The announcement on Monday that the Massachusetts Cultural Council had approved the designation of a Boston Literary Cultural District brought needed recognition to a crucial sector of the area’s arts community. The creation of an official “district” — outfitted with wall plaques and served by walking tours of various literary locations — might seem an odd way to draw attention to the importance of reading and writing, acts that are generally pursued in solitude. But it will showcase Boston as a vital intellectual nerve center, a source of ideas and attitudes for centuries of American life.
Cultural districts were established by the state Legislature in 2010 as part of an economic stimulus bill, with the intention of making cities and towns more attractive to artists, tourists, and cultural organizations. The already established Fenway Cultural District includes the Museum of Fine Arts and Gardner Museum, as well as Symphony Hall, the New England Conservatory, and Berklee College of Music. The new Boston Literary Cultural District — the first dedicated to a single art form, and the only one of its kind in the nation — extends from Copley Square to Beacon Hill and Washington Street and includes such institutions as the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, and the Brattle Book Shop, as well as Benjamin Franklin’s birthplace and the one-time residences of writers including Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, and Khalil Gibran. A proposed walking tour of the district will include the new statue of Boston native Edgar Allan Poe, to be unveiled at the corner of Charles and Boylston Streets in October.
The initiative for the new district came from the creative writing center GrubStreet and its executive director, Eve Bridburg. The idea, said GrubStreet spokeswoman Whitney Scharer, was to make Boston literature more visible, on a par with the performing and visual arts. And, she said, the designation is not simply geographical: The district will have a web site that encompasses a wealth of literary activities and organizations. In that sense, it’s as much about an active scene as a historical place.
The Boston Literary Cultural District does not directly address the more pressing needs of Boston’s creative community: affordable living and work space. Ironically, GrubStreet itself will probably have to move out of its current Literary Cultural District home in the Steinway building, which is being sold. But if the new district has its desired impact, it could bring the kind of awareness that helps sustain Boston’s literary scene, the living as well as the dead.