‘A Real Loss’: Starlight Square to Shut Down After Four Years of Bringing Cantabrigians Together

Starlight Square was called a place where “dreams come true,” Cambridge leaders and residents say. Now, it’s shutting down.
By Heorhii Ambartsumov and Rachel M. Fields

By Sara Komatsu

Starlight Square is more than just a venue. It is a place where artistic, social, and entrepreneurial “dreams come true,” Cambridge leaders and residents say.

Dubbed “the heart of the Cultural District,” the open space — a transformed parking lot at 84 Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square — provided vibrant opportunities for lesser-known businesses and cultural organizations to grow, artists to exhibit their crafts, and activists to fight against gentrification.

But in July, the square will shut down.

In a Mar. 4th “Love Letter” to the square and its constituents, the Starlight Square Community Team announced the closing of the square “with mixed emotions” — after four years of operation.

In a February study of the lot, the Cambridge Community Development Department deemed its funding “no longer necessary” — signaling the end of Starlight Square upon the expiration of its license agreement on July 5.

However, residents hotly contest the city’s findings.

“Starlight restored so much of what we miss, mourn, and crave in Cambridge,” the square’s managing team wrote. “It not only created a stage for new voices, it was also a way back; a reverse course for displacement.”

Starlight Square began as the brainchild of lifelong Cambridge residents, Nina E. Berg and Matthew B. Boyes-Watson, who wanted to bring residents together.

As early as 2013, they devised a proposal for a “true square” within Central Square. And in 2019, the two approached the Central Square Business Improvement District with their plan: a temporary “civic commons in the heart of the city.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Cambridge, the square allowed the city to “meet the scale of the crisis” and preserve its cultural scene by allowing for safe outdoor gatherings and events.

Starlight Square grew from an area of nine parking spaces to 90 — nearly a whole acre. It was so popular that the city awarded it federal Covid-relief funds to start it on “a path to permanence.”

Now, it’s shutting down.

Igniting Starlight

Former Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale gave Berg and Boyes-Watson’s plans the green light.

He “absolutely went out on a whim to let us do the project,” Boyes-Watson said. “He actually used special emergency powers to suspend zoning enforcement so that we can do the project.”

Under a partnership between the Central Square Business Improvement District, Flagg Street Studio, and Boyes-Watson Architects, the two began construction in Lot 5, a former parking lot.

Lot 5 “used to be where a lot of drugs were sold,” longtime resident and social advocate Keith E. Mascoll said. “To be able to flip that situation and make it such an incredible community space was amazing.”

When Starlight Square opened for the first time for two months in 2020, 20 unique groups and businesses made use of the space. They hosted a modest range of improv shows, comedy nights, farmers markets, movie showings, and AfroCuban dance classes.

Starlight Square has opened four more times and is used by an average of 80 to 100 local organizations.

The square has seen more than 300 free, public events on its premises — Juneteeth celebrations, memorials for local heroes, drag shows, dance parties, and roller discos to name a few.

“It kind of started with this arts and cultural focus, but it broadened to be a stage for the best of the cultural district,” Berg said.

Dancing Under Starlight

When artists and local organizations were rejected by mainstream venues, they turned to Starlight Square for a second chance.

“There was a history of a lot of venues actually not accepting hip-hop crowds,” said Jillian C. Girardin, the executive director of Cambridge Hip-Hop Collective. “And then, when Starlight became what it was, it was a place for us to be able to continue our arts.”

Starlight Square also addressed “a gap in opportunity for entrepreneurs,” providing space for those with lofty ideas to kickstart their business ventures in the city.

“There’s limited support for business owners who run brick and mortar and almost no support for those trying to get from pop-up to permanent,” Central Square BID marketing director Manoucheca Lord wrote in an emailed statement.

In 2020, Lord founded Popportunity “as part of the Starlight concept,” an economic development initiative that partnered with the square “to provide a permanent space” for small businesses and artisans to operate shops.

The “symbiotic” relationship between Popportunity and the square helped locally-based projects “grow roots and wings,” Lord wrote. These include Freney’s Creations — a daughter-mom jewelry-making duo, Sox 2 Dye For, Cini Coffee, and Soap Her Girl, among others.

Mascoll, who studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that finding out about Starlight inspired him to put together a “psychotherapy monologue art project.”

“I wanted to make sure that my voice was heard and the voice of a Black and brown Cambridge, and I had the opportunity to be able to do that,” he said. “Being able to have a performance space and use art to give people the opportunity to be able to tell their story.”

Starlight Square additionally served as a vehicle for residents to bring awareness to various issues.

In September 2020, students of the Community Art Center painted a mural on one of the walls adjacent to the square: “Breonna Under the Stars.”

It was a homage to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police that year, and other “Black women and femmes who have become icons of the movement but have yet to receive justice.”

Cambridge resident Sarah Winter said that when she visited Starlight Square upon moving to the city, the mural inspired her to get involved in the local cultural scene.

She applied for a job at the Community Art Center and soon became its director of programs.

“During a time where I was really looking for community and belonging,” Winter said, seeing the mural “really felt like kismet in the sense of being able to find a community.”

Extinguishing Starlight

The journey to make Starlight Square a permanent Cambridge fixture was not without its struggles.

The square’s organizers dealt with noise complaints and residents that wanted the old parking lot back.

“I think some of that stuff started to put a damper on the mood,” said Zach Goldhammer, the Cambridge Community Center’s director of engagement and partnerships.

But what dealt the killing blow to Starlight Square was the retirement of former city manager and supporter DePasquale — which put the square’s funding on the chopping block.

Cambridge City Manager successor Yi-An Huang ’05 decided in March to revoke the American Rescue Plan Act funding meant to make Starlight permanent.

Berg and Boyes-Watson received an email from the city detailing its intent to rescind funding for Starlight, according to Berg

“We are on the receiving end of a different vision,” Berg said. “That’s what we’re hearing as the people who have worked on this project for five years.”

Cambridge City Councilors were also critical of Huang’s decision to end funding. In a series of early March meetings, councilors questioned the validity of the Cambridge Community Development Department data and called it insufficient.

“Between different presentations of the data, there’s also a huge difference in what they’re presenting,” Berg said. “That was not lost on the Council, and they asked a lot of questions.”

In a statement, Huang said he was optimistic about Central Square’s future.

“The City continues to be supportive of the BID in activating Central Square and making it a place the community gathers. Starlight has been an amazing benefit that the City has provided significant funding and support for,” Huang wrote. “I’ve had a number of conversations with the BID and I’m optimistic that the partnership will thrive and continue to find ways to make Central special.”

‘The One Development Cambridge Actually Needed’

“Old Cambridge is being destroyed in a lot of ways,” Mascoll said.

Jada Alleyne, a small business owner and the Community Art Center’s school-age program manager, said that Cambridge now has “more businesses or banks” but “used to be more culture.”

“The whole point” of Starlight Square, Alleyne added, was to “bring something alive to Cambridge, bring culture back.”

In an attempt to save Starlight Square from closure, more than 50 residents and local stakeholders drafted letters of support to the city.

These include the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association Board, DePasquale, Councilors Quinton Y. Zondervan, Mayor E. Denise Simmons, and Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui, the former mayor of Cambridge.

“The pandemic took a toll on many — and when it felt like there was no light, I found it at Starlight,” resident Abeer Abu-Rubieh wrote. “Seeing the community find some happiness within Starlight during a very dark and difficult time was comforting for mine and many others’ mental health.”

“Starlight provided a forum for my mother-in-law to start to sell her pottery to raise money for specific charities,” resident Becca Schofield wrote.

Students also contributed to the letter writing effort.

“I’ve been spending time at Starlight Square since I was thirteen,” a 10th grade student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School wrote.

“It seems like the perfect place to hold our junior prom,” another student wrote.

The closing of Starlight Square comes at a time when shut-downs of cultural spaces are happening across the city, such as those of the Democracy Center and Great Scott.

“It feels like every other week we hear about more spaces closing down,” Goldhammer said. “That’s a real loss for people trying to put on events.”

Cambridge has been robbed of a gem, residents say.

“You come to Cambridge, and there’s Harvard, and then there’s MIT,” Girardin said. But “Starlight Square is the one development Cambridge actually needed.”

“There is not another entity that’s like Starlight, anywhere,” Mascoll said. “Not in New Orleans, not in LA, not in Portland, Oregon, not in San Francisco. Nowhere.”

Correction: April 24, 2024

A previous of this article incorrectly stated that Nina Berg and Matthew Boyes-Watson recieved an email from the city detailing its intent to close Starlight Square. In fact, Berg and Boyes-Watson recieved an email detailing the city’s intent to rescind funding for Starlight.

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