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For the bulk of its run through the District, 16th Street NW isn’t necessarily an exciting place to hang out. Above Dupont Circle, there’s nary a bar or even a carryout for locals to lean against. And even if there were, the only thing worth watching might be the steady flash coming from the army of speed and red-light cameras, for which commuters brake abruptly as they bomb up- and downtown throughout the day. In fact, nothing reflects ambivalence to the street quite like the fact that Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla’s proposal to rename it Ronald Reagan Boulevard sat with Congress for a full week before anyone appropriately cried foul.
But those factors haven’t stopped local filmmaker Erica Ginsberg from kicking around the thoroughfare on nights and weekends for the past four years, filming her first feature-length documentary, Avenue of Aspirations, about 16th Street’s history. Ginsberg is hoping that, when she wraps production next year, she’ll show locals that there’s more to the strip than double-parked cars.
“This street is only seven miles long,” says the 35-year-old Greenbelt resident and Silver Spring native, “but considering all the different types of architecture, religions, race, and age groups, I’m not sure you get that anywhere else in this city.”
Riding down 16th Street on a Metro bus is a mundane ritual for thousands of commuters, but it was an epiphany for Ginsberg when she started heading downtown to her primary job, with the State Department, in the late ’90s. “Seeing all these people get on the bus, seeing all these things outside the window, I just got interested,” she says. “I looked to see what had been done. There was a book on the architecture of the street but not much else. I thought maybe I could make this into a film.”
At first, she and her cinematographer, Leon Gerskovic—Ginsberg produced Gerskovic’s documentary Crucible of War, about the Balkans—haphazardly shot events taking place along the corridor, anything from street festivals to Sunday services at some of the strip’s 40-odd houses of worship.
Since then, Ginsberg has spent a lot of her time filming the people who live and work in the gentrifying pockets along the street. She plans on structuring the 60-minute video through segments about particular 16th Street luminaries, such as Steve Coleman, the parks activist who helped reclaim Meridian Hill Park from muggers in the ’90s. Hence the film’s title: “It’s about all these people with their own aspirations, whether it’s to rejuvenate a park or rejuvenate a religious community,” Ginsberg says.
The director is hoping some film festivals and schools might eventually be interested in showing Avenue of Aspirations. To make do with her budget of zero, she’s been bartering services with other area film folks, such as Gerskovic, and applying for grants with local arts organizations.
But before she can worry too much about the business side, Ginsberg needs to pare down the 20-some hours of footage she’s shot along one of the city’s most pedestrian-unfriendly speedways. And she plans on braving the traffic to shoot more.
“There are too many stories to be told,” she says.—Dave Jamieson
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Jati Lindsay.