When a neighborhood goes from stagnant to desirable, it’s often artists leading the way, moving in for cheap rents and space to work.

“They’ve essentially really made these communities hip and cool,” says Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation. “And then when development came along, those artists got displaced. We don’t want that model in the Hill District. We’re going for a different outcome.”

Part of the plan for the Hill District is an innovative artist residency program, centered around a newly restored storefront at 2154 Centre Avenue called Nafasi on Centre.

Nafasi means “space for opportunity” in Swahili. It’s going to be both home and studio for six local artists, as well as the Carousel Cafe, a rotating series of new restaurants. The six artists will participate in a two-year program that will help them with everything they need to build sustainable businesses from their art.

The interior of Nafasi on Centre. Photo courtesy of the Hill CDC.

“We have a two-year curriculum that will have experts and professionals in various areas, including wellness, business and finance, legal and patenting, branding, technology skills,” says Milliones. “Artists do have opportunities. They can really take their products to larger markets, through, say, manufacturing. They can get into different spaces like interiors or home decor. They can stay in their traditional practice but really focus on finding the right showcase for their product. They can do online galleries.”

Making wellness a central part of the curriculum is a very deliberate choice. “It’s the stress that we are experiencing from the two pandemics of racism and Covid-19,” says Milliones. Not to mention the challenges around housing and economic parity.

The six artists who were selected, via a competitive application process, are Cynthia Kenderson, Deavron Dailey, Dawn Surges, Ray Butler, Gloria Barnett and James Hough.

Hill District mural in progress by AmunRay.

Butler, who works under the name AmunRay, calls himself a multiplatform artist.

“I primarily focus on visual art,” says Butler, who has done graphic design, murals — he’s working on the Black Lives Matter mural Downtown with Camo Nesbit — and has authored a book called ‘The Definition of Black.”

Ray Butler. Photo from Hill CDC.

He found out about Nafasi through his circle of artist friends on Facebook and applied and has already moved into the Nafasi building.

“It is honestly great,” says Butler. “It’s the perfect amount of space for me. It’s calm. I feel welcome here and supported already. I’m meeting a lot of new artists for the first time. I’m really excited to see what else the Nafasi program has to offer.”

Nafasi on Centre. Photo courtesy of the Hill CDC.

The Carousel Cafe will be slower to take shape.

“We’re really into foods from the African diaspora,” says Milliones. “That can be anything from Caribbean food to Brazilian food to soul food. We have some that are focused on vegan and healthy options. But we haven’t locked down all of them yet, so I’m reluctant to say exactly what will be there. Because it’s a competitive process, and because it’s rotating, we’ll have the opportunity to sponsor and help a lot of different types of businesses over the next two years.”

The food businesses might rotate so there’s one featured Monday through Friday and a different business on the weekend.

The overarching goal is to rebuild the Centre Avenue corridor as a thriving cultural and economic hub for the Hill District and to attract visitors. Another recent program is HD Rising that helps entrepreneurs find storefronts or other space for starting businesses in the Hill.

“There’s been a lot of interest in development proposals along Centre Avenue,” says Milliones. “Well, those businesses will need tenants, and that’s really what we’re focusing on — pipelining tenants for our commercial corridor.”

Funders for Nafasi on Centre include The Heinz Endowments, the Opportunity Fund and Dollar Bank.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.