Housing Complex

Midcity Branding Process Gets Rolling, Faces Questions

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The folks heading up the city-funded neighborhood branding initiative for a region around 14th and U Streets learned last night that getting consensus around the idea of a unified, arts-oriented identity might require some convincing.

In a packed gathering at Busboys and Poets, project leaders Andrea Doughty and Carol Felix ran through their plans to host a street banner design contest and an outreach campaign to market an area that stretches from Florida Avenue down to Rhode Island and 15th Street to 7th Street NW. The concept, Felix explained, would be an "umbrella brand" for the many successful "mini-brands" represented by each neighborhood that region touches, including U Street, Little Ethiopia, Shaw, Logan Circle, and Dupont Circle. This month, they'll launch a design competition for street banners that will be installed in time for a three-day arts festival in early December. Most importantly, Felix explained, the branding campaign should portray the area as "fun."

To more fully explicate that concept, Doughty and Felix convened a panel of local figures moderated by tourism expert Michael Altman, who threw around jargony business terms like "flavor," "genesis story," and "value proposition." But panelists quickly added a race and class dimension to the discussion. Busboys and Poets proprietor Andy Shallal explained arts marketing as a facilitator of racial harmony in a place that looks diverse, but isn't necessarily integrated–longtime local gallery owner Sandra Butler-Truesdale described her frustration at seeing black couples, white couples, and Asian couples walking down the street, but little actual racial mixing. Virginia Tech's Derek Hyra, who's working on a book about race and redevelopment in the Shaw/U Street area, noted that people especially start to segregate within neighborhood institutions like ANCs and civic associations. Rick Lee, whose family has owned a flower and card shop on U Street since the 1940s, sees the branding process as a way to reclaim a sense of vibrance and "hoopla" that had been lost in recent decades.

During a Q&A period afterwards, skeptical questions arose. One audience member wanted to know why the area didn't include more of Columbia Heights, implying that the map had been drawn to stop short of the lower-income blocks north of Florida Avenue. Actor and writer Sheldon Scott asked whether the plan included retaining housing and performance spaces for local artists, who tend to get priced out of areas as they get more attractive–Felix acknowledged that several people had raised similar concerns, and while the grant is limited to marketing, they were bearing the issue in mind.

The most pointed critique, though, came from Junction Vintage owner Shannan Fales, who wondered why the marketing initiative was so focused on theaters and galleries, and how that would help retail and restaurants, especially over such a large and diverse area.

"I have nothing in common with a business down at the Convention Center," Fales said, noting that she wouldn't necessarily even recommend someone walk that way at night. "I don't want to be part of an arts district, because I'm already part of something–the Midcity Business Association." Applause came from the back of the room.

The idea, of course, is that investment in the arts pays off for other businesses that profit from their proximity. But Felix and Doughty will have to keep making that case.

The next two meetings are scheduled for September 7th and 13th. Details here.

  • deecee foodeee

    I agree - who decided on the boundaries? It seems like many blocks north and northeast of the florida zone are pretty arbitrarily cut off. And don't tell me they are Columbia Heights because that hill most certainly creates a big geographic cutoff from the northern sections of CoHi. And also why in the heck did they extend down to the convention center? That is Shaw, IMHO.

  • Karin Goldstein

    Enjoyed the two meetings, the panel and the discussion following the meeting. The project is very exciting and inspiring. Carol Felix is doing a wonderful job leading this challenging project. She is an authentic person with a lot of energy and experience which will benefit all. Would very much like to volunteer to help promote this project.

  • Karin Goldstein

    PS: Also want to add I particularly liked the young man on the panel at Theater J who spoke openly and honestly about his experience as a gallery owner and his struggles in the beginning as a business owner and resident of the area in which he lived. His expectation and plans changed in a positive way to make his business work and improve. I liked his story because he did not throw around a lot of jargon or just enjoy the attention from the group and listening to himself talk. He allowed himself to be vulnerable. He was authentic, down to earth not "cocky" in sharing his experience with others.
    Also wondering from the two meetings whose responsibility is it to make housing/art space affordable to artists?