When businesses stand empty in a neighborhood, the negative effects can be far-reaching. That’s why a nonprofit was created that turns vacant storefronts into pop-up communal spaces where people can come together without having to spend money.
The nonprofit is called CultureHouse, and it was set up by Aaron Grenier after spending time studying abroad in Copenhagen. Greiner noticed that the city had indoor public spaces of a type that didn’t really exist in the U.S. One coffee-shop-slash-bar, for example, aimed at students, sold drinks but didn’t require anyone to spend money to use the space.
Seeing the growing prevalence of vacant retail stores (10 percent) around Boston, CultureHouse focused on the Boston area and opened up its first pop-up communal space for a month to test the concept. It was successful enough that Greiner decided to continue the work, partnering next with a property owner that owned storefront space at the bottom of a large office building in Kendall Square.
It’s a neighborhood that’s active during the workday but had been dead at night and on weekends. But since the space opened last July, CultureHouse has observed an eightfold increase in the number of people who were lingering on the block—otherwise a place where people would have little reason to stop. That was true even of people who didn’t come inside. Some research suggests that vacant storefronts have a negative impact on the moods of people passing by and that vacancies make it less likely that people may stop at nearby businesses.
For neighbors, it has temporarily become a place to gather. A group of new mothers use it for meetups. Others use it as a free coworking space or come to events that CultureHouse hosts with other nonprofits. People are connecting in ways that they might not have in the past—and that’s amazing.
Eventually, CultureHouse hopes to find a permanent location, but it wants to continue opening a network of pop-ups tailored to specific neighborhoods. All in all, the model provides a blueprint that could be replicated in more communities around the country.