May 13, 2014

Three Strikes Against the Literary Cultural District Public Hearing

A "community driven" effort.

The Grub Street stage production of The Literary Cultural District Public Hearing has come and gone after a single performance at Boston Public Library’s Rabb Lecture Hall. The one-act farce, co-produced by the Arts & Culture Committee of the Boston City Council, was written by Eve Bridburg and directed by Michelle Wu. Playing the Stage Manager, newcomer Larry Lindner turned in a harried, defensive performance – clearly someone with professional credentials was needed in this part – while Christopher Castellani and Henriette Lazaridis Power appeared listless and dispirited in their supporting roles as The Writer and The Audio-Book. This left it up to Ayanna Pressley, in her key role as The Politician, to pick up the slack, which she did admirably. Pressley’s ambitious interpretation gave us one of those public officials who really know the ABCs of their profession – Always Be Campaigning. But even her nimble and rolling delivery couldn’t rescue a production that seemed sabotaged from the start by its haplessly scattershot script, as if Ms Bridburg had all along envisioned nothing more than a one-night engagement in an almost empty hall . . .

A bit of theater: It’s no exaggeration to say that the May 6 public hearing for the Literary Cultural District was never meant to be more than that. This is why the project’s chief organizer, Grub Street, did nothing to publicize it. Or more precisely, the publicity was as much a mere formality as the hearing itself was supposed to be. Five hours before it was scheduled to start, Grub Street condescended to mention it with a terse Facebook post and a tweet.

Grub Street director Eve Bridburg defended her decision on Facebook, claiming, “Back in April, we notified more than 50 media outlets and 74 other literary and civic organizations. We hope to get a great turnout.” If this is true, then she was grievously let down by these 124 organizations because not a single one of them made so much as a peep about the hearing either. Nor did any of the other organizations of the LCD coalition, such as The Drum or the Boston Book Festival. The only public notifications were the ones that were mandatory – the official City Council posting and the BPL listing.

Grub Street didn’t even avail itself of its own extensive email list. They could easily have included an item about the hearing in the weekly newsletter, the Grub Street Rag, or they could have emailed a separate notification, as they also do from time to time. Evidently their professed desire for a “great turnout” was not especially ardent.

The Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library can accommodate 350 people, but for the LCD hearing it was “filled” to only a tenth of its capacity, around 30-35 people. And that’s being charitable, as this number includes those who had to be there, such as the city workers operating the video and sound equipment, plus a couple of party crashers – myself and my co-conspirator, Catherine – who only knew about the hearing because they had gone looking for it (my testimony here). Most of the rest of those present were invitees, lined up beforehand by Grub Street to chime in according to the pre-approved script.

The irregularities continued once the meeting got under way. Arts & Culture Committee chair Michelle Wu might have wielded the gavel, but it was her colleague, Ayanna Pressley, who was both the meeting’s official sponsor and its presiding spirit. Councilor Pressley opened the proceedings by commending the “robust coalition” that was “leading the charge” for the LCD, while also pointing out to the echoing chamber and 320 empty seats that the effort was “community driven.”

The irregularity here is that Councilor Pressley also happens to occupy a seat on Grub Street’s “Literary Council.” Moreover, she’s a very recent addition to that group, appearing for the first time in the Spring of 2013 – in other words when the discussions for the LCD had to have been already under way in order to secure the $42,5000 “planning grant” that they received from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) in Fall 2013.1 Out of the 38 individuals on the Literary Board, Councilor Pressley is the only one with no professional connection to the literary world; the others are mostly writers, with some agents and editors. I applaud Grub’s decision to have different voices, perspectives, and backgrounds represented on the Literary Board, including even “extra-literary” perspectives – but why then only this single one, and with this particular timing?

A politician fallen among bad company.

I don’t have access to the answers, of course, and therefore will only observe that it at least gives the appearance of possible corruption and conflict of interest, of a quid pro quo in which the city councilor is gifted an honorific and a line on her CV in return for helping to lubricate the legislative process for certain projects.2 Councilor Pressley is routinely spoken of as a future star in our political firmament, destined for higher office. A ceremonial seat on a literary board of merely advisory capacity may not seem like much, but it is indeed something – culture nowadays is a form of capital, and cultural capital confers prestige for a certain sector of voters, and, much more crucially, of donors.

Now for strike three, which wasn’t really brought home to me until the testimony of Dan Currie. His perspective is significant because he served on the working team putting together the application that will shortly be submitted by the LCD coalition to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Currie’s remarks were highly critical of the coalition’s leadership – its “Executive Partners” as they have dubbed themselves – and called for a process that was more transparent, open, and inclusive than what he had seen so far.

Dan Currie speaks with some authority here, because he was instrumental in shepherding an earlier Boston literary site through the official process to become a city landmark. It’s thanks to his efforts that we now have an Edgar Allan Poe walking tour, a Poe Square at Boylston and Charles Streets, and soon a public statue of Poe Returning to Boston that actually looks dynamic, interesting, and flat-out cool instead of like the usual bronzed dogshit. Yet a monument of presumably more conventional cut had been the first choice of the project’s other leaders; it was only because Currie had insisted on a more democratic process, soliciting greater public participation and feedback than the officially required minimum, that a genuinely popular result was achieved.

By contrast, the LCD coalition’s “Executive Partners” are doing the opposite, barely fulfilling even the letter of the law, let alone its spirit. This is especially the case when it comes to their third strike: the scandalous decision to not release a list of the district’s “assets” for public scrutiny and discussion before the application is submitted to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “Assets” is the MCC’s unlovely and revealingly commercial term for the sites and properties that are supposed to anchor a proposed cultural district – cultural attractions, of course, but also business venues that might be associated, however tangentially, with the cultural theme. In the Literary Cultural District’s case, such “assets” would include specifically literary landmarks such as the Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne residences on Pinckney Street, but also businesses such as hotels, bars, and restaurants with any vaguely literary connection (Malcolm Lowry barfed here!), and of course organizations like Grub Street itself.

Instead, all that was revealed at the public hearing was an empty map. The borders delineated a quite large swath of Boston real estate, from downtown in the east to Copley Square and beyond in the west, and from Beacon Hill in the north to Washington Street in the south – with an elbow poking into the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown. There were no markers for any literary sites on the map, no key, and no list. The whole rationale for creating this district in the first place was missing, excluded from consideration.

"The district" -- literary & cultural TBA

Of all the irregularities, this was definitely the weirdest. The excuse for it, related by the visibly nervous Larry Lindner, was that there wasn’t time to get  “bogged down” in “details” or tied up in endless debates about which sites should or shouldn’t be included in the district (yes, Larry, democracy can be messy and inconvenient). Moreover, Lindner further stammered, the list could change any time, sites could be added at any point, and even the boundaries of the map itself could change, so it didn’t really matter right now, did it?

In her closing remarks Councilor Pressley came to Lindner’s aid by affirming that this was going to be a “nimble and rolling process” and then repeating it several times to make sure we all got it: “a nimble and rolling process, a nimble and rolling process . . .” Although intended to reassure, it raises the question of just who is getting rolled here.

Councilor Pressley also thanked Councilor Wu for “expediting” the scheduling of the hearing itself. Along with Lindner’s anxiety about getting “bogged down,” this contributed to the impression that the process is being rushed for some undisclosed reason. Originally (in 2013) the Grub-led coalition had been awarded a two-year planning grant, with talk that the district itself might be unveiled “sometime in 2015.” Now we’re being told that the christening might take place before the end of this year.

Why the rush? What is being kept from the public? And what is being committed in the name of writers, who have a responsibility to be good stewards of the language, and speak the truth?  

Three strikes against the LCD public hearing:

Strike 1:  Not publicized

Strike 2:  Not impartial

Strike 3:  Not informed

You’re out!


1 The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) is the state agency that, among other things, administers cultural districts within the Commonwealth.

2 This is additionally ironic when we remember Ayanna Pressley’s vote to expel Chuck Turner from the city council in 2010. Turner, member of the Green-Rainbow Party and a longtime Boston activist, was about as close as we might have come to a genuine ‘people’s’ representative in city government in our time – that is, until he was framed by the FBI for allegedly accepting gifts in return for political favors.

May 7, 2014

Brand in Boston

Below is the testimony I delivered from the podium at the City of Boston's public hearing on the establishment of a "Literary Cultural District." I'll give a full report on the hearing in a subsequent post. Special thanks to the individual who gave me the idea for this post's title.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from the spokespeople for the Literary Cultural District about “branding” and “leveraging.” For example, the Boston Globe piece from last October spoke of the proposed district as a “branded zone,” while in a more recent Publisher’s Weekly article, Grub Street Director Eve Bridburg has said, “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing.”

Well, I’m here today with the modest proposal that Boston’s writers be branded as well. The marking of individual animals has long been regarded as integral to good herd management; it is a time-honored way for this Athens of America to increase shareholder equity in its stock of writers.

The branding of writers can even become a beloved annual festival just like the Boston Book Festival and Muse & the Marketplace. We can hold it right on the Common, in the growing shadow of new luxury developments like Millennium Tower.

Branding has come a long way since the days of the old west when you’d just thrust a red-hot poker into the haunches of a lassoed, bellowing steer. Now there are plenty of other techniques to choose from, including freeze branding, electrical branding, ear notching, tattooing inside the lip, and even implanted microchips. Each way has its advantages and drawbacks.

First, however, the design itself must be chosen by the coalition’s democratically-elected Executive Partners. I suggest a “G” for GrubStreet (or Gentrification) plus a dollar sign. Just remember that the simpler the design the less painful it is for the livestock.

Next of course it must be decided where on the body the writer will bear the brand. Ideally brands should be easily seen and readable from over 50 feet, so this suggests the face as the prime real estate. Here is where “leveraging” could come in, as a way of lifting and holding the writer’s head steady during this painful but necessary process.

Whatever way is chosen for them by the Executive Partners, Boston’s writers are certain to greet it with instant, clamorous acclaim; the only downside is the stampede they’ll risk starting to be first in line. 

Thank you.

Boston writers assembling for the annual LCD branding ritual