From Dead Store to Pop-Up ‘Social Infrastructure’

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, Culture House 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.
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