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For the past six years, the nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation has kept Anacostia on a steady exercise regime of arts and culture. Last April was the neighborhood’s Crossfit moment.
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The first LUMEN8Anacostia festival—sponsored by ARCH and the Office of Planning, and partially juiced by a grant of $75,000 from the nonprofit ArtPlace—activated about a dozen permanent and ad hoc arts venues around the neighborhood’s main commercial intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Good Hope Road SE. On the first weekend, cultural consumers from across the city, many of them young, white professionals, hitched their bikes to fences, took in the gallery openings, stopped by Big Chair Coffee for refreshments, and filled the streets of a mostly black neighborhood in the city’s poorest ward that many residents of other parts of the District mentally associate with blight and crime. The centerpiece of the 12-week festival was the Lightbox, a former police warehouse-turned-party factory that, for an opening-weekend soiree and a scenier one sponsored by the Pink Line Project a week later, was crammed with DJs, installation artists, steampunky sculptures, interior street art, and a temporary Busboys and Poets. In one Pink Liner’s words, the gathering was designed as a meeting of arts from east and west of the river.
That’s part of what’s going on in Anacostia: arts for its own sake. But the 30-year-old ARCH Development and city officials are betting on an even bigger impact: that, perhaps like H Street NE before it, the arts can help spur economic development in a struggling, long-neglected neighborhood. Already the pace is quickening: ARCH’s footprint now includes two galleries, a radio station, and the brand new Anacostia Arts Center, a multipurpose space that it will show off at this year’s LUMEN8. The nonprofit also helped the new Anacostia Playhouse get off the ground after the theater, formerly the H Street Playhouse, was priced out of Northeast. Small groups of artists have moved to the area, thanks to low rents. And soon, arts won’t be the only sector of Ward 8 working to boost the area’s fortunes: The federal and D.C. governments’ development of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital hopes to bring bureaucrats, techies, and students to the neighborhood during the daytime, with growth along MLK Avenue sure to follow.
Which might be cause for excitement within the neighborhood, and surely much anxiety. All strata may participate in the arts, but in the lexicon of modern urban life, they often signify—fairly or unfairly—more disruptive changes to come, like skyrocketing rents and amenities more likely to appeal to newcomers than longtime residents.
Which brings us to this issue of Washington City Paper. In it, we explore how the arts are taking hold in Anacostia—and what impact they will make. How will the H Street Playhouse find audiences from across the city while navigating the tightrope politics of gentrification? Is ARCH’s vision of the arts the only one? Can the arts really boost a local economy? And when this year’s LUMEN8 returns—sans the Pink Line Project—will the cultural class’ eyes still be on Anacostia?
They should be, as should everyone’s. Here’s why. —Jonathan L. Fischer