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With the impending sale of the Wilson Center, local musicians can look forward to a steady diet of nothing in Mount Pleasant.
On Sept. 3, 1987, Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally, and Brendan Canty performed for the first time as Fugazi in the scruffy church basement at 15th and Irving Streets NW known as the Wilson Center. Though named for Woodrow Wilson28th president of the United States, 13th president of Princeton University, and 12-year congregant of Central Presbyterian Church, which abandoned the structure five decades or so after Wilson left its pewsthe building had transformed into a center of anti-establishment energy.
Though still owned by the National Capital Presbytery, the Wilson Center, located on the cusp of Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Columbia Heights, had become home not only to D.C. punk rockers but also to several grassroots organizations aligned with the area’s burgeoning Latino community. Those groups include Centro de Arte, an arts center supporting Latino visual artists, dancers, and musicians that was founded in the ’70s by refugees who had moved to the United States to escape Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In the ’80s and ’90s, punk’s biggest names performed in the Centro de Arte’s subterranean hall: Government Issue; MacKaye’s former band, Minor Threat; and Bad Brains, whose HR discovered the spot in 1981. “It’s really the birthplace of hardcore,” says Mark Andersen, who co-authored Dance of Days, a history of the D.C. punk scene released this year. “The 9:30 Club is important, but the Wilson Center is where punk really blossomed.”
Ten years to the day after that first show, Fugaziwhich had since become a driving force in the international punk communityreturned to the site for a 10th-anniversary concert benefiting the Latin American Youth Center, a former Wilson Center tenant and Columbia Heights community organization. The band had more than its longevity to celebrate: At the time of Fugazi’s 1987 show, the building had been closed to punk rock for a year or two, Andersen says, due to some vandalism and violence at earlier shows. But the performance ushered in a new era of punk shows at the Wilson Center and reaffirmed the local scene’s commitment to political activism and community-building.
But if the D.C. band plans another anniversary bash for this decade, it won’t be raging down the same memory lane: The Wilson Center, whose upstairs and downstairs performance spaces have also hosted rock en español concerts, Mexican dance performances, and more than their share of quinceañerasteenage coming-of-age parties traditional in Latin American cultureswill most likely be sold by the presbytery to a D.C. charter school later this summer.
And, according to administrators and friends of Centro de Arte, that will be the day the music dies at 15th and Irving Streets NW.
About a year ago, the presbytery announced to Wilson Center tenants that it planned to put its buildings at 1470 Irving St. NW and 3047 15th St. NW up for sale. The church hadn’t ministered there for decades, and the area’s increased real estate value, no doubt, convinced the presbytery to get out while the getting was good.
The church organization hoped to sell the two contiguous buildings to one owner. Centro de Arte occupies the former sanctuary and basement hall on 15th Street, and three other organizationsthe Barbara Chambers Children’s Center, Clinica del Pueblo, and the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA)share space in the church’s former Sunday School building on Irving.
The four organizations make up the Centro Comunal Unidad (CCU), or Unity Community Center, a 501(c)(3) incorporated nonprofit that signed a 25-year lease with the presbytery14 years of which still remain, according to Centro de Arte administrators. Each organization also signs a sublease for its own space each year.
The long-term lease with the CCU, which would transfer to the new owner, dissuaded some potential bidders for the site, located in rapidly gentrifying Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights less than a block from the area’s new Green Line Metro station. The children’s center and Centro de Arte both expressed interest in purchasing their buildings.
Capital City Public Charter School, though, ended up being the highest bidder, explains presbytery counsel Alan Swendiman. Swendiman failed to disclose the purchase price, but CCU members put it at $1.4 million. CCU members also say that they entered a matching bid, but Swendiman maintains that the organization failed to make the offer in writing.
“They closed all communications channels with us,” counters Maribel Ventura, executive director of the children’s center and current CCU president.
So Ventura decided to enter into negotiations with the building’s prospective new owner, eventually striking a deal for the children’s center to purchase the Irving Street building and for the charter school to purchase the sanctuary, according to a memorandum drawn up by the charter school, the children’s center, and the CCU dated June 27.
“CCU shall terminate its current lease with [the presbytery] effective as of the settlement date under the contract,” reads the document, which does not mention the buildings’ purchase price. “This termination shall be signed by all the constituent members of CCU, including [the Barbara Chambers Children’s Center], EPICA, Clinica del Pueblo and Centro de Arte. Simultaneously, [the Barbara Chambers Children’s Center] will lease (or sublease) space in the Wilson Center to EPICA, Clinica del Pueblo and Centro de Arte.”
There’s only one problem: The plan gives Centro de Arte office space but not the performance space that its mission and programming require. In addition to groups such as Mexican dance troupe de Colores and the Malcolm X drummers and dancers, which practice and perform in the sanctuary space, Centro de Arte sponsors art exhibitions, guitar workshops, and, of course, musical performances.
Centro de Arte objects to the memorandum, claiming that the CCU never represented its interests in the negotiations. The center also maintains that the CCU discussions often took place with little notice and without a quorum of CCU members. “When you’re making a decision to settle the damn building, you better follow the bylaws,” says Edward Gonzalez, president of the board of directors for Centro de Arte.
Gonzalez also alleges that Ventura secured a sweet deal for her own group, leaving Centro de Arte singing the blues. He points to checks written to CCU attorney Alan Dranitzkewho, Gonzalez asserts, was supposed to represent the entire CCUdrawn from the children’s center account. (Dranitzke did not return calls for comment.)
“I wouldn’t resist if I didn’t think there was a way to accommodate the church and their interests,” says Gonzalez. “It’s being put on the fast track, and it’s coercive.”
Other CCU members express surprise at Centro de Arte’s protest. “One week ago, we met and [Centro de Arte Executive Director Lilo Gonzalez, no relation to Edward Gonzalez] said he agreed,” explains Dr. Juan Romagoza, executive director of Clinica del Pueblo.
With its broken stained-glass windows and dilapidated exterior, Centro de Arte’s part of the Wilson Center might not fit in with its freshly scrubbed Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights neighbors. But, its supporters argue, no other community organization epitomizes the neighborhood’s much-touted focus on multiculturalism and inclusion.
That was indeed true last Saturday night. Upstairs at the Wilson Center, Spanish-language rockers Esmeralda played to a largely Latino crowd, raising money for their Salvadoran hometown. Downstairs, Crispus Attucks, Looks Like Rain, Strong Intention, and a few other groups played to the punk rockers. Both groups peacefully mingled on the steps and sidewalk outside.
“It’s extraordinarily important as an underground, community venue,” Andersen says. “[Lilo Gonzalez] is not from the punk community, but he understands there is a common spirit between punk…and what he does through politics and community-building. There’s been some mixing of disparate communities. And it’s been beautiful of their openness to the punk community and how the punk community has paid back.”
For Edward Gonzalez, Centro de Arte holds even more special significance. “To me, it has a place in my heart,” he says. “It’s a real connection into my heart.”
When he moved to D.C., in 1981, Gonzalez explains, he didn’t know a soul. He found a listing for an Andean music concert at the Wilson Center and then attended Centro de Arte’s annual New Song Workshop, at which local musicians present recent compositions. There he met center director Carlos Arrien, Luci Murphy, Phil Wiggins, and other D.C.-area musicians.
“The hall has been the launching pad for a number of prominent local artists, performers and musicians, in a number of genres, Nueva Cancion, go-go, rock en español, punk, salsa and others,” wrote Edward Gonzalez of the real estate deal in a protest letter to Ventura. “There is history there. To think that this plan has the endorsement of Centro de Arte would be ludicrous.”
“It’s always been the same goal: providing space for artists to perform, learn, and share ideas,” says Lilo Gonzalez.
“A lot of the musicians live in apartments,” he adds. “[Centro de Arte] serves a purpose as an affordable, available space to perform.”
Centro de Arte plans to fight for its space and will face eviction if necessary. The group’s sublease expired July 1, and neither Gonzalez expects the CCU to renew it. In the past, they say, the subleases renewed automatically.
The growing shortage of community arts space in the neighborhood makes the battle particularly important. Last year, longstanding Mount Pleasant arts institution GALA Hispanic Theatre was forced out of its space at the Sacred Heart School. “I don’t know,” says Lilo Gonzalez. “I don’t know if we can find anything else comparable.”
“Over the years, it’s been our main theater for community presentations,” says Doc Powell, musical director of the Malcolm X drummers and dancers. “I hope they find some way to continue that arts center.”
“We’re just an organization trying to survive and keep a space for everyone to use,” says Edward Gonzalez. “It’s a historic space. It would be good for us to keep it and provide a space for all the artists.” CP