Starlight Square in Cambridge (Photo courtesy Samara Vise)

Starlight Square, a collaboration between the city of Cambridge, the Central Square Business Improvement District, Flagg Street Studio and a number of community partners is wrapping up a successful inaugural season.

Using scaffolding and scrim, the project this summer transformed a municipal parking lot in Central Square into a vibrant public space, a Cultural District and, during the pandemic, a place for economic recovery and community healing.

Matt Nelson, assistant to the city manager in Cambridge, said that the city got involved in the spring and had a multi-department team working on the project, referring to it as a “six-week sprint.”

Michael Monestime, executive director of Central Square BID, said turning a parking lot for cars into a place for people would not have been possible without the support of City Manager Louis DePasquale and the collaboration of city departments, including Traffic, Parking and Transportation, Community Development, Finance, Public Works, Inspectional Services, and the License Commission, as well as the design and installation teams.

The Central Square BID proposed Starlight to the city on March 9, the day before the governor declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project quickly evolved to meet the needs of the community during an uncertain time.

“We knew that to give the arts organizations a fighting chance to make it to the latter phases of the Commonwealth’s Reopening Plan, they needed to transition outside,” Monestime said. “The community centers needed a place for summer learning and community meetings. We prioritized them early on in the design process, but, as we expected, Starlight has created space for many more organizations and services.”

The square consists of four main elements: a home for the arts, outdoor dining, summer learning, and a canvas for public art. The square included an outdoor performance venue for dance, theater and other cultural programming. On Sunday mornings, the stage hosted interfaith leaders for services. The space also hosted the weekly Central Square Farmers Market and food pantries.

Monestime said numerous community organizations and businesses took part in the project and brought vital services into the space, including an outdoor youth center that helped meet child care and food security needs.

“Our summer youth employment program worked on Starlight,” he said. “We hosted church, drag shows, open mics, voter registration, theater, film, dance, and music. We created Popportunity at Starlight, an outdoor retail market that ran on Saturdays. We just partnered with the city to host a flu clinic for residents. The entire structure is wrapped in powerful public art. In a short time, it has held space for an amazing amount of community services.”

Nelson highlighted how “COVID-conscious” Starlight Square has been, with strict protocols.

The Central Square BID used online crowdfunding efforts to raise funds to build and operate the project, with a matching donation from MassDevelopment. All of the performances at Starlight were free of charge, but donations were welcome.

Starlight closed its inaugural outdoor performance season on Oct. 31, but the BID and the city are working to extend their licensing agreement so that the space can be maintained as an outdoor winter market.

“Starlight was designed as a temporary installation with simple, flexible materials on purpose,” Monestime said.

The team at Flagg calls it a “demonstration project” because it is reversible.

“This was as much about modeling an idea and learning about the needs of our community in this moment, as it was creating something to solve a problem,” Monestime said.

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