As a kid growing up in Jamaica Plain, Michael Monestime lived underneath the elevated Orange Line that used to run from Forest Hills down to Chinatown. He still remembers when the historic tracks closed in the late 1980s.
“I saw sunlight for the first time on Washington Street,” he says. “That was monumental in me thinking about cities and thinking about how policy, urban planning, development, and change can reorient a neighborhood. I understood that firsthand.”
His uncle, Hughes Monestime, was a planner for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), and he remembers going to City Hall to look at the model city during the Big Dig—a Boston megaproject that notably rerouted major highways and constructed tunnels. Now, Monestime has brought a lifelong interest in urban planning to Cambridge, where he serves as the executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District.
Central Square Business Improvement District—which Monestime refers to as the BID—supplements the services that the city already provides. The BID receives its funding from a special assessment paid for by property owners. Their budget is $1.5 million per year for the next five years, totaling $7.5 million poured into making the district a cleaner, safer, more welcoming place.
This includes cleaning the area and investing in arts and culture, Monestime explains. He is careful to clarify that “safety” does not translate to policing the poor or cracking down on loitering. Through the BID, he aims to create a Central Square that can cleanly and harmoniously accommodate the bikes, cars, crosstown buses, pedestrians, scooters, and hoverboards that traverse it daily.
Monestime led a year-and-a-half-long push to transform the Central Square Business Association (CSBA) into a business improvement district. State legislation mandates that 60 percent of property owners, who represent 51 percent of the assessed value of the entire district, indicate their support for the BID by signing a petition. The Central Square BID received “a tidal wave of support” from 73 percent of property owners, who represent 85 percent of the assessed value. At the final vote on June 10, 2019, Cambridge’s city councilors voted unanimously in favor of the BID.
Since the BID prioritizes preserving local culture in Cambridge, integrating new developers into the historically rich area can be difficult, Monestime explains.
“I think it’s important to … [introduce] these new owners [to] what our beliefs are, … why we’re authentic, and how we can work to introduce new things without changing that dichotomy too much,” he says.
The mural project, organized in August 2018 by the CSBA along with the Cambridge Arts Council, adorned walls throughout the city with meaningful designs. All of the muralists are local artists from the greater Boston area who have lived in the Central Square area and have a connection to the district. The project was an attempt to turn the square into an outdoor gallery accessible to all.
The square has lost many cultural assets over the years, he says, mentioning bygone music hubs and cultural centers such as the All Asia Cafe and the Paradise Club. He sees the mural project as a way to reaffirm the square’s ongoing commitment to the arts.
Monestime is fond of the distinction between place-making and place-keeping. Place-keeping refers to the preservation of culture and a sense of home in a neighborhood, he explains. He feels called to preserve the beauty that exists and persists in Central Square.
“New districts and new developments … need to do place-making to make something that didn’t exist before a place. This place has been around for centuries. We try to use the public realm as an asset and activate it in a way where people feel at home,” he says.
Other efforts of place-keeping include a Community Curators Program, launched this October, that will fund individuals’ public art projects in Central Square. Starting at the beginning of the month, BID Ambassadors appeared on the ground in the square to greet and direct visitors.
Central to Monestime’s work is the strength he finds in partnerships.
“The BID is possible because of the partnership with property owners and the City of Cambridge,” he says. “The spirit of partnership goes back to that authenticity in the Square that is extremely hard to replicate and extremely important to preserve.”
This story appears in the Nov/Dec print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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