After four years in South America, Betsy Cowan returned to the United States this year because, she said, she feels the country is at a historic juncture.
“I was living and working in Latin America, and I loved the work. But I think this is an important po-litical, social and economic time in US history, and that drove my decision to come back,” she said.
The 26-year-old was mostly in Chile doing community and economic development work, she said. Now she is taking over as director of Egleston Square Main Streets (ESMS).
Cowan had been back in Boston less than two months before her first day on the job, Nov. 3. In a Gazette interview the next week, she said she was spending a lot of time listening and learning. “One of the impor-tant things is to start by understanding the area and understanding what has been done,” she said.
The recent history of Egleston Square includes a major demographic shift from being a predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly Latino one between 1970 and 2000. In the early 1990s the area was a major hub of gang violence and was reputed to be one of the most blighted neighborhoods in the city.
By the end of the century, community redevelopment efforts led to the area largely bucking that reputa-tion. Those efforts involved ESMS and local community development corporation Urban Edge, among others.
Cowan said she has been learning about the “different identities of the neighborhood, the shared histo-ries and the different histories…how the neighborhood has been changing.”
She was up to speed with ESMS’s recent work. When asked about the future of the business district, she cited a 2007 business district needs assessment the organization conducted. According to that study, the ESMS is looking to promote more diverse retail in the area immediately around the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Washington Street. Cowan said the organization is looking to promote things like full service restaurants, coffee shops, hardware stores and pharmacies in that area.
ESMS is looking to strengthen that area both for residents and as a shopping destination.
“For residents, it’s important to have a place to get things they need—to have products that meet the needs of the local economy,” she said.
But ESMS is also looking to promote the area as a “destination where people can come to fun events,” she said.
Last month, those efforts included a district-wide holiday event, including a holiday tree lighting, on Dec. 13, she said.
At a Jamaica Plain-wide meeting of business owners hosted by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation last month, conversation focused on strengthening JP’s business districts by increasing coordi-nation among the area’s three Main Streets programs—ESMS, Hyde/Jackson Main Streets and JP Centre/South Main Streets (JP CSMS).
Cowan said she is open to that, but said it is also important for the districts to maintain their own identity.
She recently met with Randace Moore, director of JP CSMS, to discuss promoting local shopping for the holidays, she said. While it is useful to share ideas, the Egleston business district “has a very different customer base and different business base” than the Centre/South district, she said.
Cowan said she sees Egleston Square possibly instituting a tradition similar to Centre/South’s popular First Thursdays celebrations. Those art and music festivals take place on the first Thursday of the month between May and September to promote the Centre/South Street business district.
“That’s a great idea if we could do it in a way that is respectful to our identity as a unique district,” she said. “One of our priorities is really to support the people who live here.”
Cowan said she has been staying in Northborough since she got back to the United States. She recently moved into an apartment on Walnut Park, she said.