Grant targets Uphams Corner, Strand as arts destinations

Uphams Corner, a neighborhood struggling with vacant storefronts, is receiving another influx of cash, this time from a national consortium of foundations, banks and federal agencies aimed at making the historic Strand Theatre more viable.

The $480,000 grant comes as city officials undertake a planning initiative focused on the Fairmount corridor anchored in Uphams Corner and after a $6.7 million capital investment in the Strand.

ArtPlace, which involves 11 foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts and 7 other federal agencies and six banks, is providing the one-year grant, which is aimed at underwriting Strand shows, art installations and open-air markets.

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative will be among the organizations pitching in to help engage local residents in the grant’s goals for the neighborhood. Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (DBEDC) will also be involved.

“I think there’s an opportunity for Uphams Corner to make a name for itself as an arts destination,” said Chris Cook, the director of Mayor Thomas Menino’s office of arts, tourism and special events.

The grant, announced by the Boston Foundation on Tuesday, also demonstrates that the Strand, which has a vacant storefront to its left and another close by, “is headed in the right direction,” Cook added.

“Most importantly from our standpoint we’re just going to have a lot more activity in the Strand,” Cook said.

Theater attendees will be able to walk out of the Strand and walk into a neighborhood “that is vibrant and full of arts,” Cook said.

City officials hope the neighborhood will become a “cultural hotbed” for artists, with street performances and impromptu gallery spaces.

Cook pointed to Uphams Corner Main Street’s recent efforts to set up “pop-up” artist galleries in vacant storefronts.

In May, 250 people visited an art gallery held in a storefront that once housed an Avon store. The project was a collaboration between Uphams Corner Main Street and UMass Boston’s Trotter Institute and Art Department, highlighting the work of 13 students. Food and drinks for a reception were bought locally.

“You bring people to the area and lifts up our restaurants and bars in the district for at least one evening,” said Max McCarthy, executive director of Uphams Corner Main Street.

The gallery also helps market the storefront, McCarthy said, since his group cleared out debris, like a waylaid shopping cart, and repainted the walls.

The ArtsPlace grant takes a wider view, providing some technical assistance, from helping people open their own gallery to an arts and crafts store, or cultural cash mobs and open air markets, McCarthy said.
Cook also noted McCarthy’s organization is holding its annual fundraiser this week at the Strand, instead of the Franklin Park Zoo like they did last year.

The fundraiser will include food samples from Paraiso Restaurant, Singh’s Roti Shop and Brother’s Supermarket II. A local Cape Verdean band, known as CV Band, will provide music.

“They’ve been working diligently to improve the business community here in Uphams Corner because it has had a difficult and challenging period over the past five years,” Ed Grimes, head of the Uphams Corner Health Center, said of Uphams Corner Main Street and Dorchester Bay EDC.

Foot traffic in the neighborhood has been down “significantly,” in part because of the recession, he said. “With the Strand Theater in place, and working from that as a base, they’re looking at what could an attraction to the wider community and the arts.”

The theater remains “significantly underutilized,” Grimes said, adding, “It would be great if it could be used in a way that would attract folks from surrounding neighborhoods in Greater Boston and become more familiar with the resources in Uphams Corner, the various ethnic restaurants and the like, but it’s going to be an uphill climb.”

That’s largely due to a lack of parking, Grimes said.

The Strand opened in 1918, when there was a heavier emphasis on public transportation to get around the city.

Cook said the public needs to be educated about where they can park. He pointed to area banks allowing audience members to park cars on performance nights and to a municipal lot for several hundred people. It’s only a quick walk to the Strand, but theatergoers must walk across a busy Columbia Rd. to get to the theatre.

“What we have to do is create more awareness around that and show people where those lots are,” he said, adding that it can be aided by the ArtPlace grant.

“We invested in the Strand Theatre because we recognized that it is a irreplaceable part of the city and its culture,” Menino said in a statement that accompanied the grant announcement. “The Strand provides a place for the people of Uphams Corner and the City of Boston to come together for music and the arts, and this effort can strengthen the cultural identity of Uphams Corner and be a potential model for the City’s work all along the Fairmount Line.”