Vietnamese-American Culture Featured in Fields Corner Mural

Published in the Bay State Banner, September 28, 2017

Photo by Karen Morales

The Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans in Boston. A diverse group of local artists and neighbors set out recently to increase the visibility of this vibrant community with a mural outside of Pho Hoa Restaurant.

Ngoc-Tran Vu is a Dorchester native, artist and community organizer heading the mural project. More public and inclusive art in Dorchester has always been something for which Vu strived, but a concrete plan arose when she met Tam Le, another artist and local entrepreneur.

The Le family owns Pho Hoa and Le himself is the owner of Reign Drink Lab, a homemade boba tea, smoothies, and coffee shop behind the restaurant on Dorchester Avenue. “‘My family’s building,’ he said, ‘think of it as your canvas,’” said Vu about her conversation with Le.

“I thought about how I wanted to collaborate with the community and how I could bring in young people, as well as the older residents,” she said, adding, “As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I saw myself in an unique position to connect the past, present and future, and work with others.”

Read the rest here.

The Hard Work of Winning at Caribbean Carnival

Published in the Bay State Banner, August 18, 2017

Photo by The Bay State Banner 

The Boston Caribbean Carnival is a beloved annual tradition filled with pounding soca music, thousands of dancing participants, brilliant colors and unbelievably extravagant costumes.

But the period leading up to the joyous celebration is no walk in the park, especially for Socaholics, one of Boston’s biggest masquerade bands.

Andrea Mercury, who founded Socaholics with her husband Ken, describes in detail the kind of work necessary to create such a fantastic and vibrant display at Carnival.

“Our team is made up of 10 dedicated members who work on making the costumes,” she said. “And we all work full-time jobs so by the time we get back from work, we continue on until one or two in the morning.”

Every year, the band makes 200 to 300 costumes to perform in, with this year having the biggest turnout of over 300 dancers.

“Especially coming down to the last month of Carnival, we end up having 16- to 18-hour days,” said Mercury, who works as an accountant for a law firm.

The costume production usually starts at least seven months in advance, but the creative process is constant. “When Carnival season ends in August, we take a month to relax, but when October comes around, we start thinking about what we’re going to do,” said Mercury.

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A Maverick Approach to Liquor Licensing

Published in DigBoston, September 8, 2016

Photo provided by Maverick Marketplace Cafe

It’s a Wednesday summer evening, and Sean Von Clauss is performing in the corner of a dimly lit cafe in East Boston. Behind the venue’s nine wooden dinner tables, patrons at the eight-seat bar watch along enthusiastically. An antique-style rug covers most of the room, giving the place an intimate feel.

Von Clauss finishes a song, his soulful vocals backed by an acoustic guitar, and the small crowd cheers. “Have you been practicing without me?” someone yells. John Tyler, who owns the building housing the establishment, takes a couple of drinks over to guests sitting in the miniature beer garden outside, where lights twinkle and Von Clauss’s music floats into the early evening breeze.

Maverick Marketplace Cafe is a restaurant and bar housed in the similarly named incubator building, Maverick Marketplace, where 16 other small local businesses also live. As part of the incubator business model, budding entrepreneurs rent space to grow their enterprise in a community environment. For a small restaurant in this part of town, this opportunity is more unique than some may realize.

The cafe holds one of the 75 liquor licenses that the Massachusetts legislature, under pressure from Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and other advocates for neighborhoods where nightlife options are sparse, granted Boston in 2012. Of those licenses, 80 percent were allocated to businesses in areas like Eastie that have been historically underserved and underrepresented.

Due to a current state-imposed cap on licenses in the city, those which are available can sell on the private market for upwards of $350,000. There is also significant bureaucratic rigmarole that applicants may have to endure, only to be denied in the end “without prejudice.”

“We wouldn’t even have considered the $350,000,” says Tyler. Along with his wife Melissa, John Tyler bought and renovated the former Welfare building on Maverick Street that had been abandoned for 24 years. The long road to the Welfare building’s transformation began in 2005 when the Tylers submitted a request to purchase the building from the City of Boston. After acquiring the appropriate permits and approvals and financing, the renovations began in earnest in 2012 with support from the city, financing by First Priority Credit Union, and more than $500,000 in owner equity.

Tyler adds that the newly available licenses were much more affordable and allowed them to diversify the cafe’s business. (When restaurateurs have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a license, they often have to sell expensive food and beverages).

East Boston has traditionally been an immigrant town: Irish and Canadians in 1855, Italians and Russian Jews throughout the early 1900s. Nowadays the locals predominantly belong to the Latin American immigrant population, particularly from countries including Colombia and El Salvador. The Tylers, however, moved to East Boston in 2002 from the United Kingdom, where John was a ship captain on private yachts traveling around New England and the Caribbean.

“For us, it was a no-brainer to invest in our neighborhood,” he says. Tyler works closely with Danny and Maria Cordon, the owners of his building’s namesake cafe, and adds: “The next act of progression was to keep putting our money where our mouths were and start up a restaurant in the space. We felt that there was a need for it.”

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Little House Emissaries

Published in DigBoston, May 5, 2016

Photo by Alison Mead

From Martha’s Vineyard to Boston to Los Angeles, the small home movement struggles for acceptance at the end of the road

“That’s definitely tiny.”

Mike Mitchell is standing outside of a blue cottage with scalloped roof trimming on Martha’s Vineyard in an area known to locals as “The Campground,” or Wesleyan Grove. He’s a carpenter in his 60s with light eyes and a sunny demeanor, and he’s part of the minority (about 10 percent) of the cottage owners who remain on the 34-acre swath of land in the off-season. The cottages have an otherworldly quality: cobblestone paths, playful animal carvings, and whimsical sayings like “La Dolce Vita” or “Summer Love.” The compound seems like it came straight out of a children’s storybook setting, or Epcot.

This particular house is about 12.5 by 27 feet. It’s among the smaller of the cottages that are on the campground, which total just over 300, but everything about cottage life is relatively small compared to the typical American household. For Mitchell, Wesleyan Grove is a real-life example of what a tiny house community might look like, something that he hopes to one day see on Martha’s Vineyard.

“My vision is you take a land lot that can fit a four-to-six-bedroom house,” he says. “And instead of that, put four or six tiny houses, and you cluster them, kind of like the campground.”

“Tiny houses could be an affordable option for the island’s working class,” Mitchell adds. “This includes plumbers, carpenters, and teachers.”

Tiny houses have hit headlines for their eccentricities and, most recently, as a way to help the 44,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles. At least, that’s what LA resident Elvis Summers was hoping for when he constructed and gave out 37 tiny homes to those in need. However, the small structures, which were parked along sidewalks, caught the attention of city officials and have been tagged for removal. Connie Llanos, a spokeswoman for LA mayor Eric Garcetti, told NPR that the tiny houses were safety hazards.

In some places, however, an increasing number of city planners and housing advocates are looking at small dwellings as a possible solution to housing pressures. On the famously elite islands off Cape Cod, that impact is most severely felt by people in the lower and working classes.

According to Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, there is a housing crisis on the Vineyard, where most market-rate homes start at around half a million dollars. He references the 2014 American Communities Survey on the state of housing in Dukes County (in which 99 percent of residents live on the Vineyard), which found that about 75 percent of housing units are valued at $500,000 or more, compared to 21 percent of housing statewide. Furthermore, at the time of the survey, 60 percent of homeowners in Dukes were paying monthly mortgages of more than $2,000, while 40 percent of all renters were paying more than a third of their income on housing.

Mitchell notes that Martha’s Vineyard is a well-known vacation destination for influential people, and even tells a story about the time former President of the United States Bill Clinton visited the campground. The Wesleyan Grove resident, who has a background in computer science, was working as a digital contractor for the Secret Service at the time and describes Bubba as a “very charismatic man.” Still, Mitchell’s idea is to welcome people in a much lower tax bracket than Clinton.

“They want it to be a place they can live in during the summer,” he says of wealthy tourists. “They can’t do that if the working class doesn’t have housing.”

Mitchell’s vision is a throwback to the Methodists who settled in the area in the 1870s and would gather at a meeting house called the Tabernacle, which still stands today. On these grounds 19th-century Methodists held “camp meetings” for sermons and prayers, while congregants pitched tents that eventually became more permanent. Specifically, Mitchell hopes for a future in which tight-knit communities of smaller units share amenities in a central structure that houses a kitchen and laundry.

Home is Where the Cart is

The idea of tiny houses or small living spaces has been around since early human settlements camped out in Turkish yurts and gypsy caravans. The modern interpretation—like Macy Miller’s tiny house in Idaho—has seen a significant increase in popularity in the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008. So-called “tiny houses,” which are typically between 200 and 400 square feet, are part of a social movement of people looking to downsize their living situation. Owners typically value an alternative lifestyle that minimizes their financial expenses, decreases their carbon footprint, and adds flexibility to their lives.

In Massachusetts, tiny houses on wheels are lumped into the same category as mobile homes, and under the state’s building code it is prohibited to live in these types of structures for more than 30 days. If they are built on a foundation—and few of them are—common features of tiny houses, such as ladders to sleeping lofts and a single egress (rather than two, in case of fire), are not allowed by building codes. Adding to the restrictions are building permits that are required to move a tiny house structure to its desired location, as well as health code regulations and other zoning rules for different towns and cities.

With the state’s complex legal infrastructure, local tiny house enthusiasts are forced to get creative. “As we go forward with tiny houses, everyone’s collectively trying to figure out where they fit,” says Amy Henion, a recent Northeastern grad and tiny house blogger who is originally from Boston. Some live in their tiny dwellings under the radar, in friends’ or relatives’ backyards. Others relocate to rural areas or out of state in the hopes of finding a more private environment.

Read the rest here. 

2016 – Festival Betances Celebrates Latin American Culture & Community History

Published in the Bay State Banner, July 21, 2016

Last week, New England’s longest running Latino festival, Festival Betances, celebrated its 43rd year in the Villa Victoria Community in the South End.

The festival’s history is rooted in triumph against gentrification and displacement and has become a weekend event where multiple Latin nationalities come together and pay homage to the Puerto Rican activist, doctor and intellectual, Ramón Emeterio Betances. The free festival was organized by Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a non-profit organization and community-building agency that played a role in Villa Victoria’s inception.

When the festival first began in 1973, it was mainly a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and was “a little less formal with music and talent presentations mostly from the community,” said Yarice Hidalgo, Director of Institutional Advancement for IBA.

Today, the festival boasts international musicians, participants from all over Boston and guests from all over New England. This year’s musical headliners were Bohemia singer Edgardo Zayas, Grammy Award winner Jesus Pagán y su Orquesta, and salsa band 8 y Más.

Fun and games

Part of the three-day agenda featured a basketball tournament, domino tournament and a greased pole competition. Food and drink stalls were lined up, and the stage was set up at the center of plaza with plenty of room for dancing.

“Music and artistic presentation have always served as a catalyst to community organizing. Today we continue to work towards these goals and to celebrate our beautiful community and its diversity,” said Hidalgo.

The opening parade that kicked off the festivities on Friday evening was joined by members of Villa Victoria and organizations including Sociedad Latina, South End Neighborhood Church and MIT Casino Rueda Group. Local musicians and colorfully-dressed dance performers also joined the lineup and led the way from West Dedham Street, down Tremont Street and around the Villa Victoria Community streets.

Diana Ruiz, a member of MIT Casino Rueda, said that the dancing group was invited by the festival’s organizers to participate in the parade for the first time. The group, which teaches and performs the Cuban style of salsa dancing, began at MIT but is open to anyone. “We love these types of events and we love bringing something to the community,” she said.

Deep roots

Anastasia Correa, who has organized the domino tournament for the past ten years, was 9 years old when Villa Victoria was founded. She was born and raised in Boston to Puerto Rican parents and was living in the working-class area in the South End called Parcel 19.

In 1965, the Boston Redevelopment Authority intended to tear down the existing housing in Parcel 19 for a new development that the current residents would not be able to afford. “We were being burnt out of our own apartments,” said Correa. “There was no place to go.”

In response, members of the community formed IBA as a grassroots organization to take action, gather support, and save their homes. Correa’s grandmother, Paula Oyola, was among the organized residents who joined the leadership of Israel Feliciano, Rev. William Dwyer, Helen Morton and Phil Bradley. They rallied and protested at the State House and City Hall shouting, “No nos mudaremos de la parcela 19.”

In 1968, residents of Parcel 19 won control over their housing and with the help of IBA, developed Villa Victoria, a 435-unit affordable housing community designed by a Puerto Rican architect, inspired by a typical Puerto Rican neighborhood and plaza.

A couple of years later, the residents of Villa Victoria started the festival with the support from IBA, which has continued to secure sponsorship and resources for the event through the years. “We created something where people can come out, know their neighbors, enjoy the festivities, the delicious food that we have, and the music that can move your feet,” said Correa.

The festival’s evolution into a diverse celebration occurred naturally. “The festival became really popular and that’s when people recognized that we had other cultures living in the community,” said Correa. “They began to introduce themselves and their culture.”

Correa emphasized the importance of the festival as a way for Villa Victoria’s youth to learn about where they live and how they got there.

“We want to teach them where they come from and the community’s history,” said Correa. “The past is what we got…without the past, we wouldn’t be having all this.”

In addition to her role organizing the domino tournament, Correa also has helped coordinate youth fashion and pageant shows as part of the festival.

Correa said that her grandmother was her teacher, telling her all about the community’s legacy of activism and strong cultural pride, and that in turn, she wants to be the same resource for today’s kids.

“The last words she said to me were, ‘Take care of my people and take care of my community,’” said Correa of her now-deceased grandmother. “I believe that’s what I’m doing now.”

Photo courtesy of Steve Tompkins