Comedy of Banners: In Midcity and Anacostia, the dos and don’ts of neighborhood branding.
Dropping large chunks of city money into a neighborhood can be like dropping a bomb: You never quite know where the shrapnel will fly. At least that’s how a D.C.-funded branding project for the ill-defined area known as Midcity has played out.
Andrea Doughty and Carol Felix, stewards of a $200,000 grant from the District’s Neighborhood Investment Fund, saw the branding initiative as the next step in a year-old initiative to encourage and manage growth along the 14th and U Street corridors. Doughty, a demure economist with a soft New Zealand accent, had led an exhaustive 2009 study focusing on just what aspects of the neighborhood zoning overlay locals wanted to change. Felix, a marketing and design consultant, presented a case for why the area needed a branding offensive. The campaign, they ultimately reasoned, should drop the Midcity name and simply label the area “The Arts District.”
Based on the serious community input they got, the pair figured they had a mandate. They probably figured wrong.
The result has been a contentious public process that has left local businesses feeling sidelined and artists blindsided. Many neighbors approve of the project. But a significant proportion is skeptical of an “umbrella brand” over the many neghborhood “mini-brands” in the 100-block area. And for all Doughty and Felix’s insistence that they want public input, to critics, the outcome looked pre-determined.
“It just seemed like a big developers scheme,” says Pixie Windsor, who owns a furniture store on 14th Street. “It didn’t feel like a community-oriented thing.”
Of course, it’s not all Felix and Doughty’s fault. To a large extent, the city set up the branding effort to run into conflict.
The first problem is one of authority. For years, the Midcity Business Association had worked to market the area with that name and a cohesive identity. It’s a standard practice: In other parts of the city, like the Capitol Riverfront and NoMa, Business Improvement Districts have funded studies to develop local logos and taglines.
But the Midcity Business Association wasn’t allowed to apply for grants from the $10 million pot of money the District sets aside for neighborhood investment projects every year. So a collection of neighborhood associations applied for it instead, assuming control of the initiative. To the businesses who had paid to market the area, that felt like a usurpation. Even worse, some worried, was that the grant money might create an “Arts District” brand that obscured the one called “Midcity.”
“We felt that we have programs in place to help market our neighborhood,” says Kamal Ali, owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl and president of the Business Association’s board. “We did not get any city funding, and they did. They got it for a name that we take credit for creating.”
The second problem is one of boundaries: How do you decide who’s in and who’s out? The Midcity business group hews close to 14th and U Streets, and Doughty and Felix initially bounded their branding area by 16th Street, Florida Avenue, 7th Street, and Rhode Island Avenue, which includes bits of U Street, Shaw, Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, and the emerging area known as Little Ethiopia. That still left out a cluster of galleries further south on 9th Street, who felt they should be included. So the project team expanded their boundary all the way down to Massachusetts Avenue.
The results left Midcity businesses wondering how they were supposed to identify with a completely separate neighborhood.
“I have nothing in common with a business down at the Convention Center,” said Shannan Fales, owner of Junction Vintage on U Street, at the first of three public sessions to introduce stakeholders to the branding effort. Fales said she wouldn’t necessarily even recommend someone walk that way at night.
Also in question: The very idea that Midcity is the artistic hub of Washington. “’Arts district’ seems really arrogant to me,” said Sondra Arkin, a leader of Mid City Artists. “I like ‘Midcity’ because it says we are one of many arts district that could possibly erupt in this town.”
The most fundamental problem with marketing the arts, though, has to do with artists. How do you get around the fact that almost every time the arts make some place desirable to live, the artists themselves soon can’t afford it?
“I don’t need a subsidy, but I’d like to know that at the table are artists and business people talking about what might it take to maintain accessibility for artists to show their work,” says Amy Saidman, artistic executive director at Speakeasy DC. “Otherwise, I think it’ll go like every other arts district…They talk big, language of wonderfulness, but it almost always happens that arts gets priced out.”
In part, the artists and the businesses are looking for a real community process to define exactly how this area should be defined and marketed. Of course, that’s not how grants function—they require a scope of work, and have strict timelines. Felix says they wanted to get street banners in place before the holiday shopping season, which required a rapid pace and no room for substantial deviation from the plan.
More importantly, they want a comprehensive, long-term plan for how to market the area while simultaneously fostering artistic infrastructure and affordable housing. Felix, whose husband is the established local commercial real estate broker Wayne Dickson, says that creating a brand will attract investment. But with a piecemeal strategy, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for those—like artists—who live on the economic margins.
Midcity shows how plunking down a lot of money for a few people to define a community that already has a lot going on can be problematic. But east of the river, in Anacostia, a much smaller effort is showing that plunking down a little bit of money to market a community with much less going on as part of a larger overall strategy can be just the ticket.
Last Friday, Vivid Solutions Gallery on Martin Luther King Road SE was packed with local business owners, residents, and officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is based just down the street. For weeks, Congress Heights-based blogger and activist Nikki Peele had coordinated with 28 local businesses and advertising the “Big Reveal” via Facebook and Twitter, creating hype around what could be coming to the nascent commercial district.
The secret—accompanied by bright green logoed t-shirts, tote bags, and balloons—turned out to be a marketing offensive called Eat Shop Live Anacostia, an “empowerment” campaign based around a professionally-designed website that houses information about all the neighborhood has to offer. It’s funded by $15,000 from ARCH Training Center, one chunk of a $200,000 grant from DHCD that will also support small business technical assistance and a new shared workspace called The Hive, along the lines of Affinity Lab in Adams Morgan and U Street.
Unlike Midcity, Anacostia doesn’t have a business association; the Main Street organization went kaput last year. So the neighborhood desperately needs somebody to tell the rest of the world that it exists, and that real people are invested in its success. Sean Smith, who owns a fitness and personal training business, the campaign is already working.
“On Friday, about seven people dropped by and I got a chance to tell them about what we offer. People would never have done that before,” he said. “Not only is it a promotion, it’s an uplift to let other people what’s in Anacostia, what’s in Anacostia, on the other side of the river.”
Now, DHCD is thinking of funding similar efforts for places like Ivy City and Trinidad—other areas that need to be put on the map before they can thrive. You can imagine more: Upper 14th Street. Brookland. Parts of Georgia Avenue.
Here’s the key for all those efforts: Peele, in designing the Eat Shop Live Campaign, wasn’t trying to define what the neighborhood is or should be. She’s just serving as a megaphone. On Monday, she tweeted:
“’Anacostia doesn't have to be the next U Street. It just needs to be the next Anacostia’ Remember that.”
Alex Baca contributed to this report.