A World for Writers, Readers, and Bostonians: The Making of a Literary Cultural District

Literary folk of Boston, rejoice.

Boston is expected to host the nation’s first literary cultural district, envisioned to come to fruition in late 2014. A $42,500 planning grant has been awarded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) to a group spearheaded by Grub Street, an independent creative writing center. This grant will allow the group to conceptualize the district in detail and apply for the district’s designation from the MCC.

Which is to say: something incredibly cool is in the works.

A cultural district is described by the MCC as “a specific geographical area in a city or town that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets. It is a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity.” Familiar cultural districts in Boston are Central Square and the Fenway area, both excellent examples of the kind of hub of cultural activity that defines such districts. “In many cases, this is a hodgepodge of different cultural activity,” explained Larry Lindner, the Boston literary cultural district Coordinator. This literary cultural district will be the first cultural district in the nation to focus its attentions on a literary community.

The group planning the district could not be any better suited for the job. Grub Street, said Lindner, “is an organization for, and about, and by writers and the writing community.” Other executive partners include the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenæum, the Boston Book Festival, the Drum (a Boston-based audio literary magazine), Emerson College, and the City of Boston. More organizations such as writing center 826 Boston, touring company Boston by Foot, literary magazine Ploughshares, and the Massachusetts Center for the Book have expressed interest in becoming involved in the project.

The Boston Public Library will be an important fixture in the district. | Photo courtesy flickr usertimsackton
The Boston Public Library will be an important fixture in the district. | Photo courtesy flickr usertimsackton

Because it will be the nation’s first literary cultural district, the definition of it is entirely in the hands of the organizers. Grub Street director Eve Bridburg stated to the Boston Globe that the challenge of the district will be to “make the literary visible.”  This idea sits at the forefront of the district planning. “It is supposed to draw the artist and further the interests of the artistic community being represented. It will draw writers, publishers, and others involved in making literature happen,” Lindner said of his hopes for the district.

On a basic and geographical level, the district will be a walkable wealth of literary history. With help from Boston by Foot, Lindner envisions that within the district’s borders–which, though not set in stone, are imagined to include Washington Street on the east side, roping in Beacon Hill and Back Bay, over to Exeter Street and with the Boston Public Library on one corner–people will walk through and visit various places of historical importance to literature. “For example,” he offered, “where Phyllis Wheatley wrote her poetry, where Sylvia Plath lived, where Longfellow talked to Emerson and Thoreau.” A mobile app is planned to aid with this guidance through the literary history of the streets.

“But it’s not going to be a static place where things happened related to literature,” Lindner added. The interactive level of the district will be “abuzz with literary activity, filled with events, performances at the theaters at Emerson, the Boston Book Festival, Grub Street’s annual conference, readings, symposiums,” and more. The project will celebrate the literary history of Boston while constantly offering new ways to engage with the city. Lindner said that the group is currently brainstorming what kind of programming the district will offer and how to make the sites interactive–“I don’t want every site to say ‘Dead Writer Lived Here’.”

Boston, once nicknamed the “Athens of America,” is an ideal place for the nation’s first literary cultural district. Though the Boston publishing houses of the past have moved to New York City, Boston’s role in shaping American literature is impossible to deny. The city was home to many of America’s most influential poets and other writers. Matthew Pearl, an author of two books exploring Boston’s literary past, told the Harvard Gazette, “In the 19th century, there was not yet what was considered an American literature. We were still fighting for that; we were still striving for that. And Boston was the center of that attempt, that goal of creating a national literature that was separate from Europe.”

Poet Robert Lowell formerly lived in Boston’s Back Bay. | Photo by Ashley Hansberry
Poet Robert Lowell formerly lived at this house in Boston’s Back Bay. | Photo by Ashley Hansberry

The history of Boston’s literary leanings still impact how the scene grows in the present. “Boston was the first American literary scene,” said Lindner. “Back in the colonial times, literary people were always respected here. People of literature were looked highly upon, and desired in society. In the mid-1800s, when this literary scene went to New York, literary people were never given the same stature. They were considered fringe–beatnik-y. But Boston has always revered its people of literature.”

Boston area writers discussed the merits and downfalls of Boston’s literary community with The Phoenix in March 2013.  Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist and Cambridge resident Junot Díaz weighed the bad against the good: “Sources of inspiration are far sparer for me here. I am someone who is profoundly inspired by urban immigrant space,” he said. “The very fact that the train stops running at midnight makes it cut down on the kind of insanity that a writer like me is interested in,” he added. However, he also said that “as an author, writer, and artist, you have to drop into a more human rhythm … Boston’s size is more amenable to that.”

On the subject of a Boston for writers, Askold Melnyczuk, a writer and founding editor of the BU-based literary magazine Agni, told The Phoenix: “I’ve defended it against New Yorker friends for years. You can walk across it, appear to get to know it, and of course never exhaust it. It is a city of great institutions and neighborhoods. At the same time, I’m genuinely sorry to see the way it’s been transformed by the money that came in the ’90s,” which made it much more difficult from then on for young writers to afford to be part of the Boston community, literary and otherwise.

The district may be the solution to the concerns of these writers. Lindner envisions that the district will offer a more dynamic space for an already vibrant literary community. “I’m excited that the literary community in Boston will be recognized for the force they are,” he said. “It will draw people here and take away that stereotype that Boston is dead, and full of people who have money and only wear bow ties.”

Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood was home to many important literary figures. | photo courtesy of flickr user ericodeg
Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood was home to many important literary figures. | Photo courtesy of user ericodeg via Flickr

He hopes to elevate this to a stronger cause that will help define Boston in new ways: “All these big literary figures passed through the Omni Parker House hotel and we know that–but did you know that Malcolm X waited tables there too? This wasn’t just a spot of white Transcendentalists,” he explained, and continues this idea to Boston’s identity. “Through the filter of literature, you can force people to ask a lot of important questions. The district should be about literature, but it should show the depth of the community. [They] should reflect back and forth at each other, and through the literary angle you can start to get at a social justice and civil rights component” that is part of Boston’s history too.

Boston will benefit from the literary district in more ways than one. The reflection and magnification of Boston’s identity is only one aspect, and another lies in the economic implications of a cultural district. A cultural district draws “cultural tourists” who spend $62 dollars more daily than the common set of tourists, and the city will take advantage of this by having area hotels within the district that offer “a literary package” that allows tourists to fully experience the district’s offerings. The increase in tourism will draw dollars into Boston restaurants, coffee shops, and beyond. Said Lindner, “More cultural activity in Boston is a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

Because the project is early in its stages, the planning group is excited to hear from interested residents. Anyone with ideas for the district or a desire to help can contact coordinator Larry Lindner by email. “Right now would be a great time to add your ideas. The time is right for the people to have a voice,” he said.

With the help of a determined literary community, Boston will be home to the first-ever official space that works hard to prove Lindner’s claim that “literature is not just entertaining. It’s a reflection of the world we live in.” The Boston literary cultural district will offer a new way to be part of the world we live in by celebrating the words that build, grow, and come to life within it.

About Cecilia Weddell

Cecilia Weddell (CAS 2015) studies Comparative Literature and Mathematics. She likes poetry, basketball, YouTube videos of baby animals, and tea.

View all posts by Cecilia Weddell →

6 Comments on “A World for Writers, Readers, and Bostonians: The Making of a Literary Cultural District”

  1. Good work! Boston was very literary in my day (late ’40s). We were all writing or knew someone who was, and we were all poor and lived in what would now be called slums. But a little poverty is good for the soul and the creative juices. Myself, I lived in BPL–there should be a plaque somewhere in the reading room. And the Lowell Lectures. And the fine BU English faculty. I wish I could join in the fun but I don’t get around much nowadays. Keep us posted.

  2. Hi Cecilia,
    You mentioned that the LCD will help Boston by increasing spending by tourists. Will writers who live in Boston be helped? It seems like the LCD will be in the Boylston St / Beacon Hill area. This is already a wealthy area. What about writers who do not live in this high real estate area? It seems that the LCD project will provide economic aid to an area that is already thriving.

    1. Hi Catherine, thank you for reading!
      That’s an excellent point. I am aware that the LCD will look to bolster the opportunities for writers and artists in Boston whether or not they actually live in the district. As I mentioned in the article, the coordinators would love to hear from anyone who has ideas for the district – I’m sure any ideas or concerns about helping Bostonian writers can be directed to them. Personally, I think that the LCD will offer a heightened awareness of the Boston literary scene in general and that alone will open more doors for these writers.

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