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Two years ago, when artist Steve Lewis moved into the top floor of the old battery warehouse in Blagden Alley, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. After a long search, he had finally found a studio where he could afford to work on his paintings. Sure, the transvestite prostitutes and the drug addicts shooting up in the street below were something of a nuisance. But they were nothing compared to some of the other hazards Lewis had encountered while searching for studio space in the District.
Before moving into Blagden Alley, Lewis thought he had scouted out a great building on Congress Street in Northeast. It was cheap and spacious. He found another artist interested in sharing the space with him, and he arranged for the man to meet with a real estate agent to tour the building. Lewis says when the guy arrived to see the building, an ambulance was parked outside. The real estate agent, it seems, had been shot while waiting to show the building. Compared to Congress Street, Lewis says, Blagden Alley is a dream: “I like this neighborhood a lot, man.”
Lewis and the other artists who have taken up residence in Blagden Alley may be enamored of their adopted neighborhood, with its rare, spacious studios, but the neighborhood is not universally pleased to have them. Just east of Logan Circle between 9th and 10th and M and N Streets NW, Blagden Alley has been the focus of an intense battle between a group of artists who would like to see the neighborhood grow into a thriving cultural center and other residents who want to keep the area purely residential.
The warehouse Lewis shares with other painters, architects, and a video production company has been at the center of that battle. The building was acquired in 1990 by Giorgio Furioso, a local arts developer who was once the director of the Ohio University art department. He started developing buildings for artistic use after arriving in Washington and discovering that the city suffered from a dearth of affordable studio space, which he felt prevented any local artists’ scene from really flourishing.
“We’re losing a lot of [artists] because there is no place for them,” says Furioso. “If you’re a musician, you can’t rent an apartment and rehearse. If you’re a sculptor, you can’t sculpt in an apartment. It’s very difficult.”
But Blagden Alley was a treasure trove of empty warehouses, stables, and other vacant industrial buildings. In them, Furioso saw loft potential. The warehouse Furioso bought is one of the last stables built in Washington, at the turn of the century. With its high, vaulted ceilings, exposed brick, and 12,000 square feet of breathing room, Lewis says that before the building was partitioned into smaller studios, “It was like a cathedral.”
Blagden Alley was once a bustling (if hidden) Washington community settled by rural blacks who had migrated to the District from the South. When writer Charles Weller lived in Blagden Alley for a month while researching Neglected Neighbors, his 1909 book on the evils of alley life, he found that some 300 people lived there, largely unobserved behind the stately town houses that faced out onto M and N Streets.
Blagden was home to a variety of stores and blacksmiths’ workshops. But even in 1909 the alley was considered a festering hole that even cops were afraid to venture into because of the crime problem associated with it. Today, the blacksmiths and other tradespeople are gone, but the crime isn’t. Blagden Alley is famous for its thriving transvestite prostitution trade. “Years ago they used to dump bodies there,” says Furioso. Given the state of the neighborhood, Furioso never suspected that his attempt to convert the vacant warehouse into art space would meet with any resistance from the neighbors. But he was wrong.
Furioso and the artists met with stiff opposition from the Blagden Alley Community Association, which he says had hoped to see the neighborhood developed into a high-priced residential area. “They wanted to turn this into a Blagden Mews kind of thing,” says Beth Solomon, co-founder of Planet Vox, a video production company that just opened a TV studio in the warehouse. “But no one was going to come in and invest thousands of dollars and turn this into Georgetown.”
The alley was zoned for residential use only despite the fact that the old battery warehouse had never been home to anybody but the local crack whores. “It was kind of a no-man’s land,” says Solomon. “You couldn’t live back here. You couldn’t work back here. All you could do is do drugs back here.”
Undeterred by the crime and the zoning regs, artists moved into the warehouse illegally, camping out communally on the huge second floor and renting out the first floor for public performing-arts events to help subsidize the rent. Meanwhile, Furioso started the process of getting Blagden Alley zoned for commercial use, because without a zoning change, he says, no bank in the city would consider financing any of the building renovation.
To help persuade the zoning board that studio space would be an improvement over the alley’s current use, Solomon and her company produced a video called Blagden Alley Memories, a retrospective of men having sex on car hoods, shooting up, and strewing used condoms across the block. She says, “We have videotape of just the most incredible, disgusting things going on back here in the alley.”
But Solomon says the neighborhood association continued to fight the zoning changes, and the public events at the newly christened “Blagden Alley Art Science Warehouse” only seemed to increase the tension between the two groups. The police began showing up at the warehouse, demanding to see certificates of occupancy for the building, which was zoned as a single-family dwelling. Without the certificate, the police forced the residents to shut down the events, and the warehouse rent became unsupportable.
“We went through the whole battle with the neighborhood to hold events here. I don’t think we had any idea when we first decided to try to do this that it would be anything like this,” says Planet Vox co-owner Eric Gravley, who has lived in the warehouse four years.
“The irony here is that the events back here and all the teeny-boppers that used to come here from Virginia was what got the crime out of the alley. It became an inhospitable atmosphere for that because there were too many clean-scrubbed white kids here,” says Solomon.
Leslie Miles, former president of the Blagden Alley Community Association, says the situation was more complicated than just the issue of the warehouse and studio space development would suggest. Ultimately, she says, the community association supported rezoning the interior alley for commercial use, but the group was not happy that the change zoned the residential buildings on M and N Streets for commercial use as well. “We are so close to downtown and all of its office buildings that it’s difficult for us to maintain our residential integrity,” says Miles.
Paul Aebersold, a founding member of the Blagden Alley–Naylor Court Historical Society, says that allowing the rezoning to extend beyond the alley could ruin his “fragile” neighborhood. “Now there’s a building in the middle of my residential block that could become a drug rehabilitation center,” he says. “It could become a pool hall, for chrissakes.”
Because Furioso could not get financing to renovate the warehouse for more profitable use, he got the artists to help split up the second floor into individual studios that could be rented out. Lewis even called a guy who owed him $50 and suckered him into hauling drywall up the elevator shaft as repayment.
Today, the building interior is still unfinished, with insulation exposed along the hallways and unfinished sheetrock walls in others. “We do a little at a time,” Furioso explains. Warehouse resident Pat Rogan, who teaches exhibit design at Catholic University and paints in his spare time, says the artists living in their studios have resorted to constructing tents and other makeshift shelters inside the building to stay warm.
“For the winter, I have a little plastic room. We call it the ‘Plastic Palace,’” says Rogan. But Rogan and the others seem to think plastic is a minor inconvenience eclipsed by the benefits of the building.
A few months ago, Furioso was finally successful in convincing the city to rezone the alley to allow commercial and residential development to occur simultaneously. But the presence of the alley’s artists is still somewhat tenuous. The warehouse doesn’t have the right certificate of occupancy, so residents like Rogan are technically living there illegally.
But Solomon says, “Does it make sense for the city to come and kick people out of this place? No. This alley is a natural for mixed zoning, and frankly, the only way it’s going to come back is if people can afford to be there, which means living and working in the same place. That’s what makes a city rich.” CP