Housing Complex

If You Build It, Who Will Come?

The juxtaposition is strange: In the middle of a strip of dingy carry-outs, boarded-up storefronts, and a methadone clinic sits an art gallery with a French name and an elegant atmosphere to match. Honfleur Gallery on Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia, with its clean white design and diverse exhibitions, “looks like it belongs in New York, Paris, or anywhere else in the world,” says Duane Gautier, president of the ARCH Development Corporation, which owns the gallery.

That contrast is by design. Gautier is in the midst of a campaign to transform economically stagnant Anacostia into a bustling neighborhood, using galleries and other arts spaces that might, for the time being, appear out of place as catalysts.

“For the 30 years that I’ve been working in Anacostia, the D.C. government and think tanks have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for how to regenerate Anacostia, and they’ve basically never been implemented,” Gautier says. “It’s simple. What you need to do is make Anacostia a destination for the arts.”

Gautier’s idea is this: Galleries and theaters bring foot traffic. Foot traffic brings dollars. Dollars bring businesses. And so if Anacostia can become an arts destination for five to six nights a week, retailers that have up to now shunned the neighborhood will start to see a business opportunity there.

“There’s not enough disposable income in the neighborhood to actually have the type of commercial and retail activity that the residents want,” Gautier says. “So therefore you need to bring in outside income that will bolster the income that’s in the community, so you can have the restaurants, you can have the retail, and so forth.”

For the first two and a half decades of its existence, ARCH focused on job training, but Gautier was increasingly bothered by Anacostia’s deterioration and vacant storefronts and wanted to add an element of economic development. He lacked the expertise to orchestrate large-scale development projects, but he’d helped form artist cooperatives in Russia following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and thought he’d apply that experience to Anacostia. So in 2004 and 2005, ARCH drafted a strategic plan for the arts. Since then, Gautier and ARCH have opened two galleries and now the Anacostia Arts Center, with small gallery spaces and a theater, on Good Hope Road; provided an interest-free loan to help bring the Anacostia Playhouse to Shannon Place SE; and organized the annual LUMEN8Anacostia arts festival. Gautier aims to bring an additional two to three galleries to the neighborhood.

ARCH has already succeeded in changing Anacostia’s streetscapes and attracting people who had never before visited the neighborhood for arts events. That’s led some people to worry about the creep of gentrification, though others—Gautier included—insist that Anacostia desperately needs neighborhood amenities and that filling empty storefronts doesn’t necessarily lead to displacement. So far, restaurants and retail have been slow to follow.

So is investing in the arts the right way to bring about economic revitalization in a struggling neighborhood? It’s too early to reach a definitive verdict for Anacostia, but the experiences of other cities can be instructive.


Gautier cites a few models for arts-spurred development: Minneapolis; the south side of Chicago; SoHo and Chelsea in New York. But the example he points to most is Providence, R.I., which did what he says he’s attempting in Anacostia: ensuring that galleries in economically depressed areas look like they’re straight out of Paris.

“If you take a look at where they developed in the beginning, their galleries, the government put a lot of money into making sure those galleries were quality places,” Gautier says of Providence.

Providence’s past was rougher than Anacostia’s present. “In the ’70s and ’80s it was really a ghost town, and the downtown was a wasteland,” says Lynne McCormack, Providence’s director of art, culture, and tourism. “The only reason people went downtown was to go to the theater, or for porn or prostitution.”

In the 1990s, McCormack says, the city provided a loan to create an arts building on a prostitution-ridden street, with retail on the ground floor and artist spaces upstairs. Others soon followed, and in 1998, a downtown arts district was formed. The arts never quite caught on downtown, she says, but “it sent the message that we were an arts city.” So when the city started a second arts district in the “more funky” west side, where artists were already living, the arts scene started booming.

But Providence did a couple of things that Anacostia is not doing at the moment. First, the ground-floor retail associated with arts spaces helped bring vitality to the streets, whereas ARCH is hoping that retail will follow arts into Anacostia. (Charles Gray, a professor of business economics at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who’s researched the effects of arts on economic development, says arts districts tend to be more successful when a city “coordinate[s] development so arts and restaurants and shops come at the same time.”)

More important, Providence’s arts development was backed up with city money. Not only did the city provide the loans to get the arts buildings off the ground, which helped persuade banks that they could safely lend additional funds, it also offered substantial tax incentives: There’s no sales tax on art sold in the arts district galleries and no income tax for the artists on those sales. Providence also benefited from state historic tax credits for repurposing old mill buildings, which have since expired.

“The galleries probably wouldn’t have gone there without tax incentives,” says McCormack.

The Anacostia arts scene has likewise required a substantial investment. According to Gautier, ARCH has put close to $700,000, raised from the private sector, into the various arts facilities and $155,000 from the city into LUMEN8Anacostia last year and this year. (The 2012 LUMEN8 funds included some money granted to the Office of Planning by the nonprofit ArtPlace.) ARCH has received “less than $100,000” over five years from the Commission on the Arts and Humanities to operate its arts programs, as well as funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development to publicize Anacostia’s arts scene.

But branding and facilities only get you so far; persuading artists that Anacostia is a great place to work is another matter. The neighborhood doesn’t offer special tax incentives—Gautier says he’s lobbied the administrations of Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray, unsuccessfully, for a more direct subsidy of the arts but is skeptical of tax breaks that would make artists a “special class”—or spacious old warehouses or, for now, a critical mass of potential customers. Nor does it have an existing community of artists big enough to make the scene explode. In this sense, it’s more like Providence’s downtown than its west side.

The nearest example of arts-driven development is just outside D.C.’s borders, stretching from Mount Rainier to Hyattsville in Prince George’s County. It’s not exactly the model Anacostia should be hoping to emulate, since it spans a long stretch of Route 1 and isn’t remotely walkable. But it’s helped spur strong development, attracting retail like Busboys and Poets, which Anacostia has been trying to bring to the neighborhood for years. And it had two advantages Anacostia doesn’t. The first was simultaneous development of arts, retail, and residential spaces. And the second was an existing population of artists.

“There was a sense that this was already part of the community, and we could amplify it as a development strategy,” says Mount Rainier City Council member Brent Bolin. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s been successful. They didn’t just throw a dart at a map and say, ‘This is gonna be an arts district.’”


Charles Gray says that arts-driven development tends to follow one of two patterns. The first is organic: “When a neighborhood is downtrodden, rents become affordable, and if it has reasonable access and amenities, then artists find it a good place to set up shop,” he says. “They provide a stabilizing influence for the neighborhood and lots of street traffic, and then what tends to happen is, this signals to the rental and retail markets that this is a viable community. And it starts to redevelop.” The downside, he says, is that it then becomes more expensive, and artists and other former residents are driven out.

The other model involves “well thought-out and intentional subsidies” from the city to bring the arts to a neighborhood. While this requires a greater investment, Gray says it can sometimes allow artists to stick around as long as the subsidies remain.

Anacostia doesn’t quite follow either model. So can it succeed as an arts district—and as a thriving neighborhood? Gautier says we’re already seeing evidence that the answer is yes. At LUMEN8Anacostia last year, a number of pop-up “temporiums” set up shop in vacant buildings. “Is it a coincidence that now five of those vacant buildings have tenants in them?” Gautier asks. “We believe that Lumen8 did not cause them directly to relocate to Anacostia, but what it did do was show the potential.” Those tenants include two used-clothing stores and a dental lab, but no art uses.

Likewise, Gautier says, since the April 26 opening of a jazz series that featured a pop-up restaurant in the Anacostia Arts Center, he’s heard from five people who want to open pop-up restaurants in the neighborhood. And while he anticipated that the hardest space in the Arts Center to rent out would be the cafe, he says the first letter of intent signed there was actually for the cafe space. (Gautier declines to name the operator, saying it will be announced at a May 30 community meeting, but reveals that it won’t be a chain, that the operator runs a restaurant in Petworth, and that much of the food will be locally sourced.)

The response from neighbors to ARCH’s approach has been mixed. Gautier says he’s worked closely with the community and won its support. But when asked about neighbors’ thoughts on the arrival of the new galleries, Historic Anacostia Block Association President Charles Wilson pauses and considers his words carefully.

“I’m trying to find a way to phrase my answer without offending the work that ARCH is doing,” Wilson says, promising to call back when he’s gathered his thoughts. He adds later, “I don’t think my neighbors are against the idea of becoming an arts district, but I don’t think the message or the vision has been properly communicated to the community.” Wilson thinks the arts are “one way” to bring about development in Anacostia, but that other avenues, like historic preservation to attract more tourism, should be explored.

But Gautier says the results of ARCH’s arts push speak for themselves. “Anacostia has seen storefronts being filled up,” he says. “We’ve seen new types of businesses move in. Is that the result of the great publicity we’ve received from our arts and culture? I believe it is.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • CapCityRecordsPanhandler

    Aaron: Is Duane your relation -- uncle or granddaddy? You take very good care of him with all the press you give him.

  • adelphi_sky

    I'm sorry, but your comment about The Arts District not being "remotely" walkable is incorrect. Just going by walkscore.com, the Arts District averages a score 62.5 in the two nodes while Anacostia garners a score of 71. Which tells me if Arts District is remotely walkable, then Anacostia is also. So, which is it?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    The arts district spans more than 2.5 miles along a highway. Parts of it are in walkable neighborhoods, but the arts district itself isn't intended to be walked from one end to the other, as Anacostia's is.

  • 20712

    adelphi_sky is right... The arts district is as "walkable" as any other place on the fringe of DC, if not more. I regularly walk and bike around the entire area. We can even walk to multiple grocery stores, restaurants, parks, schools, and bakeries. The corridor was developed by the 1920s as streetcar and railroad suburbs, so the bones are there just as they are in Arlington, Takoma, Chevy Chase, Brookland, and Silver Spring. Many folks have a hard time understanding that Prince George's County is a large and diverse place, and just because Branch Avenue in Clinton is a speedway through McMansion and Wal-Mart country doesn't mean that every last corner of the county is a suburban disaster.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    I don't know what a walkscore.com is but you can get around real easy in Anacostia on your two feet or two wheels, either bike or wheelchair.

    But Morris Road up to the museum is a little bit of a hike and a half.

  • Rich

    Gautier has made an odd choice--the West Side was a classic early gentrification story--mostly young people rehabbing an old spot with an obviously strong location. Academics, artist, hipsters, gays, etc.

    My hometown of Cleveland presents better examples---neighborhoods away from downtown--Murray Hill, Tremont, and Detroit/Shoreway/Gordon Square, and an older inner suburb, Cleveland Heights. All but one built on amenities of sorts. Murray Hill is close to University Circle (art museum, symphony, art school, CWRU) and the centerpiece was a school converted to condos and galleries in the 80s. Restaurants were nearby and the area had a safe if frankly racist reputation by history and an otherwise casual feel and density uncharacteristic of Cleveland. Detroit/Shoreway/Gordon Square built on movie theater spaces that the neighborhood had kept trying to rejuvenate and a several decades as an area with a lot of antique shops in disused street side storefronts. It also has views of the rapidly improving lakefront and proximity to Ohio City (the semi-gentrified area across the Cuyahoga River from downtown) and the little gay ghetto in the Edgewater neighborhood. Tremont is the most like Anacostia--somewhat cutoff in places from the rest of the city (mostly by freeway), but splendid views over the Cuyahoga Valley and interesting buildings (including the church used in the film "Deer Hunter"). It is the most "grass roots" although it's attracted infill housing and now has restaurants, galleries and workshops. Cleveland Heights has long attracted many people who played in the symphony, worked in museums, etc. It's a leafy older suburb with gorgeous mansions and some very nice older apartments and small homes, but significant poverty around the edges. Except for Murray Hill, all of these places had become socially diverse enough to turnoff a lot white suburbanites, with Tremont and Detroit/Shoreway/Gordon Square becoming very poor in spots; Tremont had a large housing project. Still none had quite the racial barriers created by Anacostia's rep, although Cleveland's racial climate is probably more polarized than DCs.

    Cleveland, like DC, is not known as an arts town, but it has grassroots in the arts that DC doesn't have: a long commercial art history as an advertising center (which has shrunk with the loss of corporate hqs), a base for trade publishers and companies like American Greetings. It also has a lot of theater and one of the best regional film festivals (better organized and put together than anything in DC and often screening better films than even the more notable fests here), as well as an art museum that's arguably better than the National gallery, except perhaps in its modern collection. Whereas DC has always been a place that consumed rather than produced art, Cleveland has done both and that probably provides a basis for an arts that DC doesn't have. OTOH, DC has many people who have managed to build spaces because of contract work with the local museums, esp. in the crafts and I would imagine that such a base provides stability few cities have. Like Cleveland, DC is pretty conservative in its tastes. DC money also seems to gravitate toward brand name art, even if it isn't very good (the paintings at the Kreeger, for example) which may disadvantage local artists.

    Cleveland has another illustrative example, too. Karamu House is a theater built around the Black experience. It began as a settlement house decades ago designed to foster the arts and interracial dialogue, a counterpart to the city's music settlement. The original model, which had a paternalistic if well intentioned aspect gave way to a more Afrocentric theater program as the originators aged and militance grew. The space provided early experience for people like Ruby Dee and early performances by Langston Hughes (who grew-up partly in Cleveland and often stayed with family there as an adult). The description of the Anacostia theater seems neither the social service approach of early Karamu nor the truly community centered one later Karamu. It frankly seems tokenist and unlikely to be embraced unless the owners really consider who they want to be and if they really want to embrace the community.

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  • CBRoberts

    Anacostia is the last cultural point in the district that has not been gentrified like 13 and Fst NW, Hst NW, Shaw and the Howard University area and Ust NW... Where is African American culture going in DC...