Boston, It’s Time to Rebrand

Johane Alexis-Phanor
6 min readJun 4, 2023
From left to right, top to bottom: 1. Embrace Boston statue to honor MLK by Hank Willis located in Downtown Boston| 2. Harriet Tubman-major figure in Boston’s underground railroad| 3. Photo: John Tlumacki/Boston Globe. Carribean Festival in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood | 4. Photo: The Bay State Banner. Haitian American-Unity Parade located in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood | 5. Photo:Robin Lubokk/WBUR. Mural:Breathe1 by Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood | 6. Roxbury International Film Festival| 7. Mural of Boston activist Mel King by Genaro Ortega located in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood
The City of Boston is undergoing its first city wide plan in 50 years called Imagine Boston 2030

The month of May was Haitian Heritage month and the 2nd to last weekend, Bostonians celebrated with the Haitian-American Unity Parade. Thousands came out to enjoy food, music and community as a parade of floats, dance troupes and musicians led a procession down Blue Hill Avenue from Mattapan Square to Harambee Park in Dorchester. Boston has the third largest population of Haitians in the country and almost 30% of Boston residents are foreign born. As I listened to one major Boston media outlet leading up to the parade, there was very little mention of this local event that’s been taking place for more than 20 years. Yet, multiple stories about the Taylor Swift concert and how it would affect the City were run over and over again. This erasure of the rich Black cultural fabric that shapes the City of Boston is commonplace. Travel outside of Massachusetts, and no one knows Black people even exist in this City, because for so long Black Bostonians’ positive contributions have been diminished. Boston is a diverse cosmopolitan city. However, its Black cultural heritage is underutilized. It is a key asset that can be used to drive tourism and commerce and to foster greater prosperity for a larger segment of the population.

A Hub of Black Liberation

Harriet Tubman traveled frequently to Boston to garner support for her efforts on the Underground Railroad
Mural of Boston activist Mel King by Genaro Ortega located in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood

Boston has been an epicenter of Black liberation since the 1700s when Quock Walker sued for and won his freedom. In the 1800s, Black abolitionists turned their homes into safe houses for fugitive slaves. We were an important location on the underground railroad as Harriet Tubman often visited Boston to raise funds and speak at meetings to sustain her efforts. Black activists like William Monroe Trotter advocated for Black freedom in The Guardian, the first weekly paper for Black Americans. Boston’s legacy of Black activism extended all the way through Martin Luther King, Melnea Cass, and Mel King, whose recent death we mourned by remembering his efforts to build community power through his work as an educator, politician and organizer.

Massive Diversity Within Boston’s Black Diaspora

Photo: Boston Police Department. Carribean Festival in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood

Boston, it’s time to rebrand. And with Imagine Boston 2030, the first citywide plan in 50 years, this is the perfect time to do so. Boston is one of the oldest cities in the country with a storied past but we’re more than just the Puritans, the Revolutionary War, and the Pilgrims. We’re more than just the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. There is vibrant Black history and Black communities that have given life to this City. According to a report by The Boston Foundation, Embrace Boston, and Boston Indicators, about 26% of Boston’s population is Black (including Afro-Latinos and multiracial Blacks) which is higher than the country’s national average of 14.2 %. Furthermore, Boston has the most diverse population of Black people in the country- greater than Miami, New York, and Atlanta.

Boston’s Racial Wealth Gap

A rendering of the St. Regis Residences Boston at 150 Seaport Boulevard completed in 2021. / St. Regis Residences, Boston/Elkus Manfredi Architects

Unfortunately, this strength in diversity has not always translated to economic opportunities for Black people. In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s “The Color of Wealth Report” found that the median net worth of White Bostonians was $257, 450 while the median net worth of Black Bostonians was $8. Yet, as this massive racial wealth gap persists, the Seaport has received $22 billion in public investments over the past decade to create a city for the wealthy from an uninhabitable industrial landfill (the median income of the Seaport is $153,545, the highest in Boston and twice the City’s average).

A New Black Mecca: Four Ways to Leverage Boston’s Black Cultural Assets for City Planning and Prosperity

Mural: Breathe1 by Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood

As we plan for the future of Boston and strive to close the wealth gap, resources mirroring those given to the Seaport must be invested in the areas that would lead to the greatest impact- our Black neighborhoods. Here are 4 ways we can use city planning to transform Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan into a Black cultural mecca for travelers from all around the world:

With the right investments and infrastructure, Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan can be transformed into a new Black cultural mecca.

Boston’s Black Market Nubian is an initiative to develop a series of public murals and installations as a catalyst for neighborhood economic empowerment
  1. Integrate Black art, culture and history into every part of the City’s redesign process. Art fosters a sense of belonging, cultural identity and creativity. Art and culture also attract visitors to a City. Black art should be readily integrated into public art projects, murals, architecture, parks, the built environment and other aspects of development as an important part of community transformation and revitalization.
Photo: Black Owned Bos. Black Owned Bos creates spaces to amplify, incubate, and support and Black owned businesses through pop up markets, retail space, events and marketing
Rendering: David Baker Architects/GGLO. Africatown Plaza- a development led by Africatown Community Land Trust in Seattle’s Midtown. An effort to build a cultural anchor of housing, art and business to stem the tide of displacement in the Central District.

2. Build Black economic and cultural hubs to stimulate commerce in neglected parts of Black Boston. These hubs should feature equitable housing, prioritize commercial spaces for Black businesses, house Black creative institutions, and make way for pop up events and markets for Black vendors. Africatown Plaza and the redevelopment of Midtown in Seattle’s Black Central District neighborhood is a great model for how to build Black economic and cultural hubs.

Roxbury Innovation Center- Community-based Resource Hub and Workspace for the Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Business Community

3. Build Black places of convening to promote collaboration, partnerships, and Black collective impact. These spaces will help to eliminate the competition between Black business, community organizations, and individuals who are often pitted against each other for resources. As part of our city planning process, we must create Black spaces of convening where everyday, informal opportunities exist for Black people to network, learn from each other, share resources and rise together.

4. Maximize the use of Black owned contractors and subcontractors as well as Black consultants as part of the City’s redevelopment process. City planning should be used to create and expand economic opportunities not just for the City’s residents but also for Black-owned construction companies, architectural firms, engineering firms, and other Black led Development teams.

To truly be considered a world class City, Boston must close its massive racial wealth gap and leverage its Black cultural assets to foster a healthy, thriving, and equitable community for all of its residents.

Black Beantown is a series from Beyond Wordz founder, Johane Alexis-Phanor, that aims to reimagine Boston, especially the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan as a Black cultural mecca for travelers from all around the world. It seeks to celebrate the rich Black history and cultural legacy of Boston that has been hidden for far too long. Black Beantown is written from the perspective that Boston’s Black cultural capital is a key asset that can be used to close the City’s racial wealth gap and drive economic prosperity for all of Boston but especially its Black residents.

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Johane Alexis-Phanor

I write about racial & gender equity, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, faith, and mental health to empower Black communities | Fundraising Consultant