John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
A Boston nonprofit called CultureHouse is demonstrating how empty storefronts can be transformed into instant “social infrastructure.”
Cambridge’s Kendall Square, nestled between the MIT campus and the Charles River, suffers from some familiar symptoms of 2019-style retail malaise: an abundance of “For Rent” signs and hollowed-out storefronts. Though this is a booming area that’s home to a growing tech-entrepreneurial base, much of the commercial activity is reserved for weekdays; at nights and on weekends, Kendall Square gets sleepier.
While other cities have toyed with vacancy taxes and vacant-storefront registries to combat the proliferation of dead retailers, as CityLab has reported, the Boston nonprofit CultureHouse has taken a tactical urbanist approach: physically occupying vacant storefronts and turning them into pop-up public places. In a long-vacant former coffee shop on Kendall Street, for example, people can sit and talk, read, eat, see a show, or attend an ever-changing rotation of events. This last week, the space hosted a “Game Night,” a ping-pong tournament, Dog Trivia, and a screening of a documentary on Jane Jacobs.
This is the group’s second pop-up location, which will be open until October; previously, CultureHouse took over the lobby of a nearby pop-up complex called Bow Market for a month. The idea, says co-founder Aaron Greiner, is to create a shortcut to “social infrastructure” in communities that need more welcoming public spaces—amenities like parks and libraries, where neighbors can interact with one another. And the kicker: In exchange for injecting Kendall Square with a little street-level energy, Greiner* and his team pay no rent: Agreements with property managers rely on the premise that the non-commercial activation of idle stores will draw more life (and business) to the surrounding area. Early signs have been promising.
“A lot of these spaces are in amazing locations, because they’re right on the street,” Greiner says. “And vacant storefronts are everywhere. They’re on the major streets, occupying some of the most high-potential-impact areas, sitting completely unused.”
We caught up with Greiner to talk about how cities can put vacant spaces back to work, what this model could look like in more disadvantaged urban centers, and why he hopes to one day see a CultureHouse in every American downtown. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
So how did CultureHouse come about?
The idea for CultureHouse came from my experience studying abroad in Copenhagen, where there’s this real dedication to public life and public spaces. I was studying urban design and livability there, and learning about the theories behind how those spaces cultivate community and connections. I could see how those spaces increased happiness. One of the reasons why [Denmark] has such a happy population is because of all of those opportunities to exist in public.
I also worked at the Better Block Foundation, an organization based in Dallas that does temporary streetscape renovation. I worked on a project in Farmington, Ohio, a forgotten little town, transforming a street for a weekend into something that’s vibrant. There are tons of vacant storefronts in these towns, and streets that aren’t designed for people. That’s when I saw the idea of pop-up spaces that are non-commercial. I saw how that pop-up framing could allow a project or an idea to gain footing, and to show what’s possible.
Once I came back to Boston, which is where I grew up, I started to realize the city’s vacant storefront problem. I moved into Somerville and saw that there were all of these vacant storefronts downtown, and at the same time, a huge lack of public space. There are parks, but they’re really only great a couple of months out of the year, because of the weather. Coffee shops or breweries all have a significant financial barrier to entry: You have to buy a $8 cup of coffee or a $10 beer or whatever. That doesn’t end up forming the community that truly public space is for. Just activating storefronts helps to increase foot traffic, encourages people to come to the area, and simply makes it more alive. Creating a public space there then creates what I call an “element of stickiness.” It gives people a reason to to stay, and that, in turn, supports the businesses that are still open.
In Somerville, how have these vacancies affected the surrounding area?
It’s had a huge effect, because vacant storefronts—even just from how they look visually—discourage people from walking in that area. We collected data on our pop-up in Kendall Square, and not a single person stopped on the street before we opened. The space we’re in was vacant for a year and a half—it’s a dead storefront with a boring facade, and there was little foot traffic [on the street] outside of work hours, so there was really no life in the street. There was no reason to be there, so people don’t stay.
There’s this urban-design sociology idea that you can rate a facade by how fast you have to travel by it for it to be interesting. Humans are likely to change in their minds every 10 to 15 seconds, because we’re impatient people, and so if you look at a street that has completely empty windows, people will feel more bored and less happy. Simply putting something in those windows changes the way people interact with the street. They’re much more likely to choose walking, or some more active transportation mode; they’re much more likely to feel happier. Just activating the windows of the storefront already has an effect. The icing on the cake is then getting people to actually walk in and spend meaningful time there.
Once this coffee shop closed, how’d you go about convincing the landlord to open up this space rent-free?
We’re working with a huge real estate company that owns the spaces on the ground floor of office buildings. They recognize that this isn’t an area that people come to outside of when they have to. So they saw an interest in activating the space, to create more life on the street. That makes their buildings feel more alive, which is a benefit for them.
For this pop-up, not only are we in this space rent-free, but they’re also giving us some funding to help go towards the operations. We also have grants and donations and all that, but they’ve seen the value so much, that they’re also willing to put funds toward making the space operational.
So say the area comes back to life and the landlord basically says, “We got people—you guys need to go.” Do you see that as “Mission Accomplished”?
I think being able to create a place that is alive is success. But there’s also a long-term reason for something like CultureHouse to stick around. Even when you have businesses that are open, if there aren’t public gathering places, people are less likely to stay. Keeping a space like us around creates a draw. It’s supporting the businesses that are open around it. We don’t sell food; people go out and get lunch next door. We believe that there’s a really great reason for us to exist in every downtown area.
What sort of impact have you seen thus far at your locations?
We’ve been able to show that this addresses a community need—we attract people and give them a reason to stay in the area. And we’ve also been able to find a lot of people who have been able to use CultureHouse. There’s one guy who works out of here most days. It’s like his co-working space, and he said that those spaces are $300 a month, and he can’t do that as a freelancer. For him, being able to have this space increases his quality of life.
From what you’re describing, CultureHouse functions like a library or a similar piece of “social infrastructure.”
We took a lot of inspiration from what Eric Klinenberg wrote in Palaces for the People, about how having spaces where people interact and gather can literally be life or death, as he talks about with the  heat wave in Chicago.
How could a city like Boston scale this?
Something that has been a part of our mission since we started the organization is scalability. We’ve gone back and forth internally about where we focus our efforts—there’s something to be said about expanding, but there’s also a lot to be said about really honing in and focusing, because these spaces are tailor-made to the communities they serve. When we open pop-ups, we spend weeks interviewing community members, figuring out their needs and wants. So what we’ve done is open-source our entire project: We’ve created the CultureHouse Manual, which is essentially a how-to document that we’ll continue building and updating. We see the model as being really adaptable. [Each could be] tailor-made for the context it’s in.
What about in cities that are more economically troubled, like Detroit or St. Louis, which have huge vacancy issues?
We’ve gotten interest from cities like that. I can see a place like Detroit really benefiting from something like this, but it would definitely take time and effort to determine what are the elements that are common and what are the elements that are different. We do a lot of programming, and events are key, because they really come from the community. In Boston, we’ve done a bike workshop, because a lot of people commute by bike. In a city like Detroit, maybe there’s a specific community need, or organizations that are looking for spaces to have events. A lot of our events tend to be collaborative; we’ll do them with organizations that are looking for a new audience and have some public good to offer. It’s really about partnering with local resources and offering CultureHouse as a platform and a stage to enhance what’s already there.
What’s the path forward from here?
We’re in our current space until the end of October. We’re looking to find a new space that we’ll move to after our current pop-up shuts down. There’s a lot to be said for moving around—you get to go to a lot of areas, do a lot of broad impact—but we’d love to have a permanent presence somewhere, and then open up satellite pop-ups around that. Long-term, we really do see this as a national model. We’d love to see a CultureHouse in every city.
CultureHouse is also a place where people that are new to a city can interact. We’ve seen that in Cambridge, which has a very high renting population. Our space gets used by people who have lived in the neighborhood forever and by people who are just coming; we see them interact and get to know each other here. We see this as something that can really spread across the country. “Hey, I live in Boston, I have a CultureHouse there.” And then, “Oh, I’m moving to a new city—I know I can go to CultureHouse Dallas, or CultureHouse Detroit. That can be my touchpoint; I’ll be welcome or start to find a community there.” It would be different in every place it goes, but have a similar thread as a home.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Aaron Greiner’s name.