It started with the art, but it wasn’t really about that.
After a city-funded public installation featuring scattered detritus in a vacant Anacostia storefront spurred outrage among neighbors who have worked to improve the community’s troubled reputation, a public canvas appeared on one of the storefront windows as an outlet for their frustration. The first comments scrawled on it with colored markers took aim at the artwork itself, part of the ongoing 5x5 Project, which includes installations across the city.
“Why trash?” asked one scribbler. “Broken tires and mirrors, burnt wood—are you saying Anacostia is trash and broken?”
“Artist (?) from New York, curator from Australia, $money from D.C. taxpayer,” added another, referring to the project’s New York–based artist, Abigail DeVille, and its curator, Justine Topfer, who grew up in Australia and is based in San Francisco.
“This is some shit get the fuck out of here,” contributed one pithy neighbor.
Then the comments began to veer in a different direction, one that challenged not the art but the vacant storefronts on Good Hope Road SE in which it was installed. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development owns four derelict buildings, including the ones hosting the 5x5 installation, and a vacant lot at the corner of Good Hope and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, the main intersection in a neighborhood that’s finally beginning to reduce vacancy and attract the type of retail residents have long sought. On the comment board, neighbors questioned the existence of the unused city-owned property that made the exhibit possible in the first place.
“Why is DHCD hoarding properties not developing them??” someone wrote.
“Stop lying to us DHCD!” another pleaded.
Someone taped up maps of the city, circling the area east of the Anacostia River that includes Anacostia and adding the labels “lots of subsidized housing” and “little development.”
Even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry got in on the action, albeit not with a marker. In a Sept. 11 email to DHCD Director Michael Kelly (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request), Barry slammed the “‘so called’ despicable art work” and requested a community meeting within two weeks to gain public input into the site’s development. “I would also like for DHCD to issue a Request for Proposal for this site as soon as possible,” he wrote. “In addition, I would like a detailed short term plan for the properties.”