Realtor Amy Levin of Girl Built points out her and her business partner's vision to transform Euclid Alley in Columbia Heights.
Realtor Amy Levin of Girl Built points out her and her business partner's vision to transform Euclid Alley in Columbia Heights. Credit: Ambar Castillo

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If an alley near your home could become anything you wanted, would you picture urban agriculture, mixed-use residential space, or a multi-use area? This was the question of the afternoon for attendees at the Washington Alley Project AlleyHop tour in Columbia Heights yesterday. The tours are part of an initiative to steep residents in the history of D.C. alleys, challenge them to see alleys in new ways, and drive them to advocate for alley equity. Divergent thinking around these spaces could help with the D.C. housing situation and displacement, according to project leaders.  

“A lot of District residents aren’t aware of the fact that they can develop their alley frontage, which can be a financial tool … for helping people stay in their homes,” says Elizabeth Emerson, one of WAP’s co-founders.  

The project is the brainchild of Emerson and Mark Lawrence, alumni of The Catholic University of America’s architecture and urban planning program who bonded over freshman studio. They kept in touch over the years while studying and working in different cities. More than a decade later, after co-teaching a summer course on metropolis design and planning at their alma mater, Emerson and Lawrence got serious about research. They set up peer reviews with folks in both the academic and practical design worlds. When a well-meaning guy at one of their presentations asked them how they know anyone in the District cares, they stepped up their game: Enter WAP, which Emerson says has “tendrils” sticking out at the intersections of advocacy, community engagement, and collaboration with nonprofits. 

The EL Studio team has partnered with the D.C. Preservation League on the two most recent tours to focus more on history and cultural impact. At yesterday’s temporary AlleyHop home base at 775 Fairmont St. NW, visitors could glimpse Emerson and Lawrence’s foray into alley history through diagrams and pictures plastered on the warehouse walls. The duo has delved into the past of alleys, once beacons of “introductory housing,” then victims of an antebellum era of disrepair, later slipping into slum status and notoriety as crime sites. They highlight, too, the vibrant communities of low-income residents living in alleys all along to suggest possibilities for modern alley communities. 

On one of several 20-minute tours yesterday—closer to an hour-long meander for residents lost among empty alleyways—participants traipsed from the home base through Harvard Street, Columbia Road, Irving Street, and Lamont Street along Sherman Avenue NW to the furthest stop: North Columbia Heights Green. A few carried viewfinders, less bulky than the childhood toys they recalled, which showed 3-D images of what each alley could be. 

The Green was slated as the traditional agriculture alley option, but its keeper, Washington Parks & People Executive Director and President Steve Coleman, found the thought funny. 

“[EL Studio was] thinking this was a traditional community garden,” he told City Paper, chuckling. “It’s not exclusive, it’s not ‘first come, first serve.’ It’s not about the garden, it’s about growing community, it’s about equity, it’s about justice, it’s about kids learning, it’s about the whole cycle of life.” 

The cries of a baby attendee and of a bird flying above accompanied Coleman’s words. He pointed out persimmons and serviceberry growing in the garden and said hope, learning, and jobs were also cultivated there. Blue wheelbarrows lay face down by fruit trees. The nearby wooden roofed platform could be a stage and community performance space, Coleman said.  

Neon pink and aqua markers on the concrete led folks to the second site, Williams Alley. The brick building, a car garage partially converted into a two-story office space, could be a mixed-use residential spot: It had room for a future retail storefront and parking garage while still giving residents access to sunlight, according to EL Studio viewfinder projections. There were no impassioned speakers here, so attendees ambled along after a few glances at the brick walls and clashing modernist design on the floor above and a peek inside the side windows of the shuttered space.      

The final site, Euclid Alley, made up for the last, matching Coleman in zest but with another flavor. Coleman’s dreams of green aren’t those of realtor Amy Levin. She sees alleys as the answer to the city’s housing crisis, not another uninhabitable space. 

“I’m actually very anti green space in places like this, because I think it’s where housing should be,” Levin told City Paper. “I mean, we have lots of parks and we have a very green city here—there are places that … are naturally green spaces that are not buildable.”

Levin is more open to community gardens on top of alley rowhouses: “I think when zoning allows for it, that same squareage of green space … could be contained on the roof,” she said.  “And while it’s not community access, it still provides the same ecological benefits.”

Levin’s vision, together with that of Girl Built development partner Jackie Fernandes, is to convert the empty four-lot parcel they bought in September last year and five other lots on the row into eight or nine residences. Fernandes, who hails from Suriname and worked in design and real estate in Miami, likened the collaboration involved in transforming the space to the kind you find on a movie set: “It’s a whole group of people that make a building … come to life,” she said.     

Fernandes also sees the stark contrasts in old and new architecture, high and lax regulation, between cities like Miami and D.C. Buildings from the 1930s and 1940s, deemed old in South Florida, would be considered new in D.C., where 1800s architecture is common, she says. The need to preserve this older architecture in part gives way to a more regulated system for development in the District.  

It’s not the only factor: “The whole reason that the capital exists is to create a place of governance,” Emerson says. “So we’ve lived in a very regulated urban environment.” Even outside federal hotspots, if you own a property in D.C. and want to make a change to your house, you likely have to get approval from the National Capital Planning Commission, she says. 

“There’s so many layers of regulation and governance in our built environment that I think people in D.C. gravitate towards alleys, because it’s the place where they can let their hair down,” Emerson says. “The unseen part of the city that’s kind of taken away from the regulation and the heavily, heavily observed urban corridors of the city. And it’s where you get glimpses of real daily life … People like that texture, they like that animation.” 

Emerson says D.C. residents dig informal spaces like allies, the art so unregulated relative to the rest of the city fabric.

“Washingtonians are really attached to their alleys,” Emerson says. “There are no alleys, no leftover space … in a metropolis [like] New York City, whereas the District has a little bit more of this kind of loose fit … like baggy jeans.”

At the end of the event, attendees’ verdict for the alley vision was clear: Colorful voting dots on chart paper declared “Agriculture & Studios” the winner. While not all participants cast their vote (this City Paper reporter, for instance, abstained), residents, the dots show, weren’t on Coleman or Levin’s side of the vision. They meet mostly in the middle of the alley. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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