As the Potter’s House Mural Faces Destruction, Fears of Gentrification Emerge
Karla “Karlisima” Rodas-Israel can’t walk three steps down Columbia Road NW without a wave and a “Hello!” or a “¿Cómo estás?” from a passerby. The artist, who claims the Mama Ayesha’s presidents mural among her body of work, has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. She knows the stoop-sitters, the bodega cashiers, the fast-walking commuters on the way to the Metro. She’s assisted many as an interpreter of Spanish, French, and English at La Clinica Del Pueblo in Columbia Heights and D.C.’s Office of Human Rights.
Now, for the first time, she’s asking them for help. Just two blocks from her combination home/studio, above the entrance of the Potter’s House—a half-century-old progressive bookstore, gallery, and cafe near the intersection of 17th Street and Columbia Road—is a mural of a candle beaming rainbow rays that Karlisima painted in 2010. And soon, if the members of the new Potter’s House board of directors have their way, it will be gone.
It’s a personal setback for Karlisima, who’s in her early 40s and counts this mural as one of her proudest achievements. “I feel devastated,” she says. “I feel sad; I feel angry. I feel that they’re not appreciating me, my art…and all the effort that we went through, before they came, to get this mural on the wall.” But for many of the neighborhood’s residents, the mural and its imminent destruction have come to represent a more existential struggle: the clash between past and future, old and young, those who depend on social services and those who move to a trendy neighborhood looking for places to spend their money.
Born in El Salvador, Karlisima moved to Alexandria when she was 14 years old and moved into her current home and studio space on Lanier Place NW several years after graduating from high school. In 2009, she won a $10,000 Public Art Building Communities grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to paint a mural on the Potter’s House’s street-facing wall. Like all DCCAH public art grantees, Karlisima sought feedback from community members—neighborhood leaders, ANC representatives, Potter’s House customers—on her proposed design, putting up flyers on the street and holding meetings at the coffeehouse. Her original plan included an image of Jesus, but after some thought it might make non-Christians feel unwelcome, Karlisima, a practicing Christian, came up with what she thought was a universal symbol of safety and solidarity: a candle.
“I like to really stress that there’s a relationship between art and its audience, what the art is saying and to whom,” says Lionell Thomas, DCCAH’s executive director, who’s written a letter of support on Karlisima’s behalf. “People really get involved in the process. Destroying [the Potter’s House mural] would be a tremendous loss to the Adams Morgan community, because it’s become such a part of the community.” That’s one reason why the prospect of losing Karlisima’s mural has struck such a deep nerve: It would mean taking away something that’s invoked a deep sense of public ownership.
The Potter’s House was founded in 1960 by the Church of the Saviour, a network of local Christian churches. Though it’s always promoted itself as a nondenominational spiritual space—its name comes from a Bible passage about God’s omnipotence—it’s placed equal emphasis on earthly concerns, hosting weekly racial reconciliation discussion groups and providing free meals for the homeless and hungry. But in recent years, the business side had weakened. According to Tim Kumfer, one of the new Potter’s House leaders, the Potter’s House has been operating at an annual loss of between $40,000 and $100,000 for the past several years. The church group that made up its management team had dwindled to six members. So to keep the space afloat, last year they donated the space and the business to the Eighth Day Faith Community, a sister church that represents a multitude of Christian denominations.
In a message to an Adams Morgan community email list on July 29, Kumfer wrote that the new board had gone through an “extensive discernment process” last winter to gather community perspectives on the space. “One concern that came up repeatedly was how the interpretation of the mural as ‘religious’ might discourage people from checking us out—people who would otherwise really enjoy what we have to offer,” he wrote. After a few focus groups, the new board decided to scrap the mural as part of the makeover.
Titled “The Light of the World,” the mural was meant to denote the Potter’s House’s history of providing what Karlisima calls a “safe haven” for those who couldn’t afford to hang around a trendy restaurant or café. The venue is surrounded by social service organizations on neighboring blocks—an affordable housing nonprofit, a job-placement center, a low-income health clinic—that were birthed decades ago from conversations started around tables at the Potter’s House, and their clients still frequented the space until its closure for renovations late last year.
They’re also some of Karlisima’s biggest supporters. As she and I walk past Christ House, a medical center for the homeless, on a recent Thursday, one of several men sitting on the patio out front calls out to her in Spanish that he loves her mural and wants the Potter’s House to open back up soon. (He misses the company and the free coffee, he says.) Others shake Karlisima’s hand and ask about the progress of her petition to save the mural. So far, she’s gotten 350 signatures on paper, and she launched an electronic petition on Monday.
“The new management is being a little insensitive about the [mural], not really caring,” says Mike Smith, 57, who’s been a Potter’s House regular since 2007. “It’s not quite like a paint job on a house. It’s part of [Karlisima’s] soul.” When Smith didn’t have a day job, he’d hang out for hours there, often lending the longtime chef, Mary Easley, a hand in the kitchen or just chatting with a familiar crowd. “It was like a big clubhouse that everyone used to be a part of,” he says. Smith doesn’t trust the new board members, who he perceives as too young (though they range in age from mid-20s to 70s) to steward the history of the space he’s come to call home: “I’m thinking it’s gonna be a new Tryst, with a bunch of young, white, well-to-do yuppies hanging around.”
Kumfer isn’t naïve about those concerns. “There’s a fear in the neighborhood around change. ‘Will I be welcome? Can I be part of it?’” he says. “What we’re saying is ‘Yes.’ It’ll be a new building that will look nice—not flashy, but bright and clean—and you are welcome here.” As long as patrons aren’t violent, Kumfer says, they can enjoy the art and books whether they have any money to spend or not. The new board has plans for a soup of the day priced on a sliding scale and a “pay it forward” coffee-purchasing scheme to help fund free or low-cost refreshments for those in need.
For Kumfer, the sometimes-difficult discussions around Karlisima’s mural are a natural part of the organization’s transition. “One thing that’s really excited me about the Potter’s House, even though it’s something that makes change a more laborious process, is that it really does have a wide sense of community ownership,” he says. “That’s pretty powerful.”
But if the Potter’s House is going to return to financial solvency, some things do have to change. Kumfer, and some of his focus group participants, thought the mural might scare prospective nonreligious customers off for fear of evangelizing or walking into a church service. (In the new Potter’s House, services will take place in a separate event space, not in the storefront area, as they did before.) Others thought the mural had “a very hippie feel to it,” Kumfer says, which doesn’t “reflect the whole of what we want to be about.”
Still, in the mural, many longtime Potter’s House patrons see a cherished neighbor, Karlisima, being pushed aside to serve newcomers’ vision. “She’s part of the community—when you begin to change that art around, you’re changing the landscape,” says Karlisima’s friend, poet-activist E. Ethelbert Miller. “It can be harmful, seeing a board come in and want to get rid of it…People feel like they’re gonna be displaced. First the images go, then they go.”
“One of [the new board’s] objectives is to increase revenue, and that’s OK,” says Karlisima. “That’s necessary in order to survive. But I don’t want them to overlook [the founders’] vision and their mission in the process…You have to respect what came before, the heritage.”
Kumfer doesn’t know when the new paint job will begin, but the board intends to stand firm, though Kumfer is entertaining the possibility of replacing Karlisima’s candle with a different mural in the future. “We want the neighborhood to get that the issue is not murals at large,” he says. “We just want there to be a deeper congruence between what we’re trying to be inside the building and how people might perceive it from the storefront outside.” A candle and rainbow beams might not hold religious baggage for everyone, but there’s certainly a difference between Karlisima’s bright, literal symbols of diversity, peace, and unity, and something hip, minimalist, or edgy—a Kelly Towles, say, or a Decoy.
Is it worth destroying the work of a neighborhood artist just to replace it with another’s, even if it might groove better with some loosely defined aesthetic sensibility? Thomas says situations like Karlisima’s are why DCCAH strives to fund murals on public walls, where they’ll be protected from shifts in ownership. The only request DCCAH makes of private-property owners is that the mural stay up for five years. (It’s been just about five years since Karlisima signed a contract with DCCAH, but the mural has only been on the wall for four.)
Karlisima compares her struggle to that of David against Goliath. She’s launched a Twitter account to raise awareness about the threat to her mural, and she’s been spending hours each day surveying neighbors on the street outside the Potter’s House—executing her own discernment process, you might say—about the potential religious implications of the candle iconography. “I grew up here around Columbia Heights and I always saw the mural,” wrote Joseph Javier, 18, on one survey. “It’s the most interesting and artistic thing in this block.” Another response, from Emily Reckinger, 23, read, “It is a reflection of the talented artists that live in Adams Morgan…[and] of the diversity and unity of my neighborhood.”
For Miller, the symbolism says it all. “It’s a candle being extinguished,” he says. “This is a light that’s going out.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Due to a reporting error, this piece originally stated that Karlisima has lived in her neighborhood for 14 years, when in fact, she has lived in her current home for 14 years and in the neighborhood for 18.