There is no shortage of bars and restaurants in the Seaport District, but harder to find amid the glass-and-steel monoliths that crowd the South Boston waterfront is soul.
That’s been the rap on the Seaport for a while: The headlong development over the past decade has transformed the landscape, but also left it feeling strangely inanimate. So the city is trying to inject some cultural energy into the area.
A modest start is the new “civic-cultural space” on Fan Pier that includes a Porter Square Books and the Boston writing center GrubStreet, which has moved its offices from the Back Bay and expanded, adding a cafe, podcast studio, and a stage for readings and other performances.
Engineered by the city, the partnership between GrubStreet, the bookstore, and Mass Poetry, which is also moving in, is a step toward, perhaps, making one of the city’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods less homogenous. The joint venture, located on the first two floors of Fifty Liberty Drive, a 14-story condominium tower owned by the Fallon Company, opened this week.
“We don’t know the neighborhood at all, but I think the Seaport is still learning about itself as a neighborhood, too,” said David Sandberg, co-owner of Porter Square Books. “This is an exciting project because there’s still time to shape what the Seaport will be.”
What city officials and some in the neighborhood hope the Seaport can be is more than a fortress of hotels, high-rises, and restaurants catering to a largely white, affluent clientele. Over the past decade, according to a Globe Spotlight Team series on race, a fraction of residential mortgages in the Seaport’s main census tract have gone to Black buyers, and the median household income in the district is the highest of any Boston ZIP code.
In 2018, a year after the Spotlight series was published, the city solicited proposals from arts groups interested in renting — for substantially below market-rate — the 13,166 square feet on Fan Pier. The nonprofit GrubStreet was chosen and given a generous construction allowance. (In addition, GrubStreet raised $8 million from supporters.) The result is a space that’s bright, airy, and, city officials and others hope, inviting.
“We’ve been giving tours to neighbors and community members, and people are excited,” said GrubStreet executive director Eve Bridburg “We have a very dynamic and diverse creative writing community, and the space will be a resource to amplify their voices and bring great energy to the area.”
GrubStreet, which Bridburg started in 1997, works with about 5,000 students annually and hosts a yearly conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, that features eminent authors, agents, and editors. Nearly half of GrubStreet’s instructors are people of color.
Bridburg knows not all of the writing center’s staff and students are excited about the move to the Seaport.
“Some people aren’t as happy as others,” she said. “But the move doesn’t change our mission. We’re doing everything we can to remain inclusive.”
Writer Regie Gibson, who’s been teaching at GrubStreet since 2006, thinks the writing center can have a positive effect on the Seaport. But Gibson also understands the hesitancy of some staff and instructors.
“The Seaport definitely has an air about it that seems corporate and standoffish to the average Bostonian,” he said. “But I see GrubStreet being a little oasis in an unwelcoming desert.”
As an example of what’s possible, Gibson points to GrubStreet’s new neighbor, the Institute of Contemporary Art, which moved to the Seaport from Boylston Street in 2006, when the area was still just a jumble of parking lots.
“They’ve worked really hard to get people down there who maybe didn’t feel welcome,” he said.
The bookstore — it’s called Porter Square Books: Boston Edition — opened Monday and occupies a portion of the first floor. It includes the cafe and stage, which will also be used by GrubStreet and Mass Poetry. Daniel Johnson, executive director of Mass Poetry, said the group’s Evening of Inspired Leaders, a fund-raising event that will feature readings by notables such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, will take place Nov. 18 on the new stage. (It will also be livestreamed.)
“We’re hoping this space can activate the Seaport and be our home for years to come,” said Johnson.
Brightened by big windows that overlook the water, the new 2,775-square-foot bookstore is about half the size of the original Porter Square Books, which opened in 2004 on Mass Ave. in Cambridge. With so many brick-and-mortar bookstores continuing to struggle against online behemoth Amazon, it’s heartening to see Porter Square Books expand, says Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. And its impact on the neighborhood can only be good, she says.
“Independent bookstores are in the community-building business,” said Ineson. “So opening a bookstore in a neighborhood where you’re trying to foster community is a smart move.”
Sandberg, the store’s co-owner, said it’s been exciting to work with GrubStreet and Mass Poetry to create a literary hub in the Seaport, and gratifying to open a new location at a time when so many other bookstores have closed. (Porter Square Books is not alone in writing a new chapter: Posman Books opened a store on Newbury Street last spring and Beacon Hill Books & Cafe is set to open on Charles Street in 2022.)
The effort to make the Seaport more culturally diverse may also get an assist from WS Development, whose latest office building, a 700,000-square-foot complex due to open in 2024, will include the Seaport Performing Arts Center, comprising two theaters of 500 and 100 seats.
Among those rooting for GrubStreet and the bookstore to succeed is filmmaker Raber Umphenour, cofounder of the Midway Artist Collective, a live-work space in nearby Fort Point.
“The firehose of development activity is now shifting its gaze to Fort Point,” said Umphenour. “And we want to ensure that it’s done in a more thoughtful and intentional way than in the Seaport, which includes culturally rich programming that happens when organizations like GrubStreet are successful.”