Planned Eight-Story Development Threatens U Street Mural
If you know your D.C. history, you know that Marvin Gaye was born here. You might also know he attended Cardozo High School, where he joined his first band, the D.C. Tones. Walk by the eastern façade of the Oswego building at 1326 U St. NW, where Pure Lounge now is, and you'll see a faded, 20-year-old mural with Gaye's face at its center. Soon, that mural may soon become—like Gaye—preserved only in memory.
A planned eight-story apartment and retail building constructed by development giant JBG threatens to conceal the mural, a 40-by-25-foot piece called "Movin' Down the Line." The piece was conceived and created by Georgia native Rik Freeman, who lives in Deanwood, the same neighborhood where Gaye spent his teen years. Commissioned in 1992 by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as part of its Outside Woolly outreach program, and completed in 1993, the mural doesn’t just commemorate the man behind “What’s Going On”; it commemorates the U Street corridor's staying power throughout the years, says Freeman.
The mural's red and yellow color palette—now badly degraded—symbolizes the fire and anger that swept through the neighborhood following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. It pictures a swath of multicultural residents, figures of Native American, Ethiopian, Latino, and Asian heritage. At the bottom of the painting is Duke Ellington, a reminder of the corridor's Black Broadway era.
Unfortunately, the mural only had two years to breathe before a strip-mall development covered up the painting's bottom half, an event that still irks Freeman. "It took about as much time to secure funding, design, and paint as the mural had a life," Freeman writes. "Because of that, the proper upkeep of the mural has never happened, which has led to severe deterioration of the piece." Now, "Movin' Down the Line" may never get a chance to be rehabilitated.
Freeman says he realizes that public art, especially murals, always runs the risk of being temporary. But he writes, "I think we as a society need to be more introspective as to why we are such a throwaway people. In this case we're doing it in a number of ways, from developers being dismissive to architectural and historical integrity of the neighborhood, to a certain disregard of an elder and longtime property owner."
William Thomas has owned the Oswego building since 1978, and says he first heard about JBG’s plan from people in the neighborhood, not from the developer. "I was quite surprised," he says. JBG says that the company notified Thomas about the plan in 2012.
"I was the one that really initiated getting [the mural] there. There weren’t any trees on U Street then," says Thomas. Back in 1991, he was driving through the neighborhood and spotted Freeman working on another project, so he stopped to ask if the artist would be interested in checking out a different canvas: the one on the side of his building. "I said, 'Could you do something with that wall?' Because everything was bad back then, real bad," Thomas says. "Woolly Mammoth got together and put up the money, the scaffold, the whole works."
Julienne Johnson and her husband Stanley have been office tenants of the Oswego since 2002. When she got wind of the JBG plan, Julienne spearheaded a public awareness campaign and arranged meetings with them. "We’re not against development," Johnson says. "We’ve been there for a while. We’ve watched U Street change for the better. That said, developers are coming in without getting voices from people around. It’s frustrating."
Via email, JBG Project Coordinator Caitlin Leary writes that the company was aware of the mural when it began to design the proposed project but that "we were not able to design our project in a way that allowed the mural to be permanently exposed." The company plans to begin demolition of the existing structure later this year. At that point, Leary says the company will temporarily uncover the portion of the mural that was concealed in the '90s, then shoot photos of the entire mural for Johnson and Thomas, if they take JBG up on their offer to do so.
JBG's most recent zoning hearing came on Monday, coincidentally on the 45th anniversary of the day the 1968 riots ended. During that hearing, the Zoning Commission approved the consolidated PUD and related Map Amendment the company had previously petitioned for, allowing the development project to take its next steps.
"We don’t have much recourse at this point," says Johnson, though she adds they may still be able to appeal.
As the city continues to change rapidly, Freeman and Johnson say they'd like to see newcomers take more of an interest in what was there before. "I understand progress, 'gentrification,' commercialization, etc., but at a cost of ignorance in that there are many of us walking around on streets paved by others that most care not to know," Freeman writes. "Get to know the legacy of your neighborhood because ... you most definitely have benefited from all who have laid a solid foundation."
"Why not a cultural arts center that people can come to?” says Johnson. "If you were here around 3 p.m. on any given afternoon, you’d notice how many young people are here with nothing to do."
About the mural, Thomas says he wishes it could be left alone. "Marvin Gaye he was known. If they cared about him, they wouldn’t take the mural. He’s just another guy as far as other people are concerned."
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this blog post incorrectly said that Julienne Johnson and her husband Stanley's business has operated out of the Oswego Building since 1998. The business has existed since 1998, but it's only been based in the building since 2002.