Last year, Byron Peck started picking up the pieces of his broken art: about 20 chunks of crumbling brick. He’s is one of the premier muralists in D.C., but almost every morning last year, he would pass construction workers tearing down the Ontario Theatre on Columbia Road and Ontario Street NW. The theater was coming down to make away for a new apartment building, and the mural—three vibrantly colored Macaws next to a Mayan-style skull and figures—was disappearing with it. Construction workers were kind enough to throw pieces of the mural on the sidewalk for Peck to scavenge.
Peck painted the piece after the 1991 riots in Mount Pleasant, when a police officer shot an El Salvadorian man. The shooting was a tipping point for what activists in D.C.’s Central American community say was their systematic marginalization; two nights of turmoil erupted across D.C. The riots became an iconic moment for that community, leading to reform and acknowledgement of the population’s growing presence in the District.
But Peck’s vanishing Macaws aren’t an isolated incident: Murals that depict the history and fabric of life in the District are being literally erased, and as public works of art like the one on the Ontario Theatre disappear, so are important expressions of neighborhood identities.
Since 2010, seven murals in the U Street NW area have been taken down or blocked from view by new construction. Two were blocked from view by apartments or buildings next door, two were removed when the building was torn down, and three have been removed at building owner(s) requests.
“The people with money have the capacity to drive out people who don’t have money. What is sad is that the people who come in tend to be like be Christopher Columbus and think that nothing happened before they came, and so there is a cultural loss with gentrification,” said Blair Ruble, author of Washington’s U Street: A Biography
On 13th and U streets NW, a mural reflecting on police brutality and multiculturalism will be covered by an eight story apartment building in 2017. The mural centers on Marvin Gaye belting out “What’s Going On,” a song the D.C. native wrote after witnessing police brutality on a tour stop in 1969.
“Everything about that album then, sadly, is still true today,” says Rik Freeman, the artist who painted the work.
Below Gaye are figures that highlight the ethnic mosaic of the District, and the red and yellow color Freeman used represents the 1968 riots that occurred in D.C. after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But almost immediately after the mural was completed in 1992, it was preserved for none to see—a strip mall next door blocked its view. Today, the natural enemy of murals are new, high-rise apartment buildings. Nearly 1,500 residential units are scheduled to be built or already under construction in the U Street area.
In 1995, McDonald’s sponsored Peck to paint murals in the U Street area. On 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, he painted scenes from the life of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who lived in D.C. But in 2002, the mural was blocked from view by an apartment complex that came within feet of the painting.
In the second half of the 20th century, U Street was a mecca for African-American culture. The draw of historically black Howard University and a vibrant local arts scene gave the area an air of counterculture and expression.
“To outsiders, it was a neighborhood of crime and violence, but people who knew the neighborhood were proud of its legacy,” said Ruble.
The opening of the U Street Metro station in 1992 jumpstarted an influx of new residents and a corresponding rise in home prices. The metro connected the neighborhood to other areas of the city and gave workers on K Street NW and Capitol Hill access to cheaper housing. White residents of U Street jumped from just 9 percent in 1990 to 61 percent in 2010, and the number of black residents in the same area dropped from 77 percent to 22 percent in the same time.
Experts say that gentrification isn’t just about money, but about an area’s psychology and cultural identity. The disappearance of historical figures like Douglass means U Street has become less welcoming to its historically black roots. Counterculture and expression have been replaced by high-rise apartment buildings and Whole Foods.
“In the past, building owners often wanted murals by an artist on their walls but today they would rather cover their walls with advertisements which pay them handsomely,” said Richard Haas, a muralist whose three-story painting of Abraham Lincoln across from Ford’s Theatre has been removed. “Muralists try to blend their paintings into an environment as much as appeasable through images and architecture. We try to tell a logical story about something larger than the city itself.”
The most famous of D.C. residents could be Duke Ellington, considered one of the greatest jazz artists of all time. Peck painted a mural of him across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl at the U Street Metro stop. It showed Ellington next to the keyboards that made him famous. It was torn down in 2011 after a piece of the mural came off due to wind shears, and the building owner took it down for safety concerns. Peck says that working with the city to recreate the mural has been difficult, but he is optimistic funding will come through—many residents have noticed the missing mural.
In the meantime, a faded advertisement has taken its place.