Could Boston have a Latin Quarter of its own?
By Meghan E. Irons GLOBE STAFF
Bodegas hug the sidewalks, merengue drifts from stores along a lively stretch of Jamaica Plain. It’s where patrons through the decades have come to buy sun-ripened avocado and quinceanera dresses. A trim at the barber shop is punctuated by Spanish.
“This has always been our Latin community,’’ said Clara Lopez, whose husband owns the popular Alex’s Chimis restaurant on Centre Street, which specializes in rotisserie chicken and Dominican sandwiches.
Now, teenagers from the nonprofit Hyde Square Task Force want to make it official, by rebranding their community Boston’s Latin Quarter.
The designation as a cultural district requires state approval and would open the neighborhood to grants, state transportation money for new signs, and a mention on the state’s tourism websites. It would help support businesses and arts and cultural institutions, attracting tourists and newcomers who seek out authentic slices of Boston’s ethnic mosaic.
“I know Harvard students who are from Latin America who come to the city looking for Latin places to eat, and they say, ‘Go to Jamaica Plain,’ ’’ Lopez said.
It is one of several Boston neighborhoods that have pressed for formal recognition highlighting their ethnic roots, to join the longstanding designation of the North End as the city’s Italian section and South Boston’s celebration of its Irish heritage, and Chinatown as the heart of the Asian community.
Mattapan, for example, is known colloquially as “Little Haiti.”
And in one section of Dorchester, a petition has been circulating the past two years to rebrand Fields Corner “Little Saigon,” in a nod to the Vietnamese community there.
“We are a new generation who came here and tried to make the best of it. This is our second home,’’ said Vinnie Than, a Dorchester businessman who chairs the Vietnamese-American Community of Massachusetts, an umbrella group of several organizations.
Fields Corner has become a shopping destination for Vietnamese-American residents and business owners — often drawing visitors from Maine and Connecticut — and a new designation would bringeven more people to the area, he added.
Cultural districts, defined by the state as walkable compact hubs of artistic venues and night life, launched in 2011 under a law that aims to promote urban centers, industrial enclaves, and fishing ports, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which designates the districts.
Any city or town can apply for the five-year designation. The state has 32 cultural districts, including two in Boston: the Fenway Cultural District and the Boston Literary District, a swath along Boylston Street that includes Emerson College.
Roxbury is just getting started in its bid for a state cultural district designation for Dudley Square and nearby John Eliot Square.
In Hyde Jackson Square — along a stretch of Jamaica Plain’s Centre Street — the campaign to recognize a Latin Quarter is being led by the teens from the Hyde Square Task Force, an advocacy group.
A formal request for the cultural designation is in the works, and as further evidence of just how serious the proposal is, the City Council held a hearing on the matter this month and assigned the Arts, Culture, and Special Events Committee to further investigate.
“It would allow for a real celebration of Latino culture and
. . . their contribution to that stretch of Jamaica Plain,’’ said City Councilor Matt O’Malley , who conducted the hearing.
The neighborhood has been a magnet for immigrants for the past 150 years, coming in search of jobs in the factories near the Stony Brook Reservation starting in the mid-1800s, said Gerald Robbins, an advocate in Jamaica Plain. In those earlier days, the emigres were Irish and German and Greek.
In the mid- to late-1900s, the community became Boston’s first Latino neighborhood, beginning with the arrival of Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean — from Puerto Rico and Cuba, and more recently from the Dominican Republic.
“We are located where Bostonians first started to see bodegas, pastelitos, and guayaberas,’’ said Robbins, executive director of Hyde Jackson Square Main Street, which supports community businesses.
Today, the Hyde Jackson Square neighborhood has about 2,700 Latino residents, roughly 36 percent of the population there, according to city data. Jamaica Plain overall has nearly 9,400 Latinos.
Ken Tangvik, cofounder of the Hyde Square Task Force, said his group believes rebranding the neighborhood as the Latin Quarter would help spur development and serve to celebrate Latin and Afro-Latin art.
“We want to maintain the character and identity of this neighborhood,’’ Tangvik said. “We want this place to be where Latino people and all of Greater Boston can come and experience Latin culture.”
Some business owners say the designation would make the neighborhood even more of a destination.
“The Latin culture is very rich here,’’ said Damaris Pimentel, owner of Ultra Beauty Salon and a 41-year resident of the neighborhood. “And it cuts across different cultures from across Latino America . . . in arts, music, and food.”
Being there is “like going to another country,’’ said Mabel Gondres, a 16-year-old on the task force whose relatives once owned Gondres Bakery. “There are so many vibrant colors everywhere. There’s loud music.
. . . There’re lots of smells that are so good.”
To win the cultural district designation, a neighborhood must first receive the backing of the City Council and Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Other steps include creating a well-defined map and entering into an agreement with the city to plan marketing and management strategies for the district. The city will also have to agree to buy four signs at a cost of $145 each, a mayoral spokeswoman said.
Roxbury had the first in a series of public meetings on a potential cultural district designation of its own last week. Such a consideration would have been nearly impossible there a few years back, when Dudley languished while awaiting its renaissance.
“We wouldn’t have had a chance,” said Dillon Bustin, artistic director of Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square. “But the renaissance of Dudley is sort of happening now, and we’ve got more to talk about.”
Dudley is now alive with cafes, wine after dark, and the Boston School Department headquarters.Plans are underway for a new hotel, and a performing arts plaza and music-centric charter school at the site of an old bus yard.Arts advocates are seeking a single designation for Dudley Square and John Eliot Square nearby.
A similar story of rebirth — and change — can be found on the streets of Hyde Jackson Square. A Whole Foods Market has settled there. Rents have gone up. Some Latinos have moved out.
Freddy Cabral, owner of Freddy’s Market Bodega, recalls two decades ago when things were bleaker.
“When I moved here, there was nothing — nada,’’ he said, looking through the windows at a teeming plaza and a Stop & Shop across the street. The new designation would help, he said.
“Why not?’’ he said. “It’s a pretty good community.”
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com.