From the outside, a small pop-up space in a storefront in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks like it might be a coffee shop. Called CultureHouse, it does, in fact, serve coffee, but it’s free. The pop-up is designed as a community hub that anyone can use to work, meet friends, or watch live music or movies at night without paying.
It’s designed as a way to bring new social infrastructure to neighborhoods and a way to activate vacant storefronts. Until CultureHouse moved into the building in July 2019, the store had been vacant for a year and a half. “We describe ourselves as an indoor public park or a community living room,” says CultureHouse director Aaron Greiner.
As a college student studying abroad in Copenhagen a few years ago, 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. “Once I got back to the U.S., I really started to realize how we don’t really have many places like that, that don’t have a financial barrier to entry,” he says. He also noticed the growing prevalence of vacant retail stores in Boston; the greater Boston area now has a retail vacancy rate of around 10%.
In 2018, after a year of planning, CultureHouse opened its first pop-up for a month as a test to see if the concept would work. 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. “They’re really trying to think about how they can create more of an active community,” he says. The property owner saw enough potential in the idea that they offered the nonprofit temporary use of the space rent-free, while they waited to find a long-term tenant.
Since the space opened last July, the team has been studying how the area is changing. Within the first two months, they saw 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. “People are more likely to take a phone call in front of our space than across the street or than any other place in the street,” Greiner says. 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. “We really believe that it’s critical to have social infrastructure in cities to combat loneliness, and to create more connections across socioeconomic status, across race, across all of these boundaries that have been put up,” he says. He points to Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People, which talks about how people living in areas without strong social infrastructure—libraries, parks, other free places to spend time—were more likely to die during Chicago’s deadly heat wave in 1995. “There weren’t those support networks, so people weren’t able to check up on each other.”
Now, he argues, it’s even more important that enough places exist to build that community, as people might have fewer connections with neighbors. “I think a lot of cities tend to have very young populations that are moving a lot, moving in and out of neighborhoods,” he says. “It can be really hard to get and form social connections, especially because a lot of our social connections exist online. I think it’s really important to have physical, in-person spaces that help people actually form those networks.”
The pop-up in Kendall Square will close in March. Another recently opened in a former news kiosk in Harvard Square. Eventually, CultureHouse hopes to find a permanent location, but it wants to continue opening a network of pop-ups tailored to specific neighborhoods. “Having a pop-up space first is a great way to show people the idea and convince them of it,” says Greiner. The organization is also interested in working in other cities—and anyone who wants to try to replicate the idea themselves can download an open-source manual.