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It started with the art, but it wasn’t really about that.

After a city-funded public installation featuring scattered detritus in a vacant Anacostia storefront spurred outrage among neighbors who have worked to improve the community’s troubled reputation, a public canvas appeared on one of the storefront windows as an outlet for their frustration. The first comments scrawled on it with colored markers took aim at the artwork itself, part of the ongoing 5×5 Project, which includes installations across the city.

“Why trash?” asked one scribbler. “Broken tires and mirrors, burnt wood—are you saying Anacostia is trash and broken?”

“Artist (?) from New York, curator from Australia, $money from D.C. taxpayer,” added another, referring to the project’s New York–based artist, Abigail DeVille, and its curator, Justine Topfer, who grew up in Australia and is based in San Francisco.

“This is some shit get the fuck out of here,” contributed one pithy neighbor.

Then the comments began to veer in a different direction, one that challenged not the art but the vacant storefronts on Good Hope Road SE in which it was installed. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development owns four derelict buildings, including the ones hosting the 5×5 installation, and a vacant lot at the corner of Good Hope and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, the main intersection in a neighborhood that’s finally beginning to reduce vacancy and attract the type of retail residents have long sought. On the comment board, neighbors questioned the existence of the unused city-owned property that made the exhibit possible in the first place.

“Why is DHCD hoarding properties not developing them??” someone wrote.

“Stop lying to us DHCD!” another pleaded.

Someone taped up maps of the city, circling the area east of the Anacostia River that includes Anacostia and adding the labels “lots of subsidized housing” and “little development.”

Even Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry got in on the action, albeit not with a marker. In a Sept. 11 email to DHCD Director Michael Kelly (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request), Barry slammed the “‘so called’ despicable art work” and requested a community meeting within two weeks to gain public input into the site’s development. “I would also like for DHCD to issue a Request for Proposal for this site as soon as possible,” he wrote. “In addition, I would like a detailed short term plan for the properties.”

By the agency’s count, DHCD owns 36 properties in the Historic Anacostia area, most of which are vacant or blighted and in need of substantial rehabilitation. (Out of about 550 total buildings in the historic district, approximately 10 are listed as blighted in a data set released by the city earlier this year.) Some are high profile, like the Good Hope storefronts and the Big K site on Martin Luther King that’s slated to become a major mixed-use development but has been held up by historic preservation concerns. Others are single-family houses scattered through the neighborhood that DHCD acquired after they fell behind on taxes or repairs but has yet to fix up or sell to private owners. Walking or driving around the neighborhood, it feels like you can’t go a block without encountering a “Department of Housing and Community Development: No Trespassing or Dumping” sign.

DHCD isn’t the only city agency with vacant sites in Anacostia. The Department of General Services controls the vacant lot that wraps around DHCD’s headquarters at the corner of Martin Luther King and Good Hope. That space is designated for the future rebuilt Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, but only after it moves from its current U Street NW location as part of the proposed D.C. United stadium deal being negotiated by the city administrator’s office—a process that could leave the Anacostia lot vacant for years to come.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development controls the burned-out three-storefront facade across the street at 1909-1913 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, which the office calls “a gateway into Anacostia and the community’s retail district.” DMPED and the D.C. Housing Authority removed the property’s collapsed roof and interior walls in 2008 in an effort to stabilize it, and it’s sat vacant since. Last December, DMPED issued a solicitation for developers interested in rebuilding there. Responses were due in March, and only one developer submitted a proposal. Evidently it wasn’t perfect, because DMPED aimed to select a developer this summer but still hasn’t awarded the rights. (A DMPED spokeswoman declined to say which company responded.)

Private developers and property owners have also sat on their share of vacant properties, waiting for the neighborhood’s value to rise before rebuilding while installing interim uses like surface parking and auto repair. But privately owned vacancies have begun to decline as retailers move in. The shuttered Big Chair Coffee and Grill and Uniontown Bar & Grill have both reopened under new management, providing sit-down dining options in a neighborhood that once had hardly any. A Busboys and Poets restaurant—a signifier of rising fortunes in the other neighborhoods where the growing local chain has set up shop—is reportedly on its way to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, taking the place of a long-defunct furniture store. Homeowners and investors are sprucing up the attractive but neglected houses that line the neighborhood’s side streets.

And so some neighbors, comparing private initiative to public foot-dragging, see the city itself as the source of much of the inertia preventing Anacostia from taking its next big step.

“I think DHCD is worse [than private property owners], as a government agency and someone who could actually do the work,” says Greta Fuller, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for much of Anacostia and a leading voice in the push for neighborhood-serving development. “And they’re not. It’s not like they don’t have the money.”

Kelly says he understands neighbors’ frustration, but contends it’s not fair to place responsibility for the vacancy problems at his feet. “I think it’s kind of the opposite,” Kelly argues. “We’re in the business of neighborhood development. We acquire properties that have gone through, for whatever reason, tax issues or issues of mismanagement. We actually go out of our way to get the properties that have been blighted.”

After acquiring properties, DCHD must address any safety risks and work out their financing and usage planning before putting them out for bids. It also sometimes holds onto properties in an effort to package them with adjacent ones to attract bids to develop them for their “highest and best use.” That’s why, four years after DHCD bought the two corner lots at Martin Luther King and Good Hope from Union Temple Baptist Church pastor and former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, it still hasn’t issued a solicitation for the properties: It was waiting until it acquired the three adjacent lots—the ones that hold the 5×5 project—last year before bundling them together in a solicitation it plans to release early next year.

Of DHCD’s inventory of 36 Anacostia properties, the agency has issued a development solicitation for just one, a vacant lot on Hunter Place SE. Kelly expects another seven solicitations to go out in the next few weeks, followed by five in the winter and four next spring. But that’ll still leave 19 on the rolls—assuming the District doesn’t acquire any new ones.

“All that stuff is in the can right now,” says Kelly. “We’re just waiting to get it out the door.” The wait, he explains, is due to limited “administrative capacity,” which makes it impossible to process too many solicitations and bids at once.

Duane Gautier, president of ARCH Development Corporation, an Anacostia-based organization that runs two neighborhood business incubators and has funded façade improvements through city grants, worries that vacancy is holding back Anacostia’s development at a time when the neighborhood is beginning to overcome negative stereotypes. “It is detrimental to attracting businesses who want to locate in Anacostia because they see these dilapidated vacant buildings,” Gautier says. “They’re so prominent when you enter Anacostia, these District-owned buildings. They just stick out there and say, ‘This is not an up-and-coming community.’”

Gautier has proposed to neighbors and DHCD that ARCH spruce up the windows of DCHD’s vacant storefronts and use them to display works by local artists until they’re ready for development. (Presumably he hopes for a better reaction than the 5×5 project got.) Gautier says he’d need $12,000 from the city to bring the spaces up to code and $1,000 a month to manage them; all profits from the art sales would go directly to the artists, minus the sales tax the city would collect. Fuller likes the proposal (“Anything’s better than looking at trash every day,” she says), and Kelly says he’s open to something along those lines, although he hasn’t specifically responded to the idea.

For now, the 5×5 installation remains—the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities announced last month it would remove it but reversed course a week later, before D.C. fire authorities deemed it a hazard this week and ordered its removal—but the protest sheet doesn’t. Sometime late last week, it was taken down. By whom, no one seems to know. Both DHCD and DCCAH deny any role. Graffiti on the DMPED storefronts across the street (“Save Historic Anacostia” and “Stop the blight”) has likewise been scrubbed. The frustration persists, but the outward signs of it are gone.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery