In the Boston of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, 66 Charles Street is the location of a Store 24. In reality, that address is currently home to a shuttered Beacon Hill convenience mart of another variety.
There’s been debate among Infinite Jest scholars and literary sightseers regarding the precise coordinates of that Store 24. Regardless, 66 Charles Street will soon be officially designated as a site of literary importance by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, along with 79 others, as part of the Boston Literary Cultural District launching this week.
The first such locale solely devoted to literature in the United States, the Boston Literary Cultural District is the brainchild of Eve Bridburg, founder and executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Grub Street. Following discussions between Bridburg and Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Grub Street secured $42,000 last fall as part of a two-year planning grant to develop the idea.
Enter Larry Lindner, project coordinator for the district. Working with stakeholders including the Boston Public Library and Suffolk University, Lindner started the process of pitching places for inclusion in the district’s borders. But reaching consensus on specific sites, as well as the definition and purpose of the district itself, was no easy task.
“There needed to be some clarification of what the district should be along the way,” Lindner says. “There were some people involved in the process who were very … history-minded. They were very interested in addresses where famous writers who are now dead once lived, and it was very important to them [that] certain spots get in. They were, in some ways, thinking of it as a literary trail—but it’s not a literary trail, it’s very much a literary district.”
The district itself, which was unanimously approved by the Massachusetts Cultural Council on August 19, occupies an area covering roughly one square mile, encompassing some of Boston’s most well-trafficked and historic neighborhoods: Back Bay to the south, downtown to the east, and Beacon Hill to the north. The district’s 80 sites include numerous former residences of famous writers who once called Boston home, including those of Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all of which can be found on Pinckney Street. Other noteworthy sites include the Colonial Theatre on Boylston Street, in the lobby of which Rodgers and Hammerstein composed the title song to “Oklahoma!,” and the Tremont Temple, where Charles Dickens gave the first public reading of A Christmas Carol in America in 1867.
“Boston is very lucky to have those historic sites,” Lindner says. “I like to think of those spots that people can walk past as sort of those wonderful, cut-crystal ornaments for the Christmas tree that your grandmother handed down through the generations.”
EUREKA: A POE POEM
There were a lot of complications in the project’s early days. Dan Currie, founder of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston, was instrumental in the inclusion of the “Poe Returning to Boston” sculpture within the district, which is due to be unveiled in October. He was also involved in talks with Lindner during the initial phases of the district’s planning process. However, Currie remembers the proceedings very differently.
I met Currie just four days after the Massachusetts Cultural Council unanimously approved the Boston Literary Cultural District. He was initially hesitant to go on the record, and after speaking with him for almost two hours, I understood why. Four years before the district was proposed, Currie had been working on his own project: a public art initiative called “The Raven in the Frog Pond: Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston,” which included its own map of relevant sites. Shortly after commencing work on that project, Currie began canvassing neighborhoods to gauge public opinion about the Poe Foundation’s plans.
“It was important that the public have a lot of say in what we were proposing,” Currie says. “One of the people I met was a woman named Pat Bartevian. She runs a little gift shop at 160 Boylston Street, which at the time housed the offices of Grub Street. Bartevian was a Poe aficionado. She very much wanted to help, so she contributed a small office to the Poe Foundation.”
Now that Currie had a home base, he began piecing together the proposed Poe trail and documenting each site in detail. Then his efforts took an unexpected turn.
“One day, I’m sitting there in the office, and I’m working on a draft of this map of the ‘Poe Literary District,’” Currie says. “And I look back, and who’s peering over my shoulder but Eve Bridburg. She was very nice, I was very pleased to meet her. She asked me what I was doing and I explained. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting, because I was kind of thinking of a similar type of thing that Boston might need. If that comes together, I’d like you to maybe be a part of helping us to define a larger literary cultural district.”
To his later surprise, Currie noticed striking similarities between his concept and the proposed literary district. He also came to understand that Bridburg’s initial offer had been more than a mere pleasantry.
“I was reading about [the district] in the newspaper and I was very interested in it anyway,” Currie says. “And so when it was announced in the papers that an organization of executive partners headed by Grub Street were awarded a $42,000 two-year ‘planning grant’ for the official designation of a Literary Cultural District in Boston, I assumed it would be a two-year process and that part of that process might include public access to the debate.”
However, the public debate that Currie expected never materialized. Nor was any explanation offered as to why Grub Street had accelerated its development process by an entire year, or whether its two-year planning grant would be affected by this decision.
In February, Lindner released a preliminary map of the proposed district to a select few local media outlets. The public was never consulted about what should be included, and the original map proposing potential zoning of the district contained just 34 sites.
“Frankly, I took one look at [it] and I was extremely disappointed,” Currie says. “First of all, that map is from the 1950s. I mean, the streets have been redesigned. Shortly after this came out, I wrote an email to Larry explaining my interest in the project and offering to help out.”
Despite Currie’s extensive knowledge of local literary history, as well as his enthusiasm and support for the project, his inquiry was met with indifference.
“Larry responded to my email offering to assist by stressing that identifying these literary landmarks was only a small part of what the whole thing was about,” Currie says. “It became apparent that they didn’t need my help, much less want it, but then Eve invited me to contribute if I wanted to.”
Currie did hope to contribute. He spent weeks conducting a thorough review of Lindner’s proposed map, and expanded upon it not just geographically, but also by increasing the number of literary assets in the city to 160. Currie submitted his survey to Grub Street on March 3. Several weeks passed, and he received no word from either Lindner or anybody else at Grub Street.
“For whatever reason, Larry did not want to share with me what they were working on,” Currie says. “He never would share it with me, and quite frankly, I couldn’t understand it. I never did get a response.”
There’s a video of the first public hearing about the literary district, which was held at the Boston Public Library on May 6. During the brief opportunity Currie had to speak, he voiced concerns that the executive partners had failed to adequately engage with the communities affected by the creation of said designation or members of the public who wished to provide feedback.
“A few days after that meeting, the city councilors decided that there would be a second meeting,” Currie says. “In the meantime, [Lindner] asked me if I would serve as a member of what he called a ‘mapping committee,’ which was to consist of him, me, and a woman named Susan Wilson, a literary historian who has written several books on the literary history of Boston, and whose work I drew upon while I was creating my report.”
Believing that this meeting would finally address his concerns, Currie agreed to speak with Lindner and Wilson at Grub Street’s offices. His assumptions turned out to be misguided.
“So I go to the meeting at Grub, and as it’s getting ready to start, I’m talking with Susan Wilson,” Currie says. “Larry, who was out in the hall at the time, saw me talking to Susan, charged into the room, and said to me—quote— ‘I’m not going to let you hijack another meeting,’ then declared that the meeting would only permit the discussion of items that we might like to add to the list. He invited me to leave the meeting if I was not going to ‘be agreeable,’ and he shouted me down at several points.”
Soon after that first and only mapping powwow, Currie’s involvement in the project came to an end. He says that it became apparent to him that Lindner and the executive partners had little interest in either gauging public opinion about their plans, or in seeking further guidance from him or other local experts.
Despite the farcial experience Currie describes, the literary cultural project has moved ahead at a brisk pace. However, if it’s to become more than just the trail of plaques and signposts that Lindner argued against during preliminary meetings, then readings, poetry slams, and workshops, all of which are supposedly integral components, will have to take center stage.
“When the district is launched, there’s going to be a website,” Lindner says.
“Everything literary going on in Boston within the district is going to be under that one heading,” says Lindner, who promises an all-inclusive online portal. “We have hired a design firm. This firm is actually creating a brand, creating a logo. It’s going to be very easy for people to see that there’s a real breadth and depth to what’s going on in the literary community in Boston.”
There’s some authority in that claim. It is impossible to discuss Boston’s literary community without noting Grub Street. Founded in 1997, the nonprofit has grown from a small group of local authors in Bridburg’s Somerville living room into a major resource for aspiring and established writers from New England. Today, Grub Street boasts an extensive roster of instructors, including Steve Almond, Ann Bauer, Hollis Gillespie, Benjamin Samuel, and Laura Van Den Berg, to name a few.
With Grub Street occupying such an enviably prominent place in the local literary scene, it comes as little surprise that the nonprofit was tasked with spearheading efforts to make the literary district come alive. At the same time, Lindner says that Grub Street’s role in event programming remains to be seen.
“All the money for the district goes through Grub Street,” Lindner says. “Going forward, Grub Street will continue to take the lead in administering the funds, but we’re not actually looking to manage the process past those administrative points. From a creative point of view, the hope is that many different organizations, and not just literary concerns—hotels, restaurants, Friends of the Public Garden—start coming together and creating programs that don’t exist yet.”
As for Currie, despite his negative experiences, the Poe enthusiast doesn’t seem bitter. He speaks positively, albeit reservedly, about the future of the district.
“There’s nothing I’d like better than to see Boston become further known as a destination for literary tourism and as a place where there’s a high level of what you might call literary citizenship,” Currie says. “Maybe even confront some of the issues for artists that have to do with economic structure and labor power, or affordability and accessibility for artists. I don’t know how anyone could look at this contribution that I made to the project and accuse me of not being supportive of it—but that’s how it’s ended up.”
THE SENTIMENTAL TOURIST
The Boston Literary Cultural District, like the other 25 cultural districts scattered across Massachusetts, has been described as “revenue neutral,” meaning that the district will not cost the City of Boston anything beyond what’s already been earmarked for the project. However, in an interview with the Boston Globe earlier this year, City Councilor-At-Large Ayanna Pressley—one of district’s most enthusiastic supporters—suggested the possibility of offering tax breaks and other incentives to businesses within the area. Numerous commercial entities have expressed a desire to participate in event programming, which raises questions about how inclusive the initiative will be. Namely, what obstacles will writers with more limited commercial appeal face in securing speaking engagements? In gaining exposure?
It seems such concerns are on the back burner. According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, cultural tourism is the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry. Furthermore, cultural tourists tend to have higher incomes, and spend on average far more per trip than typical visitors. All of which equals much greater tourism potential for Boston, which welcomed 19 million heads last year alone
While cultural tourism may be beneficial to the city, some commercial aspects of the district seem troubling. If Grub Street has no interest in serving as the arbiter of literary standards moving forward, then who will? Who will have the final say over event programming? Will it become a corporate, rather than an artistic, consideration?
“The hope is that people who have been working in separate silos will come together with programming and events that nobody thought of until now,” Lindner says. “Maybe people would come to us and say, ‘This is really great, [person] A wants to get together with [person] B, but we need $2,500,’ and we could say, ‘Oh, this hotel has been very friendly to the district, go to them for a little bit of funding. Both the Omni Parker Hotel and Hostelling International have expressed an interest in hosting events.”
The Globe, Boston magazine, and numerous other local outlets have lavished praise upon the executive partners and extolled the looming benefits of cultural districts. Not everyone, however, has been swept off their feet.
Newton-based author Edmond Caldwell has been one of the most vocal detractors. Caldwell claims the project is almost entirely self-serving, that several of the the seven executive partner organizations have serious conflicts of interest that they’ve failed to disclose, and that little has been done to address the real issues facing writers in Boston. I met Caldwell for lunch at the Jacob Wirth Restaurant on Stuart Street, one of the district’s 80 sites and a favored watering hole of Jack Kerouac, to talk about his concerns.
“I’m against cultural districts,” Caldwell says. “They came out of gentrification, and they’re a way of what Hollywood calls ‘formatting’; if it’s a successful model, you format it and you end up with ‘sequelitis.’ This is formatting of what happened in SoHo and the East Village and similar projects in other cities. It gets franchised out.”
Caldwell says that not only is the Boston Literary Cultural District unlikely to help struggling artists gain exposure, but that even the language used to describe local writers in the glowing media coverage is misleading. Most importantly, he notes that many of the key stakeholders stand to benefit from the creation of the district in ways that haven’t been addressed by the executive partners or in public reports.
“In the public relations talk we’ve heard, they speak of the ‘literary community’ in Boston, but by that they always mean Grub Street,” Caldwell says. “They mean Grub Street, they mean 826 Boston, they mean The Drum Literary Magazine … they mean the Boston Book Festival. When you go and look at the boards of these nonprofit institutions, you’ll find that they’re heavily backed by people in the urban ‘FIRE’ economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. That’s when I started looking into who’s funding it, and it’s gotten new funders recently, too, that are from that odious sector of the economy. There’s a connection between that going on and their sudden largesse with Grub Street; between similar sources of funding and the Boston Book Festival. They’re trying to buy cultural capital over here with gains that I feel are deeply ill-gotten, and I think there are strings attached to this funding.”
Another issue that the project’s stakeholders have seemingly ignored: how the district will expand and create opportunities for writers of color. Despite the diversity of its population, Boston remains one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Caldwell foresees this problem being exacerbated from an event-programming perspective.
“I first started criticizing the Boston Book Festival because it had really odious corporate sponsors, and it’s very close to Grub Street,” Caldwell says. “It also has this One City One Story program that advances these very aesthetically reactionary stories as art that’s going to ‘unite the community through the act of reading’—but they’re also very exclusionary. In five years, they have not had one African American writer. Boston is around 23 percent African American. They have not had one Latino [or] Latina writer. Boston is about 18 percent Latino. Almost half of Boston is black or brown, and they’ve had four white authors and one South Asian author for this citywide program. I would maintain that even if Grub Street and the Boston Book Festival people are in charge of the programming, and get to decide who gets in, that’s still a problem. It’s not going to be diverse demographically, and it’s not going to be diverse aesthetically.”
Caldwell also discovered that, according to data from the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, there are numerous affordable housing sites located either within or near the borders of the Literary Cultural District. There are, in fact, nine such sites situated directly within the district and an additional eight in close proximity. Many of these developments contain “expiring use” properties; apartments and condos whose owners are soon to be relieved of their legal obligation to keep rents affordable for lower income residents, including the elderly and disabled. Data from CEDAC indicates that legal mandates affecting at least 260 affordable housing units in or near the Literary Cultural District are due to expire within the next 11 years.
“Every year, landlords and developers are thinking of a new way to constrict public housing,” Caldwell says. “In these neighborhoods—Chinatown, the Theater District, Downtown Crossing—as much as 30 percent of the occupants live below the poverty line. What we see here is not just luxury apartments and rich people who can afford to live there, but extremes. It’s a place where people who don’t have a lot live and make their homes.”
Although the Literary Cultural District is in no way responsible for the status of expiring use properties in or near its borders, its creation is likely to make it considerably more difficult for the area’s current low-income residents and writers to find affordable accommodations. Along with heightened tourist traffic and the associated revenue, the creation of cultural districts is typically accompanied by an increase in real estate values. Indeed, one of the stipulations of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 10, Section 58A—the law that governs the creation of cultural districts—specifies that such areas must “enhance property values” in order to meet state eligibility criteria.
“There’s a whole radical sociology coming to us from [controversial CUNY anthropologist] David Harvey and others that talk about the transformation of cities into ‘profit pumps’ in order for them to become successful in the neo-liberal economy,” Caldwell says. “If they don’t become successful, they end up like Detroit. One way they become these profit pumps is through cultural districts, through the marketing of culture. It’s supposed to be about things that are unique to that city—supposedly. It all becomes Disneyfied in the end. If you look at the history of gentrification anywhere, you’re basically going to end up with Urban Outfitters.”
I asked Lindner about the district’s potential economic impact on writers, artists, and low-income residents who are already struggling with the rapidly rising cost of living in Boston. His answer was refreshingly candid, if not disheartening.
“I know there’s thought going into the fact that Boston is a really expensive city, and particularly the borders of this district,” Lindner says. “I mean, you won’t find places as gentrified as this district in most areas of the country. Back Bay, Beacon Hill, even Downtown Crossing, these are very expensive areas to live and work. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that, somehow, the creation of the Literary Cultural District is going to allow writers to come to Boston and live in Back Bay or Beacon Hill. I do think that, with more attention being put on the writing community, the fact that writers have something to sell, Boston will become a place that is comfortable with the idea of writers making a living and earning more money.”
Differences aside, the Boston Literary Cultural District will be formally launched in October, the height of Boston’s tourism season, to coincide with the sixth Boston Book Festival. There can be little doubt that it will be a major boon to the city’s vibrant hospitality industry, and for the select few local literary darlings who may or may not need additional exposure. In time, perhaps the district will serve as a launching point for young authors to earn plaques and signposts of their own, though artists rarely fare well in prizefights between culture and commerce. In Caldwell’s opinion, one possible solution is for more writers to critically examine the acquisition of cultural capital by corporate entities, and ask how—if at all—such practices benefit them or their craft.
“Hope, for me, is in beginning to think of ourselves as workers, and beginning to come out of our silos and come be cultural producers together, but also be workers with other workers,” says Caldwell. “To realize that our interests are also the interests of janitors and custodians and people who work in the hospitals. You know, what are our interests? What’s our book festival going to look like when we have it and it’s not funded by Bank of America or Verizon or Pearson? What then?”