Two weekends ago, something happened in Anacostia that nobody could remember in recent memory: The streets were full of people. White people. On a Saturday.

They came on bicycles and parked at a bike valet, gallery hopped along Good Hope Road SE, browsed vintage clothing, lined up at food trucks, smoked cigarettes while listening to jazz by a roll-down garage door. Busboys & Poets served vegan wraps and espresso inside a giant warehouse on Shannon Place, where makeshift bars hawked Yuengling and mimosas. On the roof sat a wood and aluminum assemblage that, from the street, resembled a UFO.

The next Saturday, the streets were quiet again. That night, however, the hipsters returned in even greater numbers, delivered on chartered school buses from Dupont Circle and streaming over from the Anacostia Metro station, for a corporate-sponsored art party. It was all part of a three-month-long arts event series called LUMEN8Anacostia, funded by a grant from a national nonprofit and put on by D.C.’s Office of Planning. The goal: Focus a ton of attention on a neighborhood usually thought of as too remote, too dangerous, and too empty to be worth a visit.

“We’ve gotten unbelievable publicity, unbelievable positive publicity,” says ARCH Development president Duane Gautier, who has put on gallery openings in Anacostia for years, but never with this level of buzz. “Our goal is to bring seven new art venues in the next three years to Anacostia. If we can do that, instead of Adams Morgan, people start going to Anacostia, because there is such a critical mass of things to do.”

Can a few days’ use of a warehouse that’s supposed to be turned into an office building* soon actually have that kind of effect? Not by itself—Anacostia will need the critical mass of stuff to do what Gautier mentions, and that takes a lot more than a party. But such are the hopes for temporary projects in the District, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into putting them on in old library kiosks, unleased commercial buildings, and empty lots around the city. Private groups have caught on, to the point where vacancy is seen as an opportunity, and permanence is seen as optional.

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The District, despite its recent investment in temporary projects, is a late adopter of a national trend. The “lighter, faster, cheaper” movement got rolling in the depths of the recession, as money for new buildings dried up and cities with dead cores tried to liven up empty lots and vacant storefronts. At the same time, cities started to look for ways to prioritize people over cars, like Park(ing) Day in San Francisco, where guerilla urbanists rent a parking spot and fill it with turf and lawn furniture.

Washington, by contrast, is seen as complete, with temporary installations only threatening to mar its landscapes; layer upon layer of regulatory review protects downtown from anything remotely undignified. D.C.’s budget rules say capital dollars aren’t supposed to be spent on things that won’t last longer than five years, which slowed down some projects.

But lately, that slowness has caused a certain impatience: Can’t we make something happen here, if only for a little while? That impulse has recently led to two makeshift architecture projects. A stalled development site across from Nationals Park has been ringed in dozens of shipping containers to create a venue called the Fairgrounds, where fans can drink and listen to bands before the game. It’s technically “temporary,” occupying the space on a month-to-month lease, but they’re in no rush: A similar setup in Brooklyn has won accolades for its design and function as a retail space. Organizers are soliciting large banner ads for the sides of the containers, which would make it even more worth their while to keep them around.

The second project will need just three shipping containers, which retail online for around $3,000 each. Developer Jim Abdo has leased a narrow lot on U Street NW to local entertainment impresarios Ian and Eric Hilton, who are planning a semi-enclosed, year-round bar with a take-out window. The Historic Preservation Review Board, which reviewed the plans because the site is in the Greater U Street historic district, was suspicious—mostly because there was no time limit on its tenure. “We don’t have any way to say how long temporary is,” board member Nancy Metzger told the architect during a hearing last month. “After three years? Four years? I’m really kind of scared about this as a precedent-setting case.”

Eventually, the board approved it anyway. And rightly so: After all, for people walking by, is a bar made out of “dropped-off spaces”—as another board member put it—any less real than one made of bricks? Just look at the park the city put on the site of the old Bruce Monroe school on Georgia Avenue, when it looked like building a new development would take years. It’s now a neighborhood gathering space that few would like to see vanish.

The other fundamental impulse behind temporary projects is what motivated LUMEN8Anacostia: changing the perception of a neighborhood, and allowing it to try on a different identity. “It engages people in a geography,” says D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. “It leaves a burn image, even after it’s gone. It opens up a whole different set of possibilities for the people who live there, the people who might want to live there.” Temporary projects often encounter less opposition, too. “As long as you promise it’s temporary, you can do almost anything you want,” Tregoning says. “You get to say to people, if you don’t like it, it’s gone.”

Besides LUMEN8, another temporary art project has popped up miles north of downtown, at 14th Street and Colorado Avenue NW, which the Office of Planning has pinpointed as a future “arts cluster” around a welcoming new plaza. Until that plaza can be built, however, the agency wants to get residents used to hanging out in a space that’s now a right-turn lane. So on Saturday morning, a San Francisco-based group called Rebar chalked out bright concentric circles on the ground and residents filled them in with bright, water-soluble paint. At a design brainstorm session later, they made cardboard models of street furniture that could go on a wide sidewalk, which Rebar will take back to its studio to help develop prototypes. The idea: Neighbors can feel what the changes might mean, even though it may take years to implement.

The city is setting an example, and now it needs to help residents follow its lead. Why can’t we get a temporary certificate of occupancy for buildings more easily than a permanent one, or request permission to paint a mural on the street, or check a database of property owners to work out interim uses on empty lots? These projects make the urban environment more comfortable, useful, and cared for—the kinds of places where people want to stay and live, rather than fleeing to the suburbs. Washington is evolving too fast, after all, for its brick-and-mortar buildings to keep up.


* CORRECTION, April 28 – A previous version said that the warehouse will be torn down, when in fact it will be partially demolished and re-skinned with glass.

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery, bottom ones by Lydia DePillis

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