What makes a literary district?

Boston from the harbor. Photo by Meg Winikates.

Boston from the harbor. Photo by Meg Winikates.

In August of this year, the Mass Cultural Council approved the creation of a ‘cultural district’ in Boston dedicated to the literary arts.  Cultural districts are a way of raising awareness about the various arts organizations and resources in an area, and are meant to have an economic impact as well, attracting businesses and creative professionals to a designated area.  There are currently 26 designated cultural districts in Massachusetts, and I find a lot to like in the definition the MCC provides:

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. The Massachusetts Cultural Council recognizes that each community is unique and that no two cultural districts will be alike.

That seems like a set of very achievable guidelines, given that much of New England falls into the ‘walkable, compact’ category already, and the rest of the definition of ‘culture’ is left open to the strengths of the city/town that applies.

Revels' River Sing on the banks of the Charles.  Photo by Meg Winikates.

Revels’ River Sing on the banks of the Charles. Photo by Meg Winikates.  Many cultural districts seem to feature recurring music and dance festivals like this one, as well as the local waterfront, for understandable reasons. (Though the current Cambridge cultural district is in Central Square, up the road from where this celebration of the autumnal equinox occurs.)

So what makes the Boston Literary District (the only one of its kind in MA and the only district specifically geared to one arts discipline) fit the bill?

Mass Poetry recently interviewed Larry Lindner, the Literary District’s coordinator, who enthused about his hope that “the Lit District website becomes for Boston what Time Out is for people who go to London — a kind of what’s-going-on-in-the world-of-literature in Boston” and mentioned plans for an app to help explore the District in 2015.  And the physical district itself?  By making the sites and events more visible, accessible, and tangible, Lindner hopes to encourage timid readers as well as those already deep in the reading and writing world.  He also suggests that associate partnerships with organizations and businesses outside the District’s official borders can help their visibility as well, and bring some of the benefits of the district designation to other areas of the city that need it.  (Even events outside the city get a chance to be included on the District’s events calendar, such as a public art/poetry event in Newton earlier this month.)

The thing I love best about perusing the map of the district is the number of surprises it holds, even for someone who has lived all but 2 years of her life in and around this city, who has worked at a local literary/historical site (2 if you count the Paul Revere house and his own poetical connections), and who was an English major to boot.  For instance, did I know that E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan was set in Boston’s Public Garden?  Maybe when I read it when I was nine, but I certainly didn’t remember the scene with Louis playing his trumpet on the actual existing bridge over the pond.  Nor could I have named even half the writers and poets listed as having ever been Boston residents.  (I love learning new things about my city!)

A few of the sites listed do seem like a stretch (there’s a small bookshop on the ground floor of the State House, really?) and some a bit vague (the Old City Hall listing says ‘Legend has it that that’s the setting for Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah‘) but on the other hand, one can choose to take that as a plus.  Some of these places had to really *try* to connect to the literary district.  It was worth the effort to find the thread, the history, the destroyed address that this modern building now stands over–and that’s kind of awesome, that people want to be a part of it.  I know next time I’m free to wander a bit downtown, I’ll be keeping my eye out for some of the literary landmarks listed.

Boston Public Garden (and Louis' bridge!).  Photo by Captain Tucker, used under creative commons license.  Click for source.

Boston Public Garden (and Louis’ bridge!)  Photo by Captain Tucker, used under creative commons license. Click for source.

And if you can’t make it to Boston to check out what’s going on on the bookish byways, take a stroll down Author Avenue  or Fantasy Street as you check out this virtual literary district at  My Independent Bookshop.  This site is a visually appealing compilation of people’s book recommendations which are then linked to independent bookstores.  I haven’t set up a ‘bookstore’ of my own yet, but it does look like a fun community and a fairly intuitive interface. (Don’t forget to scroll sideways as well as down, though!)

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