This city wasn’t made for us


Jakob Menendez

Zeiana Andrade sitting on the steps of her parents’ Dorchester apartment.

Surrounding Emerson’s campus are a few noticeable establishments—a Dunkin Donuts, CVS, and a plethora of Chinatown restaurants where college students can experience authentic Asian cuisine. A few streets down, passing Tremont onto Newbury, you’ve entered upper-class central where high-end stores like Burberry, Patagonia, and Cartier practically radiate dollar signs. Looking for more affordable options? Head down to Downtown Crossing where inexpensive retail spots (Primark, TJ Maxx, Old Navy, etc.) are waiting to outfit your wardrobe with the latest trends.


Around our inner-city campus, there seems to be anything and everything a college student could need. Clothes? Head to Macy’s. Hair products? Your local drugstore carries it all. Food? Take a five-minute walk, and there’s Panera or Boloco. What else could you ask for?


The answer: Black culture. 


According to Emerson’s website, Black students only make up four percent of the Emerson student body. That’s an estimated 184 students out of the 4,582 enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year. These students are forced to comb through the depths of Boston to find Black hair stylists, beauty supply stores, and soul food or African American cuisine. 


“There [are] no places that I can go as a student that [is] local to get food that is run by African Americans,” Demiah Crawford, a junior and Massachusetts native, said. “There [are] not a lot of hair stylists that are in Boston that cater to my hair and cater to my hair texture.” 


To make Black students feel welcome, Emerson introduced the students of color pre-orientation in 2018, a free program that allows these students to build a community with each other before the start of the fall semester. This orientation lets new students meet returning students of color, engage with faculty of color, and learn about resources on campus like the Office of Student Success and Career Development Center.


But what this pre-orientation fails to do, junior Zeiana Andrade said, is give Black students the true resources they need to survive in Boston and at Emerson. This responsibility lies solely on cultural organizations such as Flawless, Power, and Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interest, or EBONI for short. 


“I like how EBONI at the very beginning of the year gives out those flyers for salons and barbershops that do Black hair,” Andrade said. “I think there needs to be more organizations and groups [for] Black students in Boston.”


With very few staples of Black culture within walking distance on campus, Black students often feel alone. And while there are a few organizations such as EBONI and Flawless Brown, it can still be overwhelming and isolating to live in a predominantly white city. 


Adding to this feeling of loneliness, there is the “white narrative” that is advertised both across the city and on campus through tourism, said Crawford, meaning that Boston only has spaces for white people, making it harder for Black Bostonians to feel accepted. 


“Our city doesn’t really promote having those types of businesses,” she said. “It’s definitely hard being in a city that is majority white, that is unfortunately known for being racist, and doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for Black people.”


While Boston might not be the best space for finding Black culture, there are other neighborhoods within Boston that offer solutions. Andrade and Crawford suggest venturing out of Emerson’s bubble and into Roxbury and Dorchester, two communities populated predominantly by people of color.


Commuters waiting at the Nubian Square bus station in Roxbury for the SL5 bus to Downtown Crossing. (Media: Jakob Menendez)

Dorchester is roughly twenty minutes away from campus via public transportation and is much more inclusive with 36 percent of the citizens there being Black and 14 percent Hispanic, compared to Boston’s Black percentage of 25 percent, according to a 2000-2011 Boston’s data profile and 2018 World Population Review. Roxbury, in comparison, is located fifteen minutes from Emerson and is 62 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic, according to Areavibes, a website dedicated to finding the livability score of each city in the United States. 


The racial disparities between these neighborhoods and downtown are not the only apparent difference. Where high-end clothing and jewelry stores line the streets of downtown Boston, Black-owned stores and hair salons crowd corners of Roxbury and Dorchester. A short train or bus ride transports Black college students to the epicenter of Black culture in the city, where they can find just about everything they need. 


Crawford, who is from Dorchester, said the perfect place to get Black hair products is Hair Stop, a beauty supply store on Washington Street. Andrade suggested going to Isabel’s Unisex Salon for blowouts and washes. For barbershops, sophomore and VMA major Reginal Osirus said there are many Dominican barber shops in Roslindale, Massachusetts.


A client at Isabel’s Unisex Salon in Dorchester getting her hair braided. (Media: Jakob Menendez)

“Everything is walking distance for me,” Osirus said. “I walk down the street and go to a hair salon and have everything I need, and I’m probably [a] 25- to 30-minute drive from the city.”

For food, Crawford said one of her go-to restaurants is Jamaican Mi Hungry, a small Black-owned business located off Jackson Square station that serves traditional Jamaician dishes like jerk chicken and oxtails. One of her other favorites is RedBone, a soul-food restaurant located in Somerville, Massachusetts whose menu includes southern favorites like crispy fried chicken, savory collard greens, and warm cornbread. 


For Black vegans looking for a place to eat, Andrade recommends supporting her parent’s newly-started business, Cabo Vegan. This Cabo Verdean catering business crafts a range of vegan dishes and desserts from lobster-less lobster rolls to sweet and sugary vegan strawberry shortcake. 


Andrade said supporting Black businesses, like her family’s restaurant or her go-to hair salon, “builds a sense of community.” But she also said she realizes the difficulty of students traveling and supporting Black business in Dorchester, Roxbury, and her hometown Brockton, another predominantly minority city, because of the negative perception these communities have.


“There’s a stigma that [follows] these places because they’re highly populated with people of color,” Andrade said. “And the issue is also that these places are more policed because they have more people of color… which is a reason that it seems like there’s so much crime there.” 


And the college doesn’t help negate the negative perception, Crawford said. In previous conversations with students, Crawford said she has witnessed some saying how they’re worried to visit Roxbury or Dorchester because of their image of Black people and people of color. 


One suggestion to not only eradicate the negative judgements of Roxbury and Dorchester, but also cater to Black students is to put together a workshop or list of Black restaurants, hair salons, beauty supply stores, and barbershops for the Emerson community, Osirus said.


“I feel like the school as a whole could do more programs that are a part of the communities in Boston that could connect [people of color],” he said.


While finding connections to Black culture might be difficult at Emerson and in Boston, Andrade said she thinks the student of color pre-orientation is a great way to help Black students feel safe and welcomed on campus. In fact, Andrade met many of her friends when she attended the program in fall 2019. 


“That was a great way for me to feel a warm welcome, especially coming from a predominantly diverse town,” Andrade said. “I think that the student of color orientation helped a lot and that’s something we should continue to do.”


Still, a single orientation isn’t enough. Crawford recommended students explore the city themselves and find the heart of Boston beyond Emerson’s little radius.


“I think we should include projects where we venture off to different [neighborhoods],” Crawford suggests. “And we should get to know about our city because our city isn’t just about Boston.”