Chris Shott (Show & Tell, 8/27) and I probably have a lot in common. We’re card-carrying members of the creative class. We’re smartasses. We have high expectations, and we share the belief that many D.C. government initiatives, including the U Street arts zoning overlay, don’t set very high expectations. Where Shott and I probably disagree is about possibilities, creating great visions, and committing to work to achieve such visions.
Culturally driven urban revitalization is hardly a new phenomenon, even in D.C. We can see it especially along the 7th Street NW corridor from Pennsylvania Avenue past New York Avenue, at establishments such as Olsson’s, the Zenith Gallery, and the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre; in attractive neon signs in restaurant windows such as Andale’s and Jaleo’s; up the street to the latest incarnation at Ruppert’s; and in the artist studios in back alleys and loft buildings, many of which are now being lost to the real-estate boom and 21st-century urban clearance.
Even if the city government doesn’t try very hard to achieve best practices in the zoning aspects of cultural development, there’s nothing to prevent the Greater H Street neighborhood from setting high expectations and looking to other models and best practices, most often in other cities, for guidance in creating, setting, and implementing our own agenda.
Programs such as the Creative Alliance @ the Patterson in the Highlandtown Arts District and the wide variety of programs in the Station North Arts District, both in Baltimore; the variety of initiatives and working studios in the Penn Avenue Arts District in Pittsburgh; and the Via Colori street-chalking festival in the Short North Arts District in Columbus, Ohio, provide examples of how an arts district can be far more inventive with storefront spaces than the pharmacies, banks, and auto-parts stores that are allowed under D.C.’s pretty weak zoning overlay. Incentives are key. Baltimore provides a best-practice example with property and other tax-incentive programs that are specifically targeted to arts-related businesses and activities. Not to mention Artscape, a great model for an H Street Arts and Humanities Festival.
As everyone knows, real-estate prices, even in the H Street neighborhood, are pricing out artists. One way to address this problem, and to have greater impact besides, is to expand the idea of an arts district into the neighborhood beyond the commercial corridor. A proposed Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on the 900 block of 12th Street NE is in keeping with this idea. Properties along Florida Avenue such as Jimmy’s Tire provide great opportunities for arts-oriented reuses. So do properties in Trinidad, which for the time being are still cheaper than houses in the neighborhood to the south that more and more real estate agents are branding “SoFlo.” (I, for one, don’t favor that moniker.)
Another way to extend the impact of an arts district, and to leverage the presence of the Language Doctors translation service already present on H Street, is to work to improve the public schools in our greater neighborhood by creating a “cluster schools”–type initiative centered on visual, performing, and media arts, design, and language. This proposal would be comparable to but different from the extant Capitol Hill Cluster Schools or the Spanish-language program at Oyster School. Other neighborhood cultural resources that can contribute to this effort include our neighbor Gallaudet University and the possibility of an expanded community library, which could take on an arts-and-culture orientation.
The idea would be to include Ludlow-Taylor, Wilson, Miner, Gibbs, Wheatley, maybe Webb and Maury, and so forth in this initiative. Wilson Elementary already has a well-regarded French program, and the idea would be to expand this concept to the other schools with languages such as Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, German, and more. This could have the happy benefit of adding a more international dimension to the greater neighborhood. (This is in keeping with the history of the neighborhood, which in its first 75 years mixed African-Americans, Irish, British, Scots, Italians, Germans, Russians, Greeks, and a smattering of Chinese and Japanese.)
Another aspect of the arts district concerns the streetscape, façade improvements, and other aspects of the built environment. First, complementing its successful Expressive Signs Project, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities is working out a project for artistic redesigns of H Street bus shelters. Second, H Street Main Street has applied to the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s funding programs for H Street façade improvements. Awardees have not yet been announced, but we have our fingers crossed. Third, the D.C. Department of Transportation has planned $30 million of streetscape improvements, with construction anticipated to start sometime in 2006.
Add to this mix the probability of a streetcar/light-rail line connecting all of H Street to Union Station, and then to downtown and Georgetown, which will make getting to H Street much easier for people from throughout the region—giving them one less excuse to skip out on a great performance at the H Street Playhouse or the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
It’s not a stretch to take a chance on the H Street Arts and Humanities Festival. It is an opportunity to shape how people respond to and participate in the arts, both citywide and at the neighborhood level. Check out www.hstreetdc.com/festival if you want to learn more. And I hope that the Washington City Paper will consider taking out a booth.