There are two possible viewpoints on the new pedestrian path that traverses the old Convention Center site: That it’s a little ridiculous, or that its ridiculousness is kind of cool.
Actually, there’s probably a third opinion, representing the entity that planned and bankrolled the project: the D.C. government. But that assessment is a closely guarded secret. (More about this later.)
Officially, the path is the 10th Street Art Walk, since it follows the course of what was 10th before that thoroughfare was closed to build the now-demolished convention center, which opened in 1982 and came down in 2004. The trail is made of blue and green tile and incorporates plantings, patches of what looks like Astroturf, and glittery gravel that looks as if it might have come from the bottom of somebody’s fish tank.
For part of its length, the walk is flanked by billboard-like structures, which for no apparent reason slant inward. On the outside, these spell out the word “metamorphosis”—the sort of aesthetic concept that resonates with real-estate developers. On the inside, the frames hold artworks by Val Lewton, Joey P. Manlapaz, Leslie A. Cohen, and nine others. These range from abstractions to an composition of low-scale D.C. streetfronts that resemble the structures demolished to build the center.
“Art Walk is an example of how art can transform the mundane into an exciting aesthetic experience,” Mayor Tony Williams blandly explains in the city’s official statement, a four-paragraph May 2 press release.
The walk stops well short of being exciting, but it does add some interest to the vast lot, which is otherwise devoted to parking. In a neighborhood devoted primarily to “the three As“—attorneys, accountants, and associations, not artists, architects, and aestheticians—the sudden eruption of art and color seems almost zany. This unexpected playfulness draws people in, which is essential, because otherwise the path would be unoccupied. There’s no real reason to walk the Walk, save to walk it. The path doesn’t lead anywhere, except symbolically—and the symbolic route is simply to more unimaginative downtown redevelopment.
The city has big dreams for the old convention center site, which it hopes to cram with a lot of the stuff it forgot to include in the redevelopment of the once-major downtown shopping district directly south of the site. Of course, not everything is going to fit, especially since D.C.’s dealmakers traded away part of the land to the Kingdon Gould family in exchange for property to build a huge hotel closer to the new convention center. And there’s a decided lack of enthusiasm in the community for one of the development’s proposed ingredients, a new main library; it’s touted as a grand central civic monument, even though it will be smaller than the existing Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and hidden in a mixed-used structure on the New York Avenue side of the plot, which is its Siberia.
The battle over redeveloping the site will probably last for years, especially since most of the project’s advocates are already gone (former Office of Planning director Andrew Altman) or on their way out (Williams). Still, it’s likely that the place will ultimately be just another downtown disappointment. And that the 10th Street Art Walk will be remembered as a bit of whimsy that led to the more of the unwhimsical same.
FOOTNOTE: Under Williams, the always secretive D.C. government has become even more Stalinist in its control of public information about public projects funded with public money. I started my quest for facts about the Art Walk at the Convention Center Authority, which referred me to Stephen Kitterman, an Art Walk construction manager who works for McKissack & McKissack D.C. He led me to the May 2 press release, and to Rachel Dickerson at the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities. She said she couldn’t talk to me without the permission of her boss, Tony Gittens. I called Gittens—who’ve I known for at least 15 years—several times, but never got a response. Then I phoned Vince Morris at the mayor’s office. He referred me to Valca Valentine at the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. She returned my calls twice, and told me that one Susan Linsky would call me. That still hasn’t happened.