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Fenway neighborhood wants to be named a cultural district

Posted by Your Town  November 15, 2011 06:41 PM

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The Fenway neighborhood is seeking Boston’s first designation as cultural district from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In a public hearing Monday at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design, representatives from the Fenway Cultural District Committee, comprised of 21 cultural, religious and educational institutions as well as local CDC’s and arts organizations, testified in favor of a resolution to become a state-recognized cultural district.

The Fenway neighborhood encompasses the highest concentration of cultural institutions in the U.S. outside of New York City, said Rich Frost, assistant director of the Fenway Alliance, in a phone interview. Fenway is home to the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Mary Baker Eddy Library and a host of colleges and cultural organizations.

The Fenway Alliance is an advocacy group working to rebrand the Fenway neighborhood as the Fenway Cultural District, a designation made official by the city in 1998 when Mayor Thomas M. Menino renamed Huntington Avenue the Avenue of the Arts.

Such a designation at the state level could benefit residents and bolster tourism, Boston’s fourth largest economy. As a state-designated cultural district, Fenway would receive funding for signage and navigation programs and in the future could be eligible to receive additional funding and benefits for the neighborhood through the MCA, said Frost.

Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who was in attendance as co-chair of the Committee on Arts, Film and Tourism, said, “Pursuing such a designation is revenue-neutral but stands to generate significant revenue for the city.”

But some question whether the designation is being pursued to further the interests of powerful institutions seeking more clout and increased visibility. Sarah Freeman, a longtime Boston resident, said she hoped the committee could “find a balance between economic values and development,” to ensure that “we continue to be a neighborhood that is welcoming to all and to ensure that no one is forced out.”

John Kelly with the Neighborhood Access Group, an advocacy organization working on behalf of the elderly and disabled, said “The state should never provide designation for a district that isn’t in compliance with access laws.” Kelly, who is in a wheelchair, is still disappointed with the reconstruction and beautification of Huntington Avenue, which put in place brick sidewalks that he says are “status enhancing” but restrictive to those with disabilities.

The Massachusetts State Legislature approved the Cultural District Initiative in 2010 and the program launched in April 2011. The goal of the initiative is to help arts, science and humanities organizations improve and expand their public programs and spur economic growth in their area, said Meri Jenkins, program manager for the Cultural District Initiative.

According to Jenkins, more than 60 communities in the Commonwealth have begun the application process, but only the communities of Lynn and Montague have completed applications —approval of which are still pending.

Jenkins said she found the testimony “encouraging,” adding, “This hearing is an opportunity to look at where they are in the process and to mitigate problems.” Jenkins said readiness and collaboration are two major components in the designation process.

The next step will be for the City Council to vote on the resolution calling for Fenway’s designation as a cultural district, and the Fenway Committee will have to submit its application to the MCA. “If they are successful in getting the designation,” said Meri Jenkins, “then the work will have just begun.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.


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