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Creating a literary district in Boston

The end of this story has yet to be written. But if things go as the city’s literary community hopes, sometime in 2015, Boston will be home to what’s believed to be the nation’s first literary cultural district. Its proponents don’t know exactly where its borders will lie, or what, precisely, visitors will do, but more significant is this: the very idea that there could be a literary cultural district is recognition that the city is undergoing a renaissance.

In September, a group led by Grub Street, an independent writing center, won a two-year $42,500 planning grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council . The coalition will use the money to refine its concept and pitch the commission for designation. “The challenge,” said Eve Bridburg, Grub Street’s executive director, “is to make the literary visible.”

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That used to be less of a problem. In its day, the city was so thick with literary figures — including but hardly limited to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott — that the mid-to-late 19th century writer Bret Harte remarked that “it was impossible to fire a revolver without bringing down the author of a two-volume work.”

But after more than a century of prominence, the literary center started to move away from Boston, said Christina Thompson, editor of the Harvard Review . In 1991, Little, Brown and Company moved its Boston editors to New York. The Partisan Review ceased publishing in 2003. In 2005, the Atlantic Monthly moved to Washington. “That was the nadir,” said Thompson. “It felt like a big piece of the intellectual heritage of the city was gone and it left a vacuum.”

Thompson credits Grub Street, in part, for the flowering, and Bridburg, who started the center, in 1997 — when she saw a “hunger for people to be taken seriously as writers and work in a community on their craft” — recalled the literary scene at the time.

826 Boston [a nonprofit tutoring and writing center] didn’t exist,” she said. “The Boston Book Festival didn’t exist, and it’s drawing [about] 25,000 people every fall to Copley Square. There are too many reading series to mention. It’s almost like living in New York.”

The literary group working towards the cultural district designation includes the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenaeum, the City of Boston, the Drum (“a literary magazine for your ears”) and the Boston Book Festival.

Members want to celebrate Boston’s literary past as well as its present. They envision walking tours (beyond the Literary Landmarks run by Boston By Foot); literary-related street art; call-outs for interesting exhibits at the BPL and the Athenaeum; collaborations with school children; interactive installations; and even an audio story written specifically for the route a visitor might take through the district. Open an app, and the streets themselves form the scene for the tale. No word yet on any Kindle charging stations.

“I see it as a Broadway for writers,” said Henriette Lazaridis Power, editor of the Drum. “The way Broadway is a loosely defined geographic area of New York and everyone knows that’s where you go to find theater, this is a place where people who want to take in writing in the forms of events will go, and writers will find resources there.”

Although the group is working on its map, the literary district would definitely include the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the Athenaeum at 10½ Beacon Street, Washington Street, the former home of numerous literary magazines and newspapers, Beacon Hill, once home to poets including Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the Public Garden, with its Make Way for Ducklings sculpture.

A recent weekday morning found Bridburg standing at the intersection of Boylston and Charles Street South — the planned site of an Edgar Allan Poe statue. To the uninformed, it looked like a non-descript plaza, a burrito place and a tobacconist on one side, and loud, slow-moving traffic on the other. But Bridburg looked deeper. “There’s a dead poet right around here,” she said cheerfully, referring to Charles Sprague, the “Banker Poet of Boston.” Considered a genius in his time, she noted, he’s all but forgotten. (Stop one on the tour?)

It’s been 18 months since the Massachusetts Cultural Council began designating cultural districts around the state. So far, 17 areas have been named, giving them the right to create signage, and also a boost in attracting artists, creative enterprises — and cultural tourists, who spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts. Central Square, with its funky shops and street festivals, got itself named a cultural district. So did museum-rich Fenway.

Never mind that you can stroll through one of those neighborhoods without realizing you’re in a branded zone. With the public’s home-based entertainment options expanding, cultural organizations, just like NFL stadiums, are fighting to pry paying customers from their couches.

The literary coalition is one of about 100 currently working towards cultural-district designation, said the MCC’s executive director, Anita Walker. That’s a number that includes groups in tiny Turners Falls, Newburyport, and Springfield, where the proposed culture district could bump right up against a future potential casino.

When the Legislature approved the cultural district program, in 2010, Walker noted, the MCC asked for and got zero dollars in funding. But as the program grows, she’s back talking to legislators, this time about possible tax credits or other financial incentives for businesses within the districts.

But, the benefits of cultural districts can extend way beyond the monetary. They can make a whole town feel good about itself, Walker said, pointing to cultural districts in “scrappy” Pittsfield and Lynn. “This forces communities to look at their assets, not just their liabilities,” she said.

And what’s true for people is true for muncipalities. “If you don’t have confidence” she said, “you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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