Is D.C. still Chocolate City? Holly Bass doesn’t know. The poet and performance artist has lived here for 20 years, and much of what she first loved about the city—the friendly, talkative neighbors, the integration of races and cultures—has faded with influx of pricey coffee shops and condos. When she moved to D.C. after stints in California and New York, Bass reveled in the proliferation of black artists’ gatherings and social spaces. Now, she often finds herself the only black person at restaurants in her own neighborhood. (Bass lives on 16th Street NW across from Malcolm X Park, and shakes her head at newcomers who call it by its official but conspicuously white-washed name, Meridian Hill.)
For “Black Space,” an installation on view at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library through Feb. 26, Bass constructed a small house on a foundation cut in the District’s image. She first exhibited the piece at October’s (e)merge art fair at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, and stored it in pieces in the library’s third-floor stacks, which are closed to the public, until rebuilding it earlier in January in preparation for Black History Month. Part of the work of “Black Space” is in the conversations it starts: While Bass installed the piece with a small crew, wearing white jumpsuits marked with a black silhouette of D.C., she took frequent breaks to chat with inquisitive passersby, delaying the physical work.
The discussions that most interest Bass aren’t about D.C.’s shifting racial demographics, but about how the city can make everyone feel welcome in the changing city and preserve its black history and social customs. Paired with parties celebrating African-American culture and a panel on the current state of Chocolate City, “Black Space” will be a month-long home for learning about D.C.’s past and confronting important, uncomfortable questions about its future.
Bass was inspired in part by the “tiny house” movement. It’s ironic, she says, that the tiny house bandwagon has been mainly driven by wealthy white people when the concept holds the most promise for lower-income residents. Moving “Black Space” from a schmancy art fair to a free public space that’s frequented by local homeless people drives that point home—some have even asked her, half-jokingly, if they could move in. The house, loosely modeled after the architecture of LeDroit Park and the shotgun house in Georgia where Bass’ father grew up, has only three walls; where the city meets the Potomac, a corrugated sheet of metal mimics the river’s bends.
Bass burned a diagram of the Metro map onto the house’s wooden floor. Outside the structure’s perimeter, on the floor of the library’s lobby, colored tape marks the Metro lines’ extension past D.C.’s borders. With crates, a broom, and a basket, the house’s porch looks like that of the Southern ancestors of many D.C. residents. Bass found the crates at Eastern Market.
Photos of black life in midcentury D.C. from the library’s Washingtoniana collection line the wall outside the house, and will be hung inside as family portraits.