as the headquarters of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
In the 1800s, the Germans flocked to Roxbury, creating a brewing culture that still exists, but with new breweries and restaurants.
It was here that Malcolm X grew up in a house that was still preserved, and Martin Luther King Jr. started the city’s first civil rights march in 1965.
However, it is difficult to find a brochure that guides tourists to Roxbury or Dorchester. There aren’t many hotels in these neighborhoods, and those in downtown are closer to attractions like Fenway Park, Boston Duck Tours, and the Freedom Trail.
In Roxbury, Chunn has worked to promote arts and cultural events such as Nubian Nights, a jazz and multimedia show in Nubian Square. She says Janey’s new campaign marks the first time the city has really devoted resources to attracting tourists to the neighborhood.
“It is probably the greatest effort made in the city’s history to connect downtown with downtown,” said Chunn. “And that way, I think it’s unique because I used to be very frustrated that tourists didn’t want to go much beyond Darryl’s Corner Bar and Grill.”
According to Cindy Brown, CEO of Boston Duck Tours and vice president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the tourism budget for Boston is smaller than other cities, and tourists will not go where they are not told to.
“There has to be a promotion to attract people [there]”She said.” Not everyone from a random city or state is comfortable getting on a subway train to … go anywhere. ”
David O’Donnell, the office’s vice president of communications, says the organization has made efforts to amplify the voices of different neighborhoods.
“I would say that any comment around the office that does not focus on these neighborhoods reflects an outdated point of view,” he said. “Yes, we have failed to get energized and engaged outside of membership for many years, but in recent years we’ve worked so hard to get these stories told.”
FILE – In this file photo dated March 29, 2016, Rodnell P. Collins carries a painting by his uncle Malcolm X in front of the house where the murdered African American activist spent part of his teenage years in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. According to the National Park Service, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 2021. (AP Photo / Bill Sikes, File)
Bill Sikes / AP
Former state representative Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, said the city – and its visitor office – had not done enough to encourage tourists to visit Roxbury.
“You go to this hotel and tell the concierge I want some soul food. Where do you think he will send you? A restaurant in Boston, ”Rushing said. “He’s going to send you to a restaurant in Boston because it’s the only one he thinks is safe for whites – and it happens to be in the South End.”
Rushing has been running trolley and walking tours of Roxbury for decades.
“We used to send postcards to anyone we knew we would stop in front of them,” he said. “We said you know you will see me walking down the street followed by a whole bunch of white people.”
The popular Boston Duck Tours roll through downtown and travel down Columbia Avenue in the same vehicles without stopping to park in Dorchester.
Knight wants these tours to make Dorchester a priority.
“It’s not that they can’t tour here,” he said. “There’s a story here that you could ride through, but it’s just not. And we have to ask ourselves – why? “
Brown, who runs Boston Duck Tours, says expanding tourism to these neighborhoods is a major goal – but vehicles need timely access to the Charles River at the ramp in Cambridge.
“We believe an hour and a half is basically how long someone would want to sit in a vehicle without access to the bathrooms for a period of time,” she said.
Tourism is mostly about making money. But for Knight, who runs Live Like A Local Tours, it’s also about preserving the history of his birthplace – including the block where his mother raised him.
One Saturday morning, Knight met an GBH reporter at Silver Slipper in Nubian Square – a landmark restaurant founded in 1972 that is frequented mostly by locals looking for a cup of coffee or eggs and links.
Knight called his mother and asked if he could get the reporter to ask a few questions.
On the way to Fort Hill, Knight pointed out landmarks: the First Church of Roxbury Chapel, founded in 1632, the Dillaway Thomas House, and the House of Hits, a recording studio that sparked the success of boy bands New Kids on the Block and New Edition.
Collin Knight stands in front of the First Church in Roxbury and has been used by English settlers since 1632. On April 17, 2021 there is a unitary universalist church here
Tori Bedford / GBH News
In the apartment where Knight grew up, his mother Cordelia Heflin was standing outside on her steps. She spent 45 years in the same block.
“It’s part of the story for me, part of the story,” said Heflin. “I mean, I saw it because I lived here, but it would be good if people came in and really looked up and got to know the neighborhood.”
Janey’s efforts to revitalize tourism in Roxbury could help preserve the stories of the neighborhood, whose story Knight said he was long ready to share.
“I will keep pushing because this is my mission,” he said. “I will continue to show people that it is not always the perception they see in the media that this is a real community and that it has a multilayered history.”