“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Have you ever heard this expression? It pretty much describes Bedford’s new Cultural District.
And that’s not meant to minimize the parts – any of which is an important component of the town’s identity.
But now, for the first time, they also comprise a unified thematic tapestry, a geographic declaration about Bedford’s colonial past integrated with contemporary artistic and environmental values.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council unanimously approved the proposed Bedford Cultural District on May 18, concluding an application process that took five years.
Monday morning, three of the people central to the successful campaign took a leisurely walk through the new district, commenting on the familiar local landmarks now seen in a new context.
Economic Development Director Alyssa Sandoval was the lead staff member from the beginning. She and Planning Director Tony Fields led the multi-faceted working group that nurtured the process, defining the breadth of Bedford’s cultural resources.
Barbara Purchia, chair of the town’s Cultural Council, was a central participant in that group, which also featured representation from the Bedford Arts and Crafts Society, the Historic District Commission, the Bedford Chamber of Commerce, and more.
Select Board member William Moonan, who first brought the idea for a cultural district to the town’s attention, was away on Monday but acknowledged the successful conclusion. He remarked that “it has been a longer process than I ever thought it would be. But thanks to the volunteers and, especially, to Alyssa, it has been approved. Now, the town has to build on the designation to take advantage of it.”
The Massachusetts Cultural Council defines a cultural district as “a specific geographical area in a city or town that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets.”
But what is the best way to define “culture?” Meriam-Webster offers several choices; the most appropriate for this context may be “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
Sandoval pointed out that the cultural district actually has three distinct sectors.
There’s Depot Park and its features – the historic railroad station and the two artists’ studios on the upper floor, the Friends of Bedford Depot railroad display in the freight house, and the terminus of the Minuteman Bikeway. Sandoval called the area “the gateway to the district.”
Then there’s Bedford Center, featuring historic sites like Old Town Hall and the Old Burying Ground, the Common, and First Parish Church and its galleries, and even the 100-year-old Hayden Memorial Fountain, actually a horse trough by the roadside in front of Santander Bank.
A few hundred yards to the west is the town campus region, with historic Fitch Tavern on The Great Road, the Bedford Historical Society archives in the police station (the archives will soon move to Old Town Hall), and public art, such as Dance Rhythm, the 1966 work by sculptor Chaim Gross, located between the police station and Town Hall donated to the town a decade ago by Emily Wade.
The three core areas are linked by pathways that feature other cultural district highlights—Bruce Papitto’s sculpture, The Patriot, near the corner of Bacon and The Great Roads, and the impressive Jonathan Bacon House with its Greek columned façade, halfway up The Great Road between the statue and the center.
Beginning their tour at Depot Park Monday, the group took a few minutes to visit the Glass Cooperative, which Purchia and her associates have operated on the second floor of the depot for several years. Across the hall is space housing Scott Cahaly’s stone carving classes and sculpture gallery; Purchia said there is potential for public art at Depot Park.
Back outside, Sandoval observed, “The bikeway is a huge asset, a magnet for activity.” She also pointed to the utility box painted by Bedford High School art students near the MBTA bus shelter on South Road, as a factor in pitching the district as the project was funded through the Bedford Cultural Council.
Northbound along the narrow-gauge trail, on the stretch between Hartford Street and The Great Road, Sandoval advised that in the fall two ”peace poles” will be installed along the path. Four local artists are designing and painting the poles, coordinated by resident Chris Wojnar. Additional poles are planned for Depot Park and the library area.
Also a feature on the path is a display of the Kindness Rocks Project, which was launched locally almost four years ago. Passers-by may take or leave a painted stone that contains an inspirational message.
The Patriot sculpture, a Bedford Cultural Council project unveiled in 2000, is at the western edge of Veterans Memorial Park. The park is across The Great Road from the Bedford Marketplace, and Sandoval pointed out that interaction between economic activity and cultural assets is an important consideration toward approval of a new district. There is a similar juxtaposition in Bedford Center and Depot Park, she noted.
Passing the historic Bacon house to the left and Domine Manse across the street, the group headed for the crest of the hill on The Great Road. There have been some changes since the cultural district concept was born – Bedford Center for the Arts is no longer is housed at Old Town Hall, and the town museum’s status remains uncertain, though its archives will soon be relocated from the police station to Old Town Hall.
But these issues did not affect the state Cultural Council’s decision.
The cultural district extends all the way to Willson Park, site of the Bedford Minutemen’s annual liberty pole-capping. The original colonial troops first dined at Fitch Tavern, also a district landmark.
The town officials stopped in front of the police station, where Fields noted that the commemorative sculpture on the lawn will be relocated by several feet this fall during the building’s upcoming expansion and renovation.
Tuning left onto Mudge Way, Purchia noticed a small ground-level plaque. More than 50 years ago, four trees were planted on either side of Mudge Way coming out of The Great Road, one each in memory of a resident killed in action in World War II. Some time ago the recognition was moved to Veterans Memorial Park; this one plaque remains.
Bedford’s central campus, encompassing municipal and school buildings, playgrounds and playing fields, and the Jenks Nature Trail, was viewed as a unique feature in the state agency’s assessment, Sandoval noted.
She said town staff is discussing the best way to formally dedicate the new district. Any ceremonies may be postponed until spring, she said; signage and brochures are in the works. “This is sort of a soft opening,” Fields said of the current informal tour. “A cultural district web page is also planned,” he added.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763