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Bill Warrell is in pain, which isn’t unusual for him. At 63, he’s been in pain for most of his life. Born with a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that, among other things, makes his joints loose and prone to dislocation, it’s hard for Warrell to get around. He uses a cane on good days, and on the occasional bad days, he scoots around in a wheelchair.
“The worst thing about my condition is that it’s cumulative, but it’s not progressive,” he says. “Sometimes it’s excruciating, other times it’s manageable, but it will not kill me.”
Luckily, Warrell doesn’t really have to leave home that much if he doesn’t want to. With the exception of taking his loyal and loveable Australian Cattle Dog Stella for walks, he has everything he needs in his home, a 1,000-square-foot live-work studio at 926 N Street NW in Blagden Alley. He has enough space to work on his paintings—evocative, sometimes haunting interpretations of his dreams and experiences, often infused with biting socio-political commentary—and to keep all the materials he needs to create them.
The corridor outside of his studio serves as a kind of pseudo-gallery for his art. Nearly a dozen completed, or near-completed, pieces artfully hung on the walls greet visitors as they climb the stairs from the building’s alleyway entrance. There’s a modestly sized kitchen, a loft for his bed, and enough surface area to host guests, store his myriad treasured belongings, and give Stella enough room to run around and play.
It’s the kind of ideal artist studio that has become virtually extinct in D.C. these days: a spacious, high-ceilinged, open-floored space in a warehouse quietly tucked away in a micro-neighborhood that has a rich history as an epicenter for artists.
Still, the pain doesn’t stop Warrell from getting out and leading the life he’s always lived. A painter, musician, filmmaker, curator, presenter, promoter, and all-around patron of the arts, Warrell is a man about town. Best known as the co-founder of d.c. space—the long-gone nightclub that, along with the old 9:30 Club, was home to many of D.C.’s underground music and arts communities in the ’80s and early ’90s—and the avant-garde music production company District Curators, Warrell is something of a legendary Washingtonian.
What’s causing him the most pain these days is what he sees happening to his city.
He’s lived in and around D.C. all his life, and for the past 13 years he’s made Blagden Alley his home. But in recent years, it has changed dramatically. What was once a haven for D.C.’s underground arts communities—home to artist studios and galleries—has transformed into one of the city’s bougiest neighborhoods, replete with high-end restaurants, suave bars, a yoga studio, a juice bar, and a chic coffee shop enveloped by expensive condo buildings.
It’s emblematic of what’s been happening all over D.C. throughout the past two decades, but with Blagden Alley it stings especially hard for Warrell. That’s because he is the last artist left living there.
And pretty soon, he too will be gone, pushed out by rising rent costs.
In a way, pain is what led Bill Warrell to discover a life in art.
Born at George Washington University Hospital and raised in Silver Spring, he spent most of his youth plagued by chronic pain. Doctors didn’t have a clue what was wrong with him and told his parents that they were just growing pains. The most seemingly benign incidents would routinely land him in the hospital. “It took years for me to realize I gotta wear high-top shoes, because my ankles will separate,” he says. “And when they do, I fall. And when I fall, my skin tears like a surgical glove, and I end up with a dozen stitches. And so, the smallest thing where most people would come away with a bruise, I ended up in the emergency room.”
It wasn’t until Warrell was 9—after an incident playing at a construction site with friends ripped most of the skin off his shins and landed him in the hospital—that a doctor recognized what was wrong with him. He was formally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. With sports and most other physical activities posing a serious threat to him, Warrell found solace in art.
“My mother always used to tell me, ‘You used to draw like crazy because it’s the only thing that would make you forget that you were uncomfortable,’” he recalls.
But his artistic inclinations weren’t a random discovery. They were inherited from his mother, who came from a family of musicians in Iowa. “That side of the family was very, very engaged in the arts,” he says. “She and her sisters all became at least competent classical musicians. My grandmother was the town organist and piano teacher.”
After high school, Warrell landed at Montgomery College, where he studied painting for a couple of years, then bounced around for a brief period before moving back to the District permanently. He lived briefly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, interning at a prestigious print shop and working with artists like Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci.
He had a short but influential tenure working on a film crew at the Creative Music Studio (“like a summer camp for free-music heads”) in Woodstock, New York in the summer of 1975, “which pretty much ended up being my future in music,” he says. There, he met legendary avant-garde jazz musicians like Don Cherry, Dave Holland, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Maurice McEntire, and others, who he would later bring to D.C. under his District Curators moniker to perform.
His time in Nova Scotia and Woodstock proved revelatory, leading him back to D.C. at the end of the summer in 1975. “I grew up here, and there’s all this amazing art being made around the country—and this whole world of artists, it doesn’t exist here in D.C.,” he recalls. “Where did I get off thinking that my hometown was so backward that I could fix it? But what I realized really quick was that there were a lot of people who felt the same way I did.”
So he started his own scene.
Along with “an odd collection of art school friends and [his] family,” Warrell opened a small club in 1977 in a building on 7th and E Streets NW—the heart of downtown D.C. “Space is the place,” was the club’s official slogan—a not-so-subtle nod to one of Warrell’s favorite musicians and heroes, Sun Ra. And until 1991, d.c. space was the place. The place where the District’s burgeoning hardcore punk scene, experimental and avant-garde jazz, art, film, and any other form of transgressive counterculture merged in a single cramped, inclusive space.
“There’s no one that was presenting the kind of music he was anywhere in the city,” recalls Bobby Hill, a longtime WPFW DJ and close friend of Warrell’s. “People could love the music but have no opportunities to see it performed live. It was only through d.c. space that you got a chance to see these artists.”
The early success of d.c. space was just the kind of validation Warrell needed to build on his vision of the District as an arts town. In 1978, he formed District Curators Inc. to bring avant-garde musicians to other venues around town, and to spaces better suited to their talents.
Throughout the tenure of District Curators, Warrell recruited such lauded experimentalists as John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Amiri Baraka, The Residents, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Meredith Monk. Warrell often worked with organizations, institutions, and venues to present these artists in unconventional spaces, like Freedom Plaza, The National Building Museum, and The Warner Theatre, among others.
Warrell fondly recalls those days and what the collaborative efforts accomplished. But what haunts him today is not what he did, but what he tried—and failed—to do.
“Back in those days, a lot more should have happened, a lot more should’ve been maintained,” he says. “That was the beginning of me being very naive and thinking that there was some kind of bigger civic way to do this. City and artists working together.”
The dream was to create a way for D.C.’s thriving arts and music scene to work with the city government to ensure arts and culture was there to stay, even as the development boom started to creep in. They had plans.
Warrell says he and a group of fellow artists organized and formed the Activity for Downtown in the Arts to work with the Office of Planning and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation—the developers leading the revitalization of downtown D.C.—to help maintain arts as a downtown mainstay. They worked to include language in every development project proposal for the area to secure some sort of arts component. They fought to get the Warner Theatre, which served as District Curators’ office for a period, restored as a multi-use space. And what was to be the crown jewel? A multi-use theater with 500 to 600 seats that could be used for local music, theater, performance, dance, and visual arts to anchor it all.
“We were all ready to jump into this like, ‘Oh man, let’s make a plan where the arts really have a voice, really have a place,’ and we ended up with the Shakespeare Theatre,” Warrell says. “[Artistic Director] Michael Kahn came in with that national reputation. Immediately got national money. Trumped everybody else’s plan, but said ‘I’ll still do all that.’ And then, you know, never did. It was never local. It’s the Smithsonian of theater.”
Giorgio Furioso, another longtime Warrell friend and an arts and real estate developer who owns the building where Warrell currently lives, similarly recalls the demise of the arts landscape in downtown D.C. “When d.c. space got pushed out by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, I bought all the rights to d.c. space, because I thought we were going to reopen,” he recalls. “We tried, and we just got screwed by every developer. They just didn’t want that kind of scene [in downtown] anymore.”
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The only way the city was going to mandate arts was to say, “Every building downtown has to have a certain ratio of arts,” Furioso says. “[Developer Doug] Jemal bought all these buildings that had arts [in them], and they all got negotiated away. Every square in downtown was supposed to have an arts component. And they got renegotiated. It’s kind of sad.”
There’s history painted on the walls of Blagden Alley. Literally.
Last year, Warrell and fellow artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer opened the D.C. Alley Museum through a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (Warrell and Thalhammer recently received another grant from the DCCAH to expand the Alley Museum). It’s a collection of murals and mosaics along the alley’s facades and garage doors. Some of them—like Warrell’s own “A System of Politics and Art” depicting d.c. space in its heyday or Cita Sadeli Chelove’s “Untitled”—are visual histories of D.C.’s counterculture past. Others, like Aniekan Udofia’s “Sun Ra and Erykah Badu” and Thalhammer’s “Meditation,” have deeper thematic meanings.
But the intent of the museum is clear. “This used to be an alley filled with artists, weirdos, and punks,” Warrell told City Paper when it opened last fall. The museum is a testament to that time.
Thalhammer first met Warrell shortly after she moved to D.C. in 2004, at the opening party for 1515 14th St. NW, one of Furioso’s buildings that would become something of an epicenter for D.C.’s bustling gallery scene in the early-to-mid aughts. It housed G Fine Arts, Curator’s Office, Adamson Gallery, and Hemphill Fine Arts. Of those, only Hemphill remains in the building.
“I came to visit his studio over there in Blagden Alley that following week and just loved the studio and vibe,” Thalhammer recalls. “Signal 66 was downstairs at the time. It just felt really alive.”
The late ’90s and early 2000s were the artistic heyday for Blagden Alley—home to places like revered gallery Signal 66; video production company and TV studio Planet Vox; and Fight Club, an underground skate park, arts, and music venue. But it didn’t come easy.
In 1987, Furioso bought an abandoned warehouse in Blagden Alley for $404,000. To say the building was in rough shape at the time is a vast understatement: The roof had caved in and the space flooded with trash and transmission oil. The only way to get in was to climb through the trash. The rest of the alley was no different.
It had become a dumping ground for small contractors and worse: For years, Blagden Alley was known as the spot where drug dealers and transgender prostitutes would hang out and conduct business. It wasn’t uncommon for bodies—victims of drug or prostitution deals gone south—to be found in Furioso’s building, discarded somewhere it seemed no one would ever care to clean up.
But Blagden Alley wasn’t always that rough. Its origins date back to the mid-1800s, when residential and commercial development in downtown D.C. spread north. Named after famed resident Thomas Blagden, the alley experienced a population boom just after the Civil War, when many African Americans migrated to D.C. In his book Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion and Folklife in the City, 1850–1970, author James Borchert deconstructs the myth of alleys being dangerous places that middle-and-upper-class residents were warned to stay away from. Borchert describes Blagden Alley as a tight-knit, mostly black community throughout much of the 20th century. The area was not without its flaws: Families were crammed into small apartments, and crime and prostitution were prevalent.
There was a nationwide push throughout the early-to-mid 1900s to end alley dwellings, which was spearheaded by First Lady Ellen Wilson. It took years to pass legislation banning alley housing, and even longer for it to take effect and become enforced.
By the time of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Blagden Alley and most of its counterparts in D.C. were abandoned and left desolate. Crime and neglect laid waste.
People thought Furioso was crazy for buying the building, but he saw its potential. “I could’ve bought a gorgeous house in Georgetown,” he says. “But I bought this. I bought this because it was 12,000 square feet that we could turn into art studios and so on. And for 10, almost 15 years, I fed it.”
Furioso hired bulldozers to clean up the alley and then worked tirelessly to make his vision a reality. Artists began moving in soon after the building was suitable enough for people to work in, but Furioso’s biggest challenge was changing the zoning for Blagden Alley. It had been zoned as a residential area despite the fact that it was in such squalid condition. It was unfathomable for anyone to live there. “You couldn’t live back here. You couldn’t work back here. All you could do is do drugs back here,” Beth Solomon, co-founder of Planet Vox, told City Paper in 1996.
So Furioso worked with the Office of Planning to get it rezoned as a commercial and residential area, so artists could set up galleries. He succeeded despite heavy opposition from the Blagden Alley Community Association, which wanted the neighborhood developed into the kind of high-priced community it is today.
But for years, Furioso saw his dream play out: When the arts were pushed out of downtown, it migrated to Blagden Alley. And Warrell along with it.
There’s a lot that worries Warrell these days. For starters, he’ll have to find a new home at the end of the year because he’s no longer able to afford the rent for his Blagden Alley studio. There’s also the dwindling state of the arts in D.C., something about which he harbors complex feelings of guilt and responsibility.
“My biggest concern is that all of us who did such a heroic job in our day were really laying the groundwork for this [gentrification],” he says. “I feel like I was—not a pawn in it—but I really helped fuel that. I started the first partnership between the Office of Planning in this city and an arts district.”
He describes many of the public arts projects that he sees around the city these days as “artwashing:” large-scale public projects in low-income neighborhoods essentially used to help developers fuel neighborhoods’ transitions into an up-and-coming areas, often pricing out longtime residents in the process.
“There’s a fine line between being real and being shills [for development],” he says. “I look at it more as a term that’s taking a swipe at art being used for gentrification.”
But what’s most pressing for Warrell at this moment: Finishing his pieces in time for his first-ever solo exhibition. In all his years and all his endeavors in the D.C. arts, painting was never a priority for him. It was something he learned to do early on in life but never really thought of as his primary artistic outlet. He would paint in his spare time, but it would sometimes take him years to finish a piece because he was always so wrapped up in other pursuits and helping other artists.
“His career in the arts has been in service to others and in service to help lift up all our voices,” says Thalhammer. “He’s always been a painter and had all these paintings hung around, even though he never really exhibited them and was always kind of known as a presenter of the arts.”
For the first time in his life, Warrell will be in the spotlight instead of behind the curtains when his show A Body Politic opens at the Logan Fringe Arts Space on Oct. 24. The show includes about a dozen paintings and drawings Warrell has made over the course of his life.
They’re evocative, sprawling, and deeply empirical for Warrell. He’s been working on many of them for years, toiling away when he can to make sure they’re just right. And since this is the first time he’s presenting them in a public setting, he wants them to be perfect.
“His paintings are very personal,” Thalhammer says. “They’re kind of like diaries in a way. They’re like his stories on a canvas, personal reflections of memories. And he takes a long time to paint them. It’s a long process for him. Sometimes he’ll have a piece that’s unfinished, but maybe it kind of looks like it’s finished.”
Some of them, like the nightmarish scene depicted in “Emperor’s New Clothes” (2016), are fiercely political, while others are depictions of Warrell’s own experiences, or those of his friends. Each canvas in the show is a “political landscape,” he says, the overarching theme influenced by what it’s like to live in D.C. during election cycles.
But what really ties the paintings—and all of his work—together is less obvious: the community Warrell helped spawn. The one that started in downtown D.C. and, once it was pushed out, migrated to midtown and Blagden Alley. The one that, in a way, now faces extinction.
Warrell’s looming departure from Blagden Alley isn’t just another example of an artist being priced out of his neighborhood. In Furioso’s view, it’s emblematic of why the arts have not fared well in D.C.
“The city of D.C. has never given one square foot to the visual arts,” he says. “You can go to almost any town—any city practically—in this country and they’ll give you an old building, an old post office, an old something.”
Furioso has tried to keep Warrell in the building as long as possible. He didn’t raise the rent until last year, when years of property tax increases made it impossible for him to charge the same price as when Warrell moved in.
Furioso wishes the city offered more incentives to developers to keep low-income residents in their buildings. “We’re not even asking the city to do anything except give that deduction through property tax. I just think that there’s a backass way that we’re doing and taking care of problems today. It just seems to me that we’re not creatively thinking … about how to deal with very old problems.”
Warrell harbors no ill feelings toward Furioso. They’ve been friends for a long time, and together they tried to build a sustainable arts district that would survive D.C.’s development boom. As a developer, Furioso tried to make spaces where artists could live and work inexpensively. Before 926 N St. NW, it was The Mohawk building on M Street in Mt. Vernon Square. Warrell lived there for a period too in the late 1980s and early ’90s along with a bunch of other artists. (He moved out of that building to Glen Echo, Maryland, in 1994 to raise his daughter with his then-wife). But the same thing happened: Furioso could no longer afford to rent it at a reduced rate.
One by one, Warrell’s neighbors, like Signal 66 and the artists Stephen Lewis and Rozeal, moved out of his building, replaced by myriad start-ups, and marketing, design, and communication firms. With Warrell’s impending move, his only hope is that the Alley Museum—his and Thalhammer’s living legacy of what the alley once was—can continue to thrive.
“I really do hope that it has the chance to stay and people have a chance to not only come through but to show and present,” says the artist Rozeal, who was Warrell’s next door neighbor in Blagden Alley from 2004 to 2007. “Regardless of what happens, it will always be the D.C. Alley Museum and Blagden Alley.”
To Warrell, the D.C. Alley Museum represents more than just a tribute to D.C.’s artistic history. It’s an example of what he always wanted and fought so hard to achieve: a creative partnership between an arts community and the city government to create a public arts project that enriches the community, compensates the artists fairly, and celebrates local artistic culture.
These days, Warrell sees many public arts projects whose intentions are either suspect or exploit the labor of artists. He’s just glad to have created something that he can stand behind. Something real, authentic, and, hopefully, lasting.
“All of this dressing, all of these parades, all of these murals, all of these arts endeavors—this is just their way of spending money they have to start the mumblings about what an amazing neighborhood this is going to be,” he says. “That’s all it’s about.”