Nehemiah Dixon isn’t a stranger to change. A D.C. native who grew up in Southeast, Dixon hasn’t sat idly by as his hometown has evolved.
“Growing up in Southeast, I remember what this city looked like in the 1990s. When I was living on 16th Street in the mid-2000s, I remember when the cranes came up,” he recalls. But rather than protest, move out, or bemoan gentrification, Dixon, an accomplished artist, saw an opportunity. “I want[ed] to stay in the middle and make compromises,” he says. “I want[ed] to try to do something with communities to help improve people’s lives.”
These days, as the District’s housing prices continue to rise, Dixon is working to have a say in how his changing city is supporting its longtime residents. Creating maker spaces, he’s discovered, is a way to do that.
Dixon is the founder and CEO of NonStop Art Makerspace at Oxon Run in Ward 8’s Washington Highlands neighborhood. It’s a place of bustling creativity: On any weekday afternoon you can find 10-year-olds working side-by-side with 75-year-olds at the sewing machine, 3D printer, or desktop computers. NonStop’s intergenerational environment—and the fact that it’s in the basement of an affordable housing complex—sets this maker space apart from most other maker spaces.
In their most general sense, maker spaces are places for people to physically build things. Over the last five years, maker spaces have cropped up all across D.C. You might be familiar with the Fab Lab Pop-Up in NoMa, operated by DC Public Library while the central library, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, is undergoing renovations. Local college students might be familiar with wood shop classes at their university’s maker space. Or, if you’re the parent of a young child, you might have taken a family trip to the KID Museum in Bethesda.
The maker movement began in Silicon Valley with the insight that many of today’s most successful entrepreneurs are themselves tinkerers who grew up building things. One of the big ideas behind maker spaces is that when people become competent at making physical things, they gain confidence that they can build anything, including companies.
Dale Dougherty, who had a successful career in technology media and is considered the “grandfather of the maker movement,” has spent the last 13 years spreading this message of making. Whether the maker wants to explore STEM fields, learn a new skill, or start a business, a maker space should foster curiosity, creativity, and innovation.
What is common to all maker spaces is an emphasis on learning and community. The NonStop Art Makerspace at Oxon Run stands out because of the specific community they work with—multiple generations of Ward 8 residents—and how they’ve made it happen. NonStop Art’s maker space is the result of a collaboration between real estate developers, artists, and private donors.
The Overlook at Oxon Run is a gated apartment complex comprised of more than 300 one- and two-bedroom apartments for senior residents and small families. The Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC), the non-profit real estate developer behind Oxon Run, works exclusively with low- and moderate-income individuals and families. About 9,000 people live in CPDC’s 30-plus buildings in D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Baked into the nonprofit’s financial structure is a commitment to helping its residents feel supported beyond just having a roof over their heads.
So in June of 2015, Pamela Lyons, CPDC’s Senior Vice President of Community Impact Strategies, jumped at the opportunity when Capital One invited them to apply for a community development grant to implement an “innovative idea.” By that point, Capital One had already partnered with CPDC on other community initiatives, such as a “financial asset building” network—a savings initiative to help a small group of residents support and invest in each other’s entrepreneurial initiatives. A maker space, though, would be different from any service CPDC had previously offered at any of their buildings.
Lyons first came across the idea of a maker space in an article she read years earlier, and immediately thought it would be beneficial for CPDC residents. Though she had never heard of a maker space based in an affordable housing building, Lyons believed it could teach residents employable skills and offer them a unique creative outlet. And because all of CPDC’s buildings house individuals from a wide range of ages, Lyons also believed maker spaces could be a powerful way to connect people across generations.
“A great deal of learning happens when youth and older people come together,” she says.
CPDC ultimately won two grants from Capital One, totaling $700,000. The grants covered the cost of the technology and equipment as well as the renovation of the three basement rooms (previously occupied by Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School, which moved out once they received their charter and needed to expand). In July of 2017, after years of research and a brief period of construction, CPDC, Nonstop Art and Capital One jointly opened the Makerspace.
The Nonstop Art Makerspace is spread across three separate but closely linked rooms totaling 1,800 square feet of making: the Fabric Arts Lab, home to popular sewing classes; the Funk Lab, with computers and 3D printers for making digital designs; and the Maker Spot, used for more industrial machinery, like their laser cutter.
Access is free to all residents of Oxon Run and residents of CPDC’s sister buildings. This fall, the Makerspace opened up membership to non-residents, too: After completing a brief orientation, anyone can sign up to use the space. For $20 a day, a person can join any class, or for $65 a month, members can access the three labs for up to 80 hours a week. On Dec. 19th, NonStop Art is hosting an open house for all D.C. residents to check out the Makerspace and its membership options.
NonStop Art runs the day-to-day logistics of the Makerspace and pays the artist residents who teach all of the classes. In exchange, NonStop doesn’t pay rent to CPDC to use the space. The NonStop staff—all working artists themselves who each have their own projects and exhibits—appreciate being able to make things with a community who may not feel welcome walking into a traditional museum or art gallery. Dixon reinforces his social justice model by paying his artists well above minimum wage at $25 an hour.
Even before NonStop Art existed, Dixon knew he wanted to work with CPDC because of their commitment to lower-income communities. CPDC has won multiple awards for their buildings and service to lower income populations, and recently combined resources with non-profit housing developer Enterprise, which has an even larger reach.
Already, Dixon is talking to CPDC and other developers about opening more maker spaces in affordable housing communities. Although he knows he can’t stop gentrification, Dixon wants to help shape the future of development.
Lorenzo Cardim, NonStop’s Program Director, echoes Dixon’s sentiment. To him, it makes sense for maker spaces to collaborate with developers who should be looking to create ways “to not get completely detached from the soul of their community.”
Dorothy Jones-Davis, Executive Director of Nation of Makers, which supports maker organizations across the country, says she’s “excited about maker spaces’ potential in community economic development.” In a similar way that developers sometimes provide their residents with gyms and rooftop pools, Jones-Davis believes maker spaces could become part of this package of services offered in other buildings.
Historically, she notes, the relationship between developers and maker spaces has been tense because there’s competition around the kind of space needed for tinkering—large, inexpensive, and industrial. But NonStop Art’s maker space is a prime example of how smaller and residential spaces can work.
First and foremost, Dixon considers himself an artist, and his vision for NonStop Art extends beyond maker spaces. He’s eager to engage communities through public art, as expressed by his most recent exhibit, an outdoor sculpture of three hoodies in Foggy Bottom. NonStop Art is also partnering with the Phillips Collection to hold workshops and commission artwork.
When it comes to maker spaces, it’s a matter of art and economics. Dixon wants people to learn skills and processes that will help them get a job or start a business. Already, a few residents have used the vinyl-cutter to design and make their own T-shirts, and in the sewing lab, other residents are taking orders.
A maker space should be about creating a place for the community to gather and providing the resources for people to educate themselves, Dixon believes. He wants to be sure that people, no matter their age, feel supported and encouraged as they work with technology. Given that the maker space is on one of the building’s senior floors, the most frequent users have been senior citizens. It’s been amazing, Dixon notes, to see people who start out barely knowing how to turn on a computer creating their own designs on CorelDRAW a year later.
“Making is all about engaging people, and a lot of making comes out of being under-resourced,” says Jones-Davis.
She speaks from her own experience growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with few economic means. “I personally believe there is a lot more innovation in those communities because people are forced to innovate when the resources aren’t there,” she says. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t have ideas.”