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.

For me, a big thrill is creating these little events and manifestations that help people come together in the neighborhood.esms-logo

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.

Egleston sQUARE

Egleston Square Main Streets receiving an award at JPNDC’s Annual Meeting.

K: What do you think are some of the most important issues in Jamaica Plain?

L: I think there is definitely the very real issue of the real estate market and its effects on the neighborhood. We’ve evolved into a neighborhood where you can have a three-bedroom apartment and no one’s looking at it like it could be for a family. They’re looking at three adults and a roommate situation. If you look at the traditional triple-decker they might have families and kids and 1.5 cars. You’re looking at eight bedrooms. Now, theoretically, you’re looking at eight adults and maybe three cars among the eight with each adult paying up to $1,000-1,200 per room.

Another real issue is addiction in homelessness. We don’t have a lot of homelessness but we do have a lot of underemployed people and older people who are living off of some sort of disability, social security or a little pension. With addiction some people will have nothing else to do and they’ll hang out and they’ll drink. The opioid crisis is real here. Yesterday we had three overdoses in Egleston. There are overdoses that don’t always lead to death so we had three overdoses instead of three deaths. It’s rampant. It’s everywhere. I was talking with

[State Rep.] Liz Malia’s office this morning and her staff is keenly aware of those incidents and they are trying to see where there is a ripple. For me, I just know about around here. This summer we had an issue with people doing drugs in the Peace Garden. I had to deal with that. I cut a bunch of bushes and what not. What we don’t know, that Liz Malia’s team is paying attention to, is that say something happens on Mass Ave. and then something happens here. They’re paying attention to see where that shift is and where the next pocket is.

K: Do you have a favorite event or tradition in Jamaica Plain?

L: I haven’t been here long enough to absorb them all but I love the spirit of Wake Up the Earth. I love Spontaneous Celebrations and Maaak. That is extra special. We organize the Egleston contingent and that’s always fun. I love being on the street. Wake Up the Earth is an opportunity to celebrate a very real event with the neighborhood’s victory over I-95 but also you can make it about anything. You can make it about anti-war, Black Lives Matter, etc. I have a special place in my heart for parades. When I moved here I was sad to hear that they moved the Dominican and Puerto Rican parades downtown. From a practical standpoint I see that the local merchants here no longer get the business because it has moved downtown.

K: What’s your favorite memory of Jamaica Plain?


Men playing guitars in Egleston Square.

L: When I was hired here but I hadn’t started, I got in the car and I drove here for a visit. Now I only take the T or ride a bike but I drove that day, parked and walked around. When I lived in Connecticut I lived in Frog Hollow which was just like here–you just replace the Dominicans with Puerto Ricans. Frog Hollow is very similar to Egleston with its perception issues and history of violence. I started walking around Egleston and I was digging it. I liked seeing the school that is named after one of the best Puerto Rican composers in history [Rafael Hernandez]. I liked seeing that the past influence had clearly been Puerto Rican. I was walking down Boylston Street and across the street there was two Latino guys, who I later found out were Puerto Rican. They were sitting down outside playing guitar. I had my phone and I did the unwritten, unspoken “Can I videotape you?” exchange and I put it up online. One of the guys sang a song and the song, coincidentally, was a composition of a ballad called “Mar y Cielo” written by Cuban composer Antonio Machín, who sang with, among others, Rafael Hernandez. I googled that afterwards and found out. I filmed one song and then stopped. He looked at me after the song and gestured to the back of his pickup truck where there was a cooler and, again, nothing was spoken. I went into the cooler and it was all Coors Light. I grab a Coors Light and I just chilled there. At that time what I had experienced was what I think about when I think about community. Just to be able to be on the street hearing that music was pretty awesome. That is symbolic of my everyday life here.

I have a really un-favorite story that I would like to share. When we were looking for an apartment people we knew told us that we had to look in JP. We looked in JP not knowing anything about the neighborhood. We got to see a place on  Mozart Street. The landlord showed us the third floor of this beat down triple-decker. By then we were ready to take anything. We were there and the guy says “So, what are you?” And I asked “What do you mean?” “Are you Dominican?” he asked and I said “Well, we’re Puerto Rican but you can’t ask that.” He said “What do you mean?” and I said “It’s kind of a law that’s there to protect you because now if you don’t give us the apartment I can say that you’re not giving it to us because we are Puerto Rican.” “I wouldn’t do that!” he said and I said “I know you wouldn’t do that.” But I knew we weren’t getting that apartment. He says “I know that Puerto Ricans don’t get along with Dominicans.” I responded “I am too old and I did not come up here to mess with anybody. I’m cool with Dominicans.” My wife was ready to sue. We were driving back and the landlord texted and emailed her “It’s not de-leaded.” And we knew it was de-leaded. I asked her if she wanted to spend energy on suing somebody or get an apartment. Two weeks later we got our apartment in Cambridge.

K: What would you like to see happen in JP in the future?

L: I don’t have anything very specific. I haven’t been here long and I am a fan of the current services that we have here. I know what I’d like to see for Boston in the future though. The City puts permits on everything! You got a TV? Permit. You got a radio? Permit. You want to do live music? Permit. I used to own a small coffee shop and bookstore and we did BYOB, jazz every week, music, poetry, film. Because we didn’t have all these permitting regulations tied to it. I think that there are businesses in JP that would thrive without the strict permitting. I think that would transform JP.

In the city you see these businesses and their bases being moved out via different market forces. The City can either accept that the market is as it is and it’s a survival of the fittest type of thing or you can hear what everyone is saying. Everyone loves it because of the diversity and The City should realize that the things they are permitting strictly are part of the diversity. Removing restrictive policies would allow the businesses to flourish in a different way. Unfortunately, what they’re doing is ingraining a sense of ‘better to ask forgiveness than for permission’ kind of attitude.

K: What’s your favorite thing about working in Jamaica Plain?

L: It’s so cliché but the diversity. I am blessed that I can walk down Atherton that turns into Mozart and I can be in Jackson Square. It’s awesome.


Join Egleston Square Main Streets for their annual tree lighting this Saturday, December 10, 2016!