Egleston Square is “that great neighborhood where JP and Roxbury shake hands.” For 20 years Egleston Square Main Street has been building up the community, strengthening the business district and revitalizing public spaces through partnerships with local merchants, residents and community groups. Today we are chatting with ESMS Executive Director Luis Cotto about discovering his Jamaica Plain family, how more lenient permitting could help small businesses, and bringing the Egleston community together through art.
K: Where are you from originally?
L: I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. My family is from Puerto Rico. Up until 7th grade there was a lot of moving back and forth but after that it was Hartford. I’ve lived in Seattle and D.C. Now, I live in Cambridge in Central Square.
K: How did you end up working in Jamaica Plain? How long have you been working here?
L: We moved to Boston for a job that my spouse had gotten in the summer of 2012. The only person I knew at that time in Boston was Betsy Cowan, who was the Director of Egleston Square Main Street. She left in the winter of 2013. She reached out to people who she thought would be able to do this job and I was one of those people. I applied and subsequently got the offer. I started here on March 31st, 2014. I’ve been here a little over two and a half years.
K: What are some significant projects you’ve taken on with Egleston Square Main Street?
L: My background is in arts administration so I knew that I wanted to do as many arts-focused projects as possible. These days they call it “place making.” It’s creating an area where people will go and gather to have arts and cultural events. We’ve made a huge effort with the beautification and exposition of our public spaces, such as the Robert Lawson Place on the corner where all the rocks are. We call it “Stonehenge” because it doesn’t have a real name yet. We’re in the process of trying to name it. Another one of our public spaces is the Peace Garden. We have a stage there. At the Peace Garden we host musical performances, poetry readings, film screenings, etc. This summer we did a really awesome film series. At Robert Lawson Place we had a great evening of poetry. We had a public reading of a Frederick Douglass’ speech called “What Does July 4th Mean to a Slave” from 1862. It was really strong and we had people from the community come and read excerpts. Events like that help to demystify or break down whatever people’s perceptions are about Egleston Square. That’s step one.
Step two is to work with our local merchants to adapt to a changing populace and help them develop, on a policy level, around things like JP/ROX to make sure that their base clientele gets to stay. That’s where the affordability conversation comes in. It’s two-fold.
K: What projects has ESMS teamed up with JPNDC on?
L: In May of 2014 City Realty purchased two properties in foreclosure on our main business corridor on Washington Street. The two properties included seven businesses and two residences. They proceeded to present the businesses with new 16-page leases. Both buildings were previously owned by Dominicans who knew the tenants and had handshake agreements. City Realty came in and gave them big documents with rent increases that were astronomical. I worked super tight with Alison Moronta who was JPNDC’s Small Business Program Director at the time. I had JUST started. I was like “Aaaah!” I played my role but she definitely was the force behind that entire movement from day one. That was a 3-4 month relationship that ended really well for both of us (ESMS & JPNDC). We got to get amenable results for the businesses. The ones that did leave left for different reasons and they weren’t tied to the new leases. Our mission is to build the Egleston neighborhood, strengthen our commercial district and work on our public spaces in collaboration with other stakeholders. JPNDC is one of my BFFs in more ways than one. I love me some JPNDC.
I want to tell one quick story about JPNDC. We moved to Boston in summer 2012. In June 2014, JPNDC was holding its Annual Meeting at Our Lady of Lourdes. It was interesting because we had been here for two years. I went with my spouse and my son. Egleston Square Main Street was receiving an award. Afterwards, I remember driving home and we were talking about how we had been to similar events by similar organizations but that the Annual Meeting was the first time we saw people like us. It was filled with little old Latina ladies. It just felt like family. That event was my first exposure to who JPNDC represents.