Economic development is all about playing to strengths. Lexington has long done that with horses, and more recently with bourbon. Next up: literature.
A coalition of local groups is finishing an application seeking to have Lexington designated as a “city of literature” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
If selected, Lexington would become part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, which was launched in 2004 to recognize cities distinguished in one of seven creative fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music and media arts. So far, 116 cities in 54 countries are included.
Only six of those cities are in the United States, including one in Kentucky. Paducah was designated in 2013 as a city of crafts and folk art, in large part because of its National Quilt Museum, which for 25 years has attracted visitors from all over the world and helped energize a diverse local arts community.
This week, Paducah, a city of 25,000 people, is expecting more than 35,000 visitors for its annual American Quilt Society show, said Mary Hammond, executive director of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Becoming part of the UNESCO network “has been huge” for Paducah, she said. It has bolstered local identity and enabled the city to form international relationships that have led to new opportunities in both the arts and commerce.
“It has opened doors where we never even knew there were doors,” Hammond said. “This is economic development. Cultural diplomacy is just a different way to go about it.”
So far, UNESCO has designated 20 cities of literature. Only one is in the United States: Iowa City, Iowa, home of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa, which in 1936 launched the first master of fine arts degree in creative writing.
Lexington’s UNESCO effort began more than a year ago after Neil Chethik, director of the 25-year-old Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, went on vacation to Iceland.
“My son wanted to go to Reykjavik, and his lure for me was, ‘Hey, it’s a city of literature,’” Chethik said. “I didn’t know what a city of literature was. When I read about it, it seemed like a perfect match for us.”
Chethik already was working to raise Lexington’s literary profile through such efforts as the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. When he approached Mayor Jim Gray about the idea, Gray was enthusiastic.
“It would put a real spotlight on Lexington, and that’s to the outside world,” Gray said when I asked him about it. “I think to our own people it would show the strengths that we have in the arts, and the literary arts especially.”
Writer Jayne Moore Waldrop has been working on the application with the Carnegie Center and several partners, including the Lexington Public Library, the University Press of Kentucky, the Kentucky Humanities Council and VisitLex, which provided $10,000 in funding for the application process. Chethik thinks Lexington’s prospects are good.
“What we have here in the literary arts is authentic,” he said. “It’s not something we have to make up; we just have to connect all the dots. Just like bourbon, we’ve been doing it for 200 years.”
Lexington has been a literary hub since John Bradford began publishing the first newspaper west of Pittsburgh in 1787. Transylvania University moved here from Boyle County in 1789. Bradford was printing books before 1800. The city has had a library since 1796.
The list of famous Kentucky writers is lengthy and diverse, ranging from Robert Penn Warren to Hunter S. Thompson. Famous Appalachian writers have included John Fox Jr., James Still, Harriette Arnow and Jesse Stuart.
Wendell Berry heads a long list of well-known contemporary writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Kim Edwards, Maurice Manning, Erik Reece, Richard Taylor, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan and Anne Shelby.
For a predominantly white state, Kentucky has an impressive heritage of black literature, ranging from William Wells Brown, the first published black novelist, to Gayl Jones and Affrilachian poets, including Crystal Wilkinson and Frank X Walker.
Waldrop said she has been surprised to discover just how many literacy-related events and organizations Lexington has, including the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference, the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference and the International Book Project, which has sent millions of books overseas since 1966.
The application process isn’t just focused on literary excellence. It is looking for cities that integrate reading and writing into everyday life. UNESCO wants cities that are good at forming partnerships with regional communities and using the literary arts to promote sustainable economic and urban development.
“We know there are jobs directly involved with the literary arts,” Chethik said. “And by having a strong literary community and arts community generally, we attract businesses that are trying to keep or attract good employees.”