How to Build an Arts District Will Anacostia become D.C.'s next great arts corridor? It’s complicated.

For the past six years, the nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation has kept Anacostia on a steady exercise regime of arts and culture. Last April was the neighborhood’s Crossfit moment.

The first LUMEN8Anacostia festival—sponsored by ARCH and the Office of Planning, and partially juiced by a grant of $75,000 from the nonprofit ArtPlace—activated about a dozen permanent and ad hoc arts venues around the neighborhood’s main commercial intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Good Hope Road SE. On the first weekend, cultural consumers from across the city, many of them young, white professionals, hitched their bikes to fences, took in the gallery openings, stopped by Big Chair Coffee for refreshments, and filled the streets of a mostly black neighborhood in the city’s poorest ward that many residents of other parts of the District mentally associate with blight and crime. The centerpiece of the 12-week festival was the Lightbox, a former police warehouse-turned-party factory that, for an opening-weekend soiree and a scenier one sponsored by the Pink Line Project a week later, was crammed with DJs, installation artists, steampunky sculptures, interior street art, and a temporary Busboys and Poets. In one Pink Liner’s words, the gathering was designed as a meeting of arts from east and west of the river.


That’s part of what’s going on in Anacostia: arts for its own sake. But the 30-year-old ARCH Development and city officials are betting on an even bigger impact: that, perhaps like H Street NE before it, the arts can help spur economic development in a struggling, long-neglected neighborhood. Already the pace is quickening: ARCH’s footprint now includes two galleries, a radio station, and the brand new Anacostia Arts Center, a multipurpose space that it will show off at this year’s LUMEN8. The nonprofit also helped the new Anacostia Playhouse get off the ground after the theater, formerly the H Street Playhouse, was priced out of Northeast. Small groups of artists have moved to the area, thanks to low rents. And soon, arts won’t be the only sector of Ward 8 working to boost the area’s fortunes: The federal and D.C. governments’ development of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital hopes to bring bureaucrats, techies, and students to the neighborhood during the daytime, with growth along MLK Avenue sure to follow.

Which might be cause for excitement within the neighborhood, and surely much anxiety. All strata may participate in the arts, but in the lexicon of modern urban life, they often signify—fairly or unfairly—more disruptive changes to come, like skyrocketing rents and amenities more likely to appeal to newcomers than longtime residents.

Which brings us to this issue of Washington City Paper. In it, we explore how the arts are taking hold in Anacostia—and what impact they will make. How will the H Street Playhouse find audiences from across the city while navigating the tightrope politics of gentrification? Is ARCH’s vision of the arts the only one? Can the arts really boost a local economy? And when this year’s LUMEN8 returns—sans the Pink Line Project—will the cultural class’ eyes still be on Anacostia?

They should be, as should everyone’s. Here’s why. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Our Readers Say

With all due respect, there are no fresh insights or fresh reporting captured in any of these pieces. Anacostia is a great place with many, many challenges. I am not sure that the couple thousand words you devoted to the neighborhood clearly depict the beauty or the horror. However, thank you for the effort.
I agree with Panhandler. I liked your introductory page, but by the end of it all, it just seemed like the arts are the only way to turn the neighborhood around, no questions asked. Will they eliminate poverty and crime in Anacostia, or simply push them out?
This is an exciting time for Anacostia and for arts in Anacostia. I hope this encourages people to come to Anacostia and pay us a visit and I hope it encourages people from within the neighborhood and east of the river to check out some of the treasures in their own backyard.

I invite everyone to join us on Thursday, May 30th at 6:30pm at the Anacostia Arts Center (1231 Good Hope Rd SE) when ARCH holds a community meeting to discuss our current projects and some new things coming down the pipeline. The event is free and open to the public and there will be refreshments -- and a chance to win up to $300 in cash! :)

Nikki Peele
Director of Marketing and Business Marketing
ARCH Development Corporation
As much as I'm for an art district and revitalizing Anacostia, I feel sadness because of the underlying gentrification it will most likely bring. Chinatown? Check? Logan Circle? Check. Columbia Heights? Check. Petworth? Check. Now Anacostia.

Nothing against the gentrifiers...they have a right to be here. But DAMN!
"gentrification" is a word that should be retired once and for all. It refers to the "gentry" of monarchical europe where people were "assigned" property and titles. This is a free society where people BUY or rent things ( including land ) that they pay for out of their own money. People have freedom of choice in a competitive market. Why is this neighborhood or that "off limits" for some reason? Would we think of limiting a person's freedom of choice in a grocery store or when choosing an entertainment venue?
@Chris Lee: The word gentrification began in monarchical Europe and the dynamics you mentioned. Its modern usage describes what happened in DC and is happening in cities all over the US perfectly; it now means (and you may look it up to confirm this) the displacement of often low-income people and the acquisition of low-cost property for renovation, "revitalization," and resale to members of the landed class (aka gentry). Inherent in its definition and practice is displacement of low income (often minority) people--30,000 in DC between censuses--destruction of culture, and skyrocketing cost of living. There is no reason to "retire" the word until the developer-driven practice ceases. If it makes you uncomfortable, imagine how the people of DC--displaced and still here--feel!

@Rob: right?
Right now, Anacostia = affordable housing, but even that may be a stretch. For those wishing to live in the District, but unable to get into areas like H St., as one example, east of the river becomes an option.
Gentrification is the "New Jim Crow" in housing. It is an economic vehicle whereby only more affluent people (predominently white) are able to live and purchase in certain areas where prices are rapidly accelerating. The average sales price in Columbia Heights is now
$800.000, Petworth- $600,000, H Street (Trinidad) - $600,000 which most African Americans cannot afford. Unlike the days when
African Americans faced signs, "Whites Only" or " No Negroes" the impact is still implicitly the same. Today, the message is If you can't pay - you can't stay. Tragically, African Amercans are being economically pushed out of the very City built by their ancestors during slavery Without the benefit of enough affordable housing being provided to insure that the Nation's Capitol does not lose its diversity and becomes a City of only high income Whites with a sprinkling of African American and or Hispanics who happen to be fortunate enough to have the income necessary to purchase and/or pay the rapidly rising taxes to enable them live in DC.

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