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Two D.C. performance poets thought they’d found the perfect venue for readings inside Silver Spring’s City Place Mall. But the prosaic demands of the marketplace got them kicked out.

On Jan. 13, more than 150 people showed up to hear poetry at City Place Mall in Silver Spring. It was the biggest crowd that the Daka Maneno Poetry Series had attracted since it began its monthly shows, in September 2000 at ArtSpace, a community arts center on the mall’s fourth floor. On this day, the $2 admission fee would be donated to a family whose Upper Northwest house had burned down on Christmas Day. As poetry-circuit regulars, families, and curious mall strollers settled into metal folding chairs and turned their eyes toward the poet standing under a solitary spotlight, they had no reason to believe they were not welcome.

But Daka Maneno organizers Crystal Adair and Denise Johnson were just saving the bad news until the end of the show. After the last poet sat down, Adair and Johnson announced that this would be the end of Daka Maneno, at least at City Place: The mall management had canceled the series. The reason, Adair and Johnson told a shocked audience, was that management thought the shows had attracted “undesirables.”

The trouble started at Daka Maneno’s very first show. Adair and Johnson had transformed the arts center’s yawning space into an intimate, cafelike atmosphere. An Afghan rug became a stage, with the spotlight shining down on a mike stand. On one side of the rug stood a row of chairs for the poets, the group of seats split in the middle by a black steel lamp in the shape of a woman arching her back, her hand holding a globe. On the other side of the rug sat a semicircle of tables decorated with tea lights. Behind the tables were several rows of folding chairs with seating for more than 100. The night of that first performance, titled “Lyrical Propagation,” half the chairs were full. Many of those in attendance were poets themselves who had come out to support Adair and Johnson. Some had come from as far away as Dale City, Va.

“We were careful about the poets we selected. We didn’t want the kind of poetry everyone has ragged on on U Street,” says Johnson, referring to a scene that has become an almost interchangeable flow of poets spouting heavily hiphop-influenced rhymes. “We wanted a diversity of styles. We wanted to offer something different.”

By all accounts, Adair and Johnson succeeded. Fans who wrote in to complain of the series’ cancellation called it “one of the best things [Silver Spring] has ever seen,” “one of the most important reading series” in the area, and “one of the best additions to City Place.” The poets were eclectic, ranging from the old-school, hiphop-inspired Patrick Washington, one-half of the D.C. poetry duo the Poem-cees, to fiery newcomer Lottie Mae McDonald, aka Grandma Slam. They offered everything from serious soundings on racial profiling to sweet confections about love. ArtSpace co-director Sorrel Fisher describes the crowd the series attracted as “lively” and “enthusiastic.” When a rhyme struck home, people weren’t shy about letting out an “Amen.”

City Place marketing manager Aurelia Martin came to the first show, but she didn’t see the entire performance. According to Adair and Johnson, Martin caught Johnson performing “When I Die,” a piece in which she sings refrains from Negro spirituals, and D.C. funk poet Twain Dooley’s “Diallo Poem” about Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant shot dead by New York City police in 1999.

But the little that Martin saw she apparently didn’t like. Martin later complained to ArtSpace co-director Peg Brenner—who then relayed the remarks to Adair and Johnson—that the free chicken wings and potato salad served at the reading took business away from the mall’s food court. She also didn’t like Daka Maneno’s using the food court’s tables. Most of all, however, Martin didn’t like the crowd. According to Adair and Johnson, Martin, who is black, suggested that the heavily minority audience was “rowdy and disruptive” and consisted of “undesirable elements”—a surprise not only to Adair and Johnson, but also to their audience members, who, ArtSpace neighbors say, were nothing but well-behaved.

Brenner managed to smooth things over between Martin and Daka Maneno. The series continued at ArtSpace, and at each subsequent show the audience grew.

In an attempt to appease Martin, Adair and Johnson replaced the hot food with punch and cookies. And, Daka Maneno attendees say, Adair and Johnson took pains to remind the audience to repay the mall’s patronage of the arts by shopping there. But their efforts weren’t enough: Two days before the Jan. 13 show, Adair and Johnson received the startling news.

During a phone conversation between Martin and the series organizers about letting a local radio station into the mall to broadcast from the next performance, Martin told Adair and Johnson that Daka Maneno should have ended in December. Neither Adair nor Johnson had ever heard Brenner or Fisher mention the possibility of termination before. “Are you saying that you’re canceling us?” Johnson asked Martin incredulously. According to the two poets, Martin simply replied, “Consider this your last show.”

Following the Jan. 13 performance, letters from patrons angry over the series’ cancellation poured into the offices of Dierman Realty Group, City Place’s owner and manager. “I feel that if you cut out the poetry series…then [you should] cut out the whole Artspace program. For if you do, then what is brought to the county is CENSORSHIP,” wrote Kenneth Lee of Oxon Hill. Dierman officials didn’t respond to Lee’s or to any of the other letters. Instead, Dierman controller Katherine Baumgartner referred all questions to Martin.

Martin—who refers to the series as “Daka Dameno”—in turn punted all questions to Brenner and Fisher, saying, “They’re the ones who met the group and coordinated with them, not me. They need to take responsibility for their group and answer for themselves.”

For their part, the directors at ArtSpace are at best lukewarm in their support of the protest.

“I don’t know who made the decision to cancel,” says Fisher, who was out of the country at the time of the series’ termination. Brenner, meanwhile, is equally circumspect, referring to Martin’s comments on Daka Maneno’s first show as “the incident.”

“I did what I could to keep Daka Maneno at ArtSpace, because I believe what they were doing has value for the community, and they do it very well,” Brenner says. “But it’s ultimately City Place’s management’s prerogative to choose what kind of events take place in their mall, and we have to respect that.”

Perhaps Daka Maneno’s fate was inevitable, given its venue inside a shopping mall where concerns over security and clientele—or the tastes of the mall’s marketing manager—can easily trump freedom of expression. Yet, ironically, such a melding of art and commerce is exactly what residents, county planners, developers, and politicians are banking on to revive Silver Spring’s decrepit downtown and to transform it into an inclusive, culturally vibrant community. But if Daka Maneno’s experience is anything to go by, such a makeover is easier said than done.

Silver Spring has never been exactly what you’d call cosmopolitan. After all, it got its name from a mica-speckled water source. In 1842, the sparkly spring caught the eye of Washington Globe editor Francis Preston Blair, who built an estate there. (Today, the site of the estate is marked by an acorn-shaped gazebo near the intersection of East-West Highway and Newell Street.) By 1887, suburban development had begun. After World War II, Hecht’s opened one of the first suburban department stores in the country there. But by the ’60s, Silver Spring was already losing shoppers to Wheaton Plaza, with its acres of free parking, and Montgomery Mall, the area’s first fully enclosed shopping mall. Silver Spring gradually became a mishmash of busy streets intersected by empty ones lined with vacant buildings covered in graffiti.

For years, Silver Spring residents, planners, and politicians have been debating how to revitalize their downtown. But for years, resistance to different projects stymied construction. In the mid-’90s, the developers of the Mall of America wanted to build the “American Dream” megamall, a four-level, 1.25-million-square-foot behemoth with an ice-skating rink, a fitness center, an amusement park, and a “Europa Boulevard” of shops with an adjacent 500-room “fantasy-land hotel” that would have featured Hollywood-, Wild West-, and ancient-Roman-themed rooms. But the project fell out of favor with residents and the county executive. After all, Silver Spring still had the more modest City Place Mall, which had opened in 1992.

Just nine years later, City Place is already something of an anachronism. With its windowless concrete walls towering over the two-story buildings around it, the mall looks stodgy and uninviting. And it will seem even more so in the new Silver Spring currently under construction. The new downtown is anchored around the Discovery Channel World Headquarters, now little more than a hole in the ground. A couple blocks away, a Fresh Fields is already open, and a Borders is on its way.

But just as important as these name-brand stores are the Silver Theatre—future art-deco outpost of the American Film Institute—and the adjacent new home of the Round House Theatre Company. To residents, developers, and planners, creating a vibrant arts district is the key to downtown Silver Spring’s salvation. As County Executive Douglas Duncan put it at a recent speech in Annapolis on Maryland Arts Day, “Without an arts component, we are just another shopping center.”

“It’s quite energizing to be part of, in essence, the restoration of a community’s vitality,” says Ray Barry, director of the AFI’s Silver Theatre. “Our presence helps differentiate this [redevelopment] project from others, from a wonderful mixed-used entertainment development to one with a broader regional impact. We will continue to affect the character of the community as it adopts an arts-and-entertainment identity.”

Even during the ongoing construction, county officials have drafted Silver Spring’s youngest citizens to contribute their artistic skills to the redevelopment. On the fence around the Borders construction site hang paintings made by middle-school children. The theme is “My Community.” Most of the pieces depict playgrounds, playing fields, and parks. In one of the few paintings that feature Silver Spring’s downtown, a Gap, a Fresh Fields, and a video arcade fill the horizon, and a giant McDonald’s dominates the foreground.

City Place management has tried to keep the mall relevant to the new Silver Spring. In its directory of stores, City Place touts itself as the “pulse of Silver Spring’s Urban District, and living proof that our community is close-knit, thriving and an ideal area to live, work and shop.”

In spring 1999, the mall allowed longtime Silver Spring residents Brenner and Fisher to put on the “Shared Community Visions” art exhibit in the vacant store where ArtSpace is now. The show featured about 400 paintings, graphics, murals, poems, photos, and sculptures by Silver Spring residents and groups, and it attracted 1,000 visitors. A year later, City Place management donated the venue to Brenner and Fisher for their arts center. Brenner and Fisher do not pay rent on the space, which Brenner says normally leases for $180,000 a year. “The purpose of ArtSpace is to promote an all-inclusive sense of community in downtown Silver Spring while providing an exciting place for creative expression,” Fisher told the Montgomery County Gazette in February 2000.

By the time Adair and Johnson stumbled across ArtSpace while shopping last summer, performing arts were already a part of the venue’s schedule. It had hosted events for the IN Series, including performances of Spanish music and flamenco dancing, and the Unidentified Flying Opera Company, which features the one-act operas of company director Lesley Choy, had been appearing there regularly since July.

The two young women had never organized a poetry series before, but both are veterans of the D.C. performance-poetry circuit. Adair is a house poet at the Cup of Dreams cafe near Catholic University, and Johnson is the second-ranked slam poet in D.C. and a member of the 2000 D.C. slam team, which has competed nationally. When they applied to put on a poetry series, Brenner and Fisher accepted the proposal enthusiastically.

Given ArtSpace’s mission and City Place’s stated support of community arts, the cancellation of the series hit Adair, Johnson, and Daka Maneno’s followers especially hard. “It threw everyone for a loop,” says Tajudeen Holston, Daka Maneno’s technical director. “They’ve had opera [at ArtSpace] and dance troupes. [The mall management] shouldn’t exclude this side of a culture because they don’t like it.”

At first sight, ArtSpace stands out from its neighbors. The display windows feature a series of posters honoring different African-American achievers: inventors, federal officials, educators.

On the whole, the fourth floor of City Place doesn’t offer much to look at: a movie theater, a dollar store, a pager shop, and a beauty-supply store with a fringe of ash-blond hair extensions hanging over the entrance. From the window of a place called My Bag, furry backpacks in the shape of the Tasmanian Devil flash their fangs at passers-by. On a white metal bench near the escalators, an elderly man naps by his belongings, including a pitcher designed to catch urine.

Since the brouhaha over Daka Maneno, Brenner and Fisher have carried on with ArtSpace as best they could. They’re also looking for other venues to host events, because Dierman officials have decreed that there can be no more live performances at ArtSpace. The official reason, according to Baumgartner, is that such events are noisy and increase the mall’s insurance, security, and housekeeping costs.

“We do not support Daka Maneno in their attack against City Place Mall,” Brenner and Fisher wrote in a recent e-mail. “City Place and the Marketing Manager have been exceedingly generous to the Silver Spring Community in allowing ArtSpace to be used for a broad range of arts related activities over the past two years. An evaluation of ‘what works’ is an ongoing process from the perspectives of both Mall Management and the mission of ArtSpace.” Brenner for a while was helping Adair and Johnson find a new venue for Daka Maneno. Lately, the poets have been searching on their own.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Brenner, a petite woman with short salt-and-pepper hair and big glasses, minds the table at the entrance to ArtSpace. Occasionally, people strolling the mall will come in and ask about the space. Brenner, in the gentle tone of a grandmother, pushes a schedule of children’s arts-and-crafts workshops on each one. To anyone who walks out the door, Brenner makes sure to say, “Come again.”

Some of the art made in the workshops is destined for “We Are Silver Spring,” an exhibition coordinated by ArtSpace, the Silver Spring Regional Center, and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County and scheduled to be displayed at ArtSpace from May 12 to 26.

Before she leaves with her mother, a little girl hands Brenner her entry for the exhibit. It’s a drawing showing several people and places divided into jigsaw puzzle pieces. “What is it?” asks Brenner. “It’s supposed to be a jigsaw,” the girl says. “You put it together and it makes a community.”

“Isn’t that nice?” Brenner muses. CP