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Roxbury groups seek cultural districts in Dudley Sq., Grove Hall

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Several organizations are planning to seek state designation of a cultural district in Roxbury to stimulate economic development and spotlight the community’s historic attractions, varied cuisines and artistic assets.

Where and how large the cultural district would be have yet to be decided. Possible locations discussed in informal meetings over the last several months include Dudley Square and a broader area extending from Lower Roxbury to Franklin Park.

“We don’t have a consensus yet,” said Derek Lumpkins, executive director of Discover Roxbury, which sponsors guided tours and Roxbury Open Studios.

A state guideline that a cultural district be “a walkable, compact area” poses a challenge for Roxbury “because our cultural entities are so dispersed,” Lumpkins said.

The planners agree that Roxbury has many cultural and historic attractions, not all accorded the recognition or appreciation they deserve.

“We think we’ve got a lot to sell,” said Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets, another person who has participated in the discussions.

Artistic attractions include the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Hibernian Hall, Piano Craft Gallery and Resnikoff Gallery at Roxbury Community College. Among annual cultural events are the Caribbean Carnival, Roxbury Open Studios and Roxbury International Film Festival.

Stanley noted the community is home to buildings and sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Dillaway-Thomas House and Shirley-Eustis House. She also cited places where W.E.B. DuBois spoke, Malcolm X lived and jazz clubs once existed.

Cultural districts also include restaurants. In the Dudley Square area alone, Stanley said, there are Somali, Jamaican, Liberian and Dominican restaurants.

“Food is another way that cultures express themselves,” Lumpkins said. “If anybody comes to the district, they’re going to get hungry if they walk around.”

State funding would not accompany official designation of a cultural district however one is defined in Roxbury. But that status would “bring the profile up and let people know what you’re doing,” Stanley said.

In 2010, the Legislature authorized the creation of cultural districts. The Massachusetts Cultural Council issued its guidelines last year.

The council designated the first five districts in March. One is in Boston, in the Fenway area encompassing three of the city’s major cultural institutions — the Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The other districts are in Lynn, Rockport, Gloucester and Pittsfield.

Some of the newly designated districts were already established as cultural destinations, particularly the Fenway, Rockport and Gloucester. The planners are trying to put Roxbury on the map in the same way.

“One [goal] is to change the image of Roxbury and highlight the historic and artistic assets of Roxbury and the cultural contributions of all its residents” as their racial-ethnic composition evolved, Stanley said. “Each group should be celebrated.”

Lumpkins added, “A cultural district, like an arts district, can be an economic development tool as well.”

Stanley envisioned several areas possibly being promoted under one umbrella as cultural destinations, such as Lower Roxbury-Highland Park, the museum and Egleston Square and the Grove Hall area.

But Stanley is partial to Dudley Square, which has been working to uplift since 1996. “I want Dudley to be part of the destination and my Highland Park neighborhood too,” she said.

Lumpkins said he leans toward designating a broad area as a cultural district, even if that means it is too large to meet the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s guidelines.

“We could create and declare our own cultural district. I think we in Roxbury should develop our own guidelines that work with what we have here,” he said.

The organizations, besides Discover Roxbury and Dudley Square Main Streets, involved in the discussions include the Madison Park Development Corporation, Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation and Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

There is no timetable for reaching a decision on where the Roxbury district would be located. Another planning meeting is scheduled at 4 p.m. on June 7 at Hibernian Hall.

The state cultural council accepts applications at any time.

The council’s guidelines require the City Council to hold a public hearing and pass a resolution stating the city’s commitment to the district. The application for a five-year designation must be submitted by the city’s chief elected official. In this case, it is Mayor Thomas Menino.

Stanley said the idea of promoting Roxbury’s history and culture goes back to the 1980s, when the Roxbury State Heritage Park was established, but funding evaporated before the plan could be fully implemented.

“The concept has been there,” Stanley said.