Mass Cultural Council logo
Home / Blog / Communities / Cultural Districts Offering Hope to Communities

Cultural Districts Offering Hope to Communities

Luis Cotto, Program Manager

“In times of crisis, we need culture to make us resilient, give us hope, [and] remind us we’re not alone.” – UNESCO

The coronavirus pandemic has closed museums and cancelled concerts, plunging many institutions into uncertainty and immediate financial loss while also threatening a long-term effect on the arts. For the second straight month, Massachusetts has reported the nation’s highest unemployment rate, and a recent Mass Cultural Council survey showed $425M in lost revenues by cultural nonprofits with 1 in 4 jobs in the sector already effected.  That effect is felt in each of the Commonwealth’s 50 designated Cultural Districts; commercial corridors comprised of arts organizations and businesses, rich historical treasures, and traditional brick and mortar businesses. Cultural Districts that curate and celebrate the coming together of communities, fighting to survive in the time of “physical distancing.”

Yet, during this time of flux, it is the Cultural District managers who are playing key roles in the relief and recovery efforts statewide. Whether it’s advocating for local zoning changes to be able to take over street parking for seating or just getting money into the hands of those who need it most, here’s just a sample of the incredible work happening in the Commonwealth.

Overhead image of Starlight Square. Photo courtesy of Central Sq BID.
Overhead image of Starlight Square. Photo courtesy of Central Sq BID.

In Cambridge’s Central Square Cultural District, the Central Square BID spearheaded a public safety campaign by painting the Square pink! Their #HelloAgainCentral initiative highlights, through signage, the simple things people can do to keep each other safe, like maintaining physical distancing, washing hands, and wearing a mask. They also provided much needed work to dozens of visual artists with their “Speak Your Piece” campaign which covered utility boxes and walls in the District with meaning and beauty. Currently the BID is in the midst of its most ambitious journey; Starlight Square, a temporary intervention designed to build capacity within the Central Square community for outdoor performance, learning, dining, and dialogue. With an ongoing crowdfunding effort Starlight Square was born. This “Square within a Square” has hosted community group gatherings, dance rehearsals, a weekly farmers markets, and a Nina Simone Hip Hop tribute evening. As the organizers proclaim, a “parking lot for cars transformed into a place for people.”

Artwork by Yotron the Don at a subway entrance #SpeakYourPiece
Artwork by Yotron the Don at a subway entrance #SpeakYourPiece


Artwork by Sabrina Dorsainvil #SpeakYourPiece
Artwork by Sabrina Dorsainvil #SpeakYourPiece


In Shelburne Falls, the Cultural District’s managing entity, the Greater Shelburne Falls Area Business Association was awarded a $30,000 matching grant through MassDevelopment’s Commonwealth Places Program. The grant will support the District’s revitalization project, Make Downtown Shine, an initiative that addresses the immediate impacts of the pandemic, as well as installing year-round LED lights on the historic Iron Bridge which connects the two towns that form the village, Buckland and Shelburne.


Artwork by Lena McCarthy on New Jersey Barriers

As municipalities around the state massage their zoning policies to allow for expanded outdoor seating, the Cultural Districts in Northampton and Amherst included artists in their efforts by painting the otherwise drab, gray New Jersey barriers. This win, win, win effort provides patrons with a safe space to support local businesses and employs a population devastated by the pandemic. Northampton’s street intervention efforts have been featured on StreetsBlog as a best practice example for pedestrian-friendly approaches. Not resting on those laurels, Northampton also recently sponsored the virtual presentation of its 30th Annual Transperformance Live Aid Music Fest featuring 18 musical acts with proceeds going towards arts enrichment activities in the public schools and grants to local artists and arts organizations. Across the river, Amherst is about to announce the selected artists for their COVID-19 Call to Artists which asked artists to respond to the global pandemic.

Easthampton’s Cottage Street Cultural District – known for its literacy-based approach to placekeeping – has found ways to support writers, musicians, and visual artists alike. Now in the midst if its second round of COVID-19 relief granting, the first round included some incredible placekeeping intiatives including a series of Pop-up Porch Parties organized by Amber Black and a self-guided driving tour of community-sourced quilts organized by Audrey Bromberg Hyvonen. The District continues to support the long-running Unbuttoned Presents spoken word series and the town has recently announced a call to artists for an online arts exhibition, POST PAUSE.


Photoville’s The Fence currently up in Winchester

In Winchester, home of photography mecca Griffin Museum of Photography, the recently-designated Winchester Cultural District hosted the 8th edition of the national Photoville FENCE exhibition. The exhibit encompasses the entire district with 15 separate installations featuring more than 50 artists. A great opportunity to take in a wonderful District and see nationally-renowned work.

The efforts of our Cultural Districts are allowing people to come together – safely – and celebrate community in times of pain.

Back to Top