D.C.’s Small but Mighty Stronghold Gets the Spotlight in a New Audio Documentary
In this city, people get picky about their neighborhoods. At the Red Derby a few weeks ago, I overheard someone telling a new acquaintance about her group house in Columbia Heights . "You don't live in Columbia Heights!" her other friend scolded. "You're in Pleasant Plains."
Neighborhood lines might be blurry, especially to recent arrivals, but each area of the city has its share of quirks and 'hood pride—and each manifests forces of change in its own distinct way. In a new audio documentary, From Block2Block—a five-member audio storytelling collective that runs workshops at D.C. public libraries, with Takoma Radio, and with Radio CPR—tells the story of how one small neighborhood and its residents are adapting to D.C.'s shifting residential landscape.
Stronghold: In Two Acts will play live at Big Bear Cafe tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. alongside an exhibit of photos taken during the collective's reporting. Proceeds from donations will benefit the Stronghold College Fund, which will go toward a local high-school student's pending college tuition bills. I chatted with Peter Timko over email about the neighborhood, the doc's cast of characters, and why everyone should talk to neighbors.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
Why focus on Stronghold? What's special about it?
We ended up working with Stronghold for a variety of reasons. First, FromBlock2Block co-founder Tatyana Safronova had a personal connection through a few friends who are longtime residents, who were real boosters for the neighborhood. But beyond that, Stronghold is just a fascinating little place. It's a small, tight-knit community. It's bounded by North Capitol Street and the McMillan Sand Filtration Site on one side and Glenwood Cemetery on the other, so it's literally boxed off and isolated geographically. Along with that, it has a really active civic association and strong neighborhood identity. It's also right on the cusp of this huge wave of change that's rolling through D.C., and it's right on that NW/NE line, which has traditionally been such a dividing marker for the District. So, even though it's tiny, it's at the intersection of a lot of issues, and the residents there are very aware of it.
You've mentioned that people can, to some extent, identify Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood, even Truxton Circle—but not Stronghold. Why is that?
For one, it is really tiny, which makes it easy to overlook. Another big reason is that Stronghold is mostly a residential neighborhood—there's not a lot of destination spots in it. While people outside of Bloomingdale may know that neighborhood as the place where Big Bear Cafe is, if you don't live in Stronghold, there's not a whole lot of reasons to come in. There's also a generational aspect: While older residents will name the neighborhood's exact borders, some newer ones don't even know it's there, so they'll say they live in Eckington.
Who are some of the most interesting characters in the doc?
Oh wow, there are so many. Everyone we talked to had a really compelling story to tell, which is what made this project so fun. But just to name a few: One of the people we spent the most time with is Malcolm Taylor, who is just has this deep well of knowledge about the neighborhood's history and his own family history. There's also Ann Brooks, who lived in the neighborhood throughout the the 80s. She tells this great story about how she and her neighbors would try to fight back against the drugs and gangs in the area by sitting out on their porches taking notes on the drug dealers, writing down their license plates and things like that.
Were people happy to talk with you?
Any project like this going to be slow going at first, but after we started talking to our initial contacts, we would keep finding more people to talk to, just by word of mouth and spending more time in the neighborhood. We would come to the civic association meetings to talk about the project, too, and afterward, people would seek us out.
One of the main challenges of the piece was figuring out the structure and scope. We had so much material and so many ideas and viewpoints to work with; it took a lot of discussion, and a lot of Post-its, to figure out how it all fit together. On top of all that, there's the fact that we're working with people's personal experiences and touching on many issues that folks feel strongly about. We didn't want to misrepresent anyone or let our own ideas cloud out what people were trying to say.
Did your understanding of Stronghold, or the forces of change it's facing, shift as you worked?
We didn't go into Stronghold with a lot of preconceived notions about the neighborhood specifically. We did go in knowing that the changes it was going through, and the causes and effects of that change, were complicated and nuanced. The process of making the documentary really just fleshed out those complexities. Collecting personal stories has a way of adding subtlety to already complex situations.
What's your objective, here?
Our goal had sort of two elements. We wanted to document the neighborhood, to create a record of its history and the way it is now. Neighborhoods are always changing, and there's always a benefit in capturing something in time that can never be captured again. We also hoped by giving people a close look at a community like this, and letting people hear voices and stories they may not always hear, it will encourage them to engage more with their own neighborhoods and the rest of the city in general. Hopefully people will leaving wanting to pay more attention to what's around them and wanting to talk to their own neighbors.
Anything good in the hopper?
Well, our next project will be taking place east of the river. Over the summer, we'll be teaching audio storytelling to teens at Friendship Tech. In the fall, we'll be working with a few of those students to produce a documentary about Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods.