Transcript – Episode 63

Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council, we believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity and foster creativity.

Alysia Abbott:  It’s sort of an opportunity for people to make connections and stay connected and that was actually one of the big goals of putting together the Literary District anyway was just to sort of with this belief that together we are stronger than the sum of our parts.

Anita Walker:  Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guests today are Eve Bridburg, Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet which is one of our wonderful literary organizations and Alysia Abbott who is the Director of the Boston Literary District.  Welcome to our program.

Alysia Abbott:  Thank you.

Eve Bridburg:  Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Anita Walker:  Now Eve was the genius and founding mother of the Boston Literary District.  As most of our listeners know, we have 43 cultural districts in every corner of the Commonwealth but the Literary District is different, it’s not a compact contiguous space in a community, it’s more like a literary trail.  Tell us about it, Eve.

Eve Bridburg:  Well we wanted to highlight the incredible history of Boston’s literary past while also starting to draw more attention and resources and support and civic pride frankly in this incredible vibrant present that we’re in.  Boston I know, Alysia can probably give us a deeper sense of the history because she’s been steeped in the maps more than I have but there’s a great quote from the 19th Century where you couldn’t throw a stone in Boston without hitting a writer on the head and I feel like that’s still true in 2017.  So the District’s really about pulling the city together, we love the map and the asset mapping of it but we also view the borders as very porous, we’re trying to just really elevate the whole sector as much as possible.  We hired Kerri Greenridge who’s a local historian to look at the assets from the perspective of African American History in Boston which is really underappreciated and not well known and she did a wonderful job creating this really compelling walking tour so that’s one of the things that we’ve done recently that we’re really excited about.  And Alysia, you probably should talk more about this than I should given your role as the Director the District.

Alysia Abbott:  Yes, so just as Eve was saying, we’re trying it once to engage people with the rich literary past that they can take part in in walking tours on foot or virtual walking tours through our website, but also looking at through our partnerships this really exciting programming that’s engaging the writers of today with that past.  And so we’re made up of a consortium of different universities and literary minded nonprofits and organizations and working together we’re trying to raise the profile of Boston as a literary destination and increase locals’ participation in the literary arts.

Anita Walker:  So do some name dropping because my guess is an awful lot of people could name the members of the Red Sox baseball team but might quickly run out of the names of the literary greats that came from Boston, so show off a little bit, who have we got?

Alysia Abbott:  Well we have the original residence of Louisa May Alcott in the Literary District, her book “Little Women” is almost 250 years old, we have the Omni Hotel, Omni Parker Hotel which was the location of the Saturday Club which was a weekly meeting with local greats including Emerson, Thoreau and Longfellow.

Eve Bridburg:  And didn’t Dickinson live at that hotel for two years?

Alysia Abbott:  Yeah, so Charles Dickens lived at the hotel and actually practiced his reading of “A Christmas Carol” before he gave it for the very first time in the United States in that hotel.  Also in that hotel, Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X were both busboys.  So these are just sort of these little known facts.  We have one of the residence of Sylvia Plath who had been in the Literary District, we have the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe and you can find the statue of Edgar Allan Poe marking that birthplace, and we also have the former residence of Kahlil Gibran, and also the Old South Meeting House which was a place where Phillis Wheatley came with her masters to study and where she eventually became the first African American poet in the United States.

Anita Walker:  What I love about what you’re doing though is you’re not just looking back, “There’s our history,” there’s a writer or two around here now, isn’t there?

Eve Bridburg:  Yes, quite a few.

Anita Walker:  Talk about that.

Eve Bridburg:  Wow, I mean where do we start, right, in Boston.  I was just thinking about our, you know, GrubStreet’s board, super excited about the Literary District, Anita Shreve lives in Boston as does Alice Hoffman, Tom Perrotta, the list goes on and on, Andre Dubus, Margot Livesy.

Alysia Abbott:  And we have, the Boston Book Festival is a member of the Literary District, they sit on our executive committee and they of course do the book festival every year which highlights local authors and also brings authors from across the country, but the Boston Literary District also presents the Lit Crawl, the Boston Lit Crawl which is sort of the Boston outpost of the San Francisco based Lit Crawl and that event really does highlight local authors in the area and local reading series in the area and local literary nonprofits and journals and so many of the country’s very best literary journals are located in Boston including Ploughshares and AGNI and Harvard Review.

Eve Bridburg:  Salamander.

Alysia Abbott:  …and Salamander and new ones like Pangyrus and so we’re really excited to have these organizations coming together for the Lit Crawl on a single night bringing out their people and their talent into unconventional spaces in the Back Bay and in the Literary District where they can do readings for free to the public in a very non traditionally Boston way, it’s a very un-stuffy fun joyful night.  So we’re trying to bring a little bit of that San Franciscan spirit, a little West Coast into the East Coast.

Anita Walker:  So this is obviously such a brilliant idea, it’s why haven’t we done this before, we have this long, long history of literature and writers and it’s so wonderful and it’s here today and now we have a Literary District, but it’s not easy keeping these things up, is it, talk a little bit about from the launch which was what, a couple of years ago?

Eve Bridburg:  Twenty-fourteen.

Alysia Abbott:  Two-thousand-fourteen.

Anita Walker:  Yeah, the sustainability of keeping the enthusiasm, keeping the excitement, growing it, building it and it’s not the only thing you’re doing.

Eve Bridburg:  Right, so all of the executive partners are really committed to the District but we all have full time plus jobs so it’s difficult to sustain, sometimes I think Alysia, it’s difficult for Alysia to be cheerleading us all the time and keeping us committed and in the boat excited to be sailing in the same direction, she’s doing a terrific job, but you know collaborations are just difficult.  I think part of it is that we’re all different sizes too, the Boston Book Festival and GrubStreet are smaller organizations, we’re also working the Emerson, Suffolk…

Alysia Abbott:  Boston Public Library.

Eve Bridburg:  …the Boston Public Library, Boston Athenaeum, we all have very different cultures, very different speeds of jumping on something and working very different processes for okaying things and so that’s a– there’s an unevenness there that we have to work through.  So I think collaboration is just tough.

Alysia Abbott:  In my work I try to keep our partners engaged with our work through regular updates and regular meetings and also direct partnerships on programming and really understanding what their missions are, but at given times, some of our partnering organizations might be going through their own staff transitions, their own economic insecurities and so it’s hard for them to make a priority of the work that we’re doing.  And so I think a big part of the job is just finding ways to maintain that engagement and also find a structure that can be flexible enough to withstand those transitions.

Anita Walker:  So what has worked out the best in terms of the collaborating?  Because we think of collaboration as, that’s a great word, that’s everybody coming together sharing the load, our collective impact is exponentially larger than any of us could do individually, in theory it’s great but it’s not easy.

Alysia Abbott:  It isn’t easy, I mean it think in the beginning before I came on, just the foundation of the Literary District, all the partners were very engaged and really committed to this goal of just getting  the Literary District off the ground, so just having a very precise goal that everyone can get on board with and sort of see the end to was I think really helped.  And then since then, I think that there are some collaborative programming projects that we’ve tried to have a number of different of our organizations on board.  I mentioned the Lit Crawl earlier, more and more as we do more of these Lit Crawls, we have different partners becoming more involved and working together and trying to use the resources from each others’ organizations, using the creative force, getting speakers, borrowing equipment, any sort of way that we can work together on this.  I think otherwise, I mean I do find it’s sort of easier to do collaborations with smaller groups within the larger consortium.  So for example, Emerson University is really interested in doing creative placemaking projects, another one of our partners is Mass Poetry who does really beautiful and inspired creative placemaking projects, so I’m trying to bring those two parties together and work and connect and engage and help them each further their missions but through this collaborative sense.  And I think also, one of the big things that comes out of just our meeting is just getting these people at a table together, getting them sitting down, getting them to understand and hear what each of them are working on and I think you see sparks fly in those moments, “Oh, you have– your gala’s coming up on May 5th, well actually I think I have something that might be able to help you with that,” or, “Oh, this year I really was hoping to get someone from the Mayor’s Office who could help us with this event,” and it’s sort of an opportunity for people to make connections and stay connected and that was actually one of the big goals of putting together the Literary District anyway was just to sort of, with this belief that together we are stronger than the sum of our parts.

Anita Walker:  And so the district actually becomes the platform or the framework within which the parties can find a common table.

Eve Bridburg:  Yes.

Alysia Abbott:  That’s correct.

Eve Bridburg:  And the updates, I mean Alysia when she came on board, she started having us start the meeting with updates and I actually wasn’t sure about it at first because I thought it was going to burn a lot of time before we had the agenda of the meeting but it’s actually been really, really profound and GrubStreet, we are partnering with the library and with the Boston Athenaeum has become the stage for our team readers at the end of their fellowship and we did a slam– we did a storytelling night with Suffolk, so we’ve really– outside of the District.  So within the District, we’re collaborating but we’re also finding that we find common threads through those update shares and we end up doing really great work together that we might not have done otherwise.  And so I do feel like we’re succeeding in breaking down the silos and really getting people to be excited about the work and think at a more communal level to see that this can work.  I also think Lit Crawl’s been incredibly inspiring for everybody because they can see really concretely that we can all come together and make a great night and a different kind of night happen in Boston.  And so that’s been, I think that’s really one huge success to tout.  We’ve also done collaborative programming series which I think have been more or less effective depending on the partner and the energy behind them, but we, GrubStreet partnered with the Literary District to put on a conversation about race during our Muse conference, it was the first time we did a talk like that at our literary conference, the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Resilience partnered with us, WGBH filmed it and it was a fantastic conversation and it came about a week after that horrible incident at Fenway Park so it was incredibly timely, it was moderated by Rene Graham and I felt like that was something that we were able to also use literature to highlight sort of topics of conversation and real issues in the world that are affecting us all in powerful ways which is really exciting.

Anita Walker:  Let’s talk about money.


Anita Walker:  You should see the smiles on the faces listeners because money is a struggle if you’re just one organization, a nonprofit making ends meet, it’s universal.  Collaborations, now ask those same partners and nonprofits who are worried about their own bottom line to now flex a little bit more broadly for the collective good, the Mass Cultural Council has funded cultural districts but it’s all dependent on our budget and we’re not able to continue every single year including the year that we’re in which we’re working hard to get that to be more consistent.  But what is it like, the collective fundraising, because money is required no matter what to build this program?

Alysia Abbott:  Well I mean no doubt it’s a challenge because so many of our partners are themselves nonprofits are having to do fundraising for themselves and so we have to find a way to think about how our partners can help support our fundraising efforts without undermining their own.  And I think that we are looking at fundraising on a number of different levels including individual fundraising and trying to create a donor group that could support the Literary District that would be really excited to be sort of a kind of fundraising circle, you know, supporting our work.  And furthermore, I think we’re having to think creatively about ways that we can bring in even corporate sponsors, not so much that would sit on the board and support general operating costs of the district but even just to sponsor individual programming or programming series like the Lit Crawl for example, we’re able to get for the first time this year a corporate entity to give money to that.  And so we have to think very creatively and, you know, it’s a challenge because fundraising is a numbers game and you really need time, you need boots on the ground, you need many calls, many letters and if you’re a single person running the Literary District and you have no other staff, that’s going to be a challenge so a lot of it is trying to find ways to compel my partners and members of my partner organizations to help with that effort just to cast a wide net and to keep on going.

Anita Walker:  How do you think of it, you’re raising money for GrubStreet and…

Eve Bridburg:  So I’m actively trying to help Alysia raise– we have a sort of, we have to replace the Adams Grant money or else we’re not going to be able to sustain ourselves, so we have to do that by December 31st and I’m really committed to making it happen with Alysia but it’s definitely hard and I think we– so we’ve created an entity called The Fold and we’re trying to invite members in which is friends of the Literary District.

Anita Walker:  Oh nice.


Anita Walker:  Join The Fold.

Eve Bridburg:  So that’s one route, and as Alysia said, we’re also looking at corporate partnerships.  But the challenge is it’s really about cultivating friends and so that takes time and effort and that’s the stress I think, do we have enough of a runway to do this by that date given that we haven’t had the bandwidth to do a lot of donor cultivation before then.  So we’re hoping we can find a fewer number of people but at a higher level to help us sustain this year.  But we’re also thinking about other ways, I mean I’m having a call with Julie Burrows next week, she’s very supportive of these districts, there are going to be four in Boston soon as you know, to talk with her about her ideas for longer term financial support for this effort because it is really hard when we’re all– well at least many of us are scrappy and we’re worried about paying the bills, it’s a big ask to get people especially to open up their Rolodexes for big donors to help in that effort.  They are stepping up though, not all of them are going to step up which is, I was telling Alysia, that’s the nature of this sort of nonprofit world, some people are more– it’s nothing against the people who aren’t stepping up, it’s just some people are profoundly uncomfortable raising money, they just don’t feel good about it and so it’s an easy thing to want to step away from.  But I think we have enough of the partners who are going to actively help us that hopefully will find success but I do worry a little bit in that we’re not, we’re a midsized nonprofit, I wonder if the District would be better off with a bigger partner, longer term, I wonder if we were the right startup partner for the District and whether a bigger entity should actually house the District going forward, I don’t know.  So that’s something we’re going to be thinking about and exploring.

Anita Walker:  But what you’re saying is that there are different ages and stages…

Eve Bridburg:  Yes.

Anita Walker:  …as organizations evolve and they may require different supports or constructs to make them sustainable over time.  Final thought for the Literary District in Boston, which is first and foremost an amazing and effective way to shine a light on a part of our wonderful history that people didn’t even know about, what’s your favorite thing you’re looking forward to?

Alysia Abbott:  The favorite thing I’m looking forward to event or– well, I mean I don’t want to talk specifically date wise to <inaudible 00:19:04>.

Eve Bridburg:  I can tell you what I’m looking forward to, I’m hoping that we get on the Duck Tours, Alysia’s working on that and I think– I am so tired of the story out of Boston being all sports and education and medicine, so I’m hoping that on that tour, they go right through, those ducks come right through the District and so we’re hoping to pepper in a few literary references which I think would be awesome.

Alysia Abbott:  I just went on the Duck Tour to sort of see where might be opportunities that they can bring in more literary history.  I mean they do point out the Edgar Allan Poe statue for example but there are areas they go by and even through the Common, the literary history of the Common is sort of hidden.

Anita Walker:  And they love sort of a reverent fun or unknown facts and we have so many of those.

Alysia Abbott:  We have them, we have them in spades.  But I think I’m looking forward to working really closely with some of our partners more creatively on celebrating some very important anniversaries in the District including the 250th anniversary of the publication of “Little Women” for example and just thinking really creatively about how to bring to live sites like the Old Corner Bookstore which is currently a Chipotle but was a very, very important location and I think historic Boston and some other historic entities in the city are really dedicated to making sure that that history doesn’t get sort of hidden beneath the corporate façade so these are some of the things I’m excited about.

Anita Walker:  Lots of exciting opportunities.  Eve Bridburg from GrubStreet and Alysia Abbott from the Boston Literary District, two more of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Eve Bridburg:  Thank you, it was a pleasure to be here, thank you for having us.

Narrator:  To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit