By Alison Gassett
BU News Service
SOMERVILLE — Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages used to dangle from colorful fabrics and metal hoops in a former warehouse in Somerville. The future of this community is now up in the air, following the loss of their studio space.
Aircraft Aerial Arts was a woman-owned small business that closed following challenging lease negotiations and the $88 million sale of the Ames Business Park in the Spring of 2018. The new owners rebranded the building as Somernova and aim to create a culture of innovation and collaboration. However, this raises the question of where artists and small businesses belong in this changing neighborhood.
Somernova, located a half mile from Union Square, was previously the site of the Ames Safety Envelope Company, which closed in 2010. The 300,000 square foot complex quickly filled with a diverse group of tenants. Aircraft was one of the first.
Classes in aerial silks, trapeze, and contortion allowed students to build physical strength, confidence and express their creativity. As part of her youth program at Aircraft, instructor Marci Diamond provided a healthy outlet for active children, some with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, others with “ants in the pants”.
Diamond loves teaching beginner students: “It’s this great honor to see somebody who’s brand new and just kind of learning how to live in their body and amaze themselves,” she said. “At all of those levels of circus, people are constantly amazing themselves, and there’s something really profound about that.”
She believes Aircraft intentionally fostered a welcoming atmosphere by hiring like-minded instructors.
Research shows the psychological benefits of participation in circus arts include improved teamworking skills and self-discipline. Members of marginalized groups report increased feelings of social inclusion. Organizations like Clowns Without Borders develop programs for marginalized populations around the world.
Students of Aircraft valued these benefits and were not ready to let go of their community, which Chris Meneades describes as a family. He is a member of the group assembled to search for a new location and manage the studio as an LLC going forward.
Over $10,000 was collected from the community through a fundraiser on GoFundMe to cover the cost of finding a new space. Shortly after Aircraft closed, a promising location was identified in Medford. The LLC hired an engineer to evaluate the building and negotiated an agreement. The owner then revealed they were selling the space to another party, sending the group back to square one in a competitive real estate market.
Tom Galligani, director of economic development for Somerville, believes many residents will benefit from the changes coming to the city. According to him, currently 20 percent of Somerville residents can walk to rail-based public transit. After the Green Line Extension is complete, this will increase to 85 percent. Tom believes the Green Line Extension is already attracting more investors to the area, despite the fact that the Union Square branch will not open until 2021.
The city offers services to help small businesses adapt to these changes. Chris Meneadas says reaching out to the city was one of the many steps the group has taken in their search.
In the meantime, aspiring circus artists in Somerville have another option. Esh Circus Arts is located just over the train tracks from Aircraft’s former location. Ellen Waylonis, co-owner and CEO, was sad to see Aircraft lose their space. Aircraft students have started taking classes at Esh, but many classes were at capacity before the flood of new students.
Esh Circus negotiated a lease that will allow them to stay in their space for 10 years. Waylonis hopes to add another 10 years when lease renegotiations begin soon. “I wish that not just this city, I wish this country valued artists as much as we value some other things.”