Q&A with Phil Hutinet: Illuminating Historic Anacostia

 

Arch Development Corporation, a not-for-profit community-based organization, put out a call for entries to implement "temporiums" and performances, as well as short videos, to revitalize storefronts and empty lots in Anacostia, a historic neighborhood in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C.

The 3- to 6-month projects will be launched at the one-day LUMEN8Anacostia festival on April 14.

The funding for LUMEN8Anacostia will be distributed by Arch Development by way of  the DC Office of Planning, which was recently awarded  a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace, a collaboration of foundations to "accelerate creative placemaking" in cities across the country. (Read our previous blog post about another ArtPlace-funded project, GOOD Ideas for Cities.)

A walking tour held on Saturday, February 4 introduced interested participants to the inventory of available spaces, including a business center, abandoned ice cream store and old police warehouse lot.

I spoke with Philip Hutinet, chief operating officer at Arch Development Corp. and editor-in-chief of local arts blog East City Art, to find out more about the project.

"The spirit of this is to transform spaces so that people can see the potential of these older business districts," he said.

He said he hopes the LUMEN8 festival will achieve in Anacostia what last year's H Street Festival made possible for the H Street corridor in northeast Washington. The one-day event, in which Hutinet participated in as the owner of local art galleries, convened people from all over the city to celebrate the opening of new businesses and the completion of a new streetscape project in the neighborhood.

Tell us a bit about Anacostia.

Anacostia is very different from a lot of neighborhoods in Washington. A lot of people believe that anything east of the river is Anacostia, but it's actually a very special neighborhood, originally called Uniontown, which was a predominantly working class neighborhood. Men would cross over the bridge and work at the Navy Yard. Over time, there were different neighborhoods surrounding Anacostia, up on the hills. The topography over here is fascinating; it really creates neighborhoods that are isolated from one another because of the slopes.

The death nail for this neighborhood was after the riots, when you had people who left their businesses and moved to Prince George's County, Fairfax County, Montgomery County. Compounding this problem was the building of I-295 in the early '70s. With large flyovers and overpasses, the traditional link between the Navy Yard and Anacostia had been severed.

Standing at 11th and M streets, all you see is this huge structure with lots of traffic with cars. It's a visual obstacle—you have no desire to cross M Street, as a pedestrian or motorist.

It's undergoing a major transformation. There is a new bridge that is being built—the 11th Street Bridge—that is going to take you from 11th Street on Capitol Hill directly into the heart of historic Anacostia. It's scheduled to be completed sometime this spring.

This bridge is opening up these two neighborhoods and reconnecting them once again.

Why is Anacostia special?

What makes this neighborhood different is that you have a waterfront that is completely wild. You have herons that hang out on the side of the banks; you have huge areas that are covered with wildflowers and other brush; you have gorgeous views of the city, including the Library of Congress, the Washington Monument, Yards Park. There's a beautiful bike path, and the hills are similar to what you would find in San Francisco.

You also have architecture that is unique to the neighborhood and wooden-frame homes. Frederick Douglass's mansion, Cedar Hill, is one of America's great homes, on par with Mount Vernon and Monticello, America's castles.

We're hoping that this festival will bring people over here, make people realize how wonderful this community is, and hopefully, we'll attract new businesses.

How are you going to measure the long-term success of the Lumen8 project?

We are going to provide participants with surveys to see how their experiences were. Arch Development Corp. has wonderful resources and owns a lot of properties. We don't have to worry about what's now happening on H Street, where smaller businesses are getting squeezed out in favor of higher paying tenants. Our long-term goal at Arch is to ensure that we have a vibrant arts and culture district.

What kind of project proposals do you hope will be submitted?

Part of being a good steward of  arts and culture is not to dictate or set a tone for artists, in terms of what we're looking for. I'm more concerned about the experiences than the actual content for the temporiums. I'm interested in having many different experiences, whether they're site-specific installations, boutiques to sell specific crafts, performance art, theater or music.

What makes art a good vehicle for social change?

The visual arts have become so inter-disciplinary. That movement really started in the late '80s and early '90s, whether you were studying literary criticism or art history or sociology, you read from the same texts and critical theory. We've come to a point now where it is assumed that the higher quality art exhibitions are going to have a component that includes social commentary or has some sort of socio-economic statement. However, we're not directly soliciting the public to make these sort of statements. We're trying to let the artists come up with their own agenda and let the creativity flow freely.

Describe some of your outreach efforts to engage local Anacostia residents.

We have a couple of people on our staff who are Ward 8 residents. We've already done community outreach meetings to invite the public from local neighborhoods to participate in the discussion of what they would like to see. If somebody wants a particular temporium space, and both proposals are comparable, we are going to give preference to Ward 8 residents.

We always do our due diligence when it comes to working with the community.

What are some of your metrics for success?

This festival is going to be a watershed moment and something we're planning to continue. We want it to go smoothly, we want to make sure that everybody has fun and it's a great experience and it's something we want to repeat in the future.

Turnout is important. I'm interested in seeing the feedback from the different artists, and specifically, on whose map will we show up? Maybe somebody will come to Lumen8, be really impressed with the neighborhood and what they see, and say they really want to set up their gallery, restaurant or shop, or maybe they'll even want to move over here and take a paintbrush to one of the boarded up houses and start fixing it up. That's a little bit more difficult to measure, but it's a small enough community that we could probably be able to get a good idea of the causal relationship between the festival and those sorts of outcomes.

The festival will no doubt bring in a lot of outsiders to Anacostia. How do you ensure that the neighborhood continues to evolve and grow, without losing its historic and cultural legacy?

That's a huge concern. One of the things we're going to do is plan a retreat. I really want to hear the voices of our Ward 8 staff. This neighborhood is going to grow and become revitalized in the next few years. How do we move forward, not making the same mistakes you have in other neighborhoods? For example, 8th Street SE on Barracks Row is a disaster. It's a restaurant monoculture where they serve sandwiches for $12, which is absolutely outrageous. A lot of restaurant owners could care less about the community because they have a lot of people coming in from other places. Renters are kicked to the curb because they have nowhere else to go. Artists get kicked out of their studios.

The issues of displacement, gentrification and restaurant monoculture, which destroyed 8th Street, are getting ready to destroy H Street. These are very big important questions, and it's not something I can answer in five minutes. These are things we constantly think about. It's not a static answer. It's an answer that's constantly moving and we constantly have to adapt to, and it's extremely sensitive.  I don't want us to end up like Barracks Row.

On the other hand, do you really want boarded up houses everywhere? Do you really want crack houses down the street? Obviously, you don't want that, but what's the other extreme? And how do you temper these things?

As an arts and culture organization, Arch Development  owns a lot of buildings over here, so we can steer the ship a little bit more in Anacostia, whereas on H Street, it's like a bunch of little city states fighting with one another, among the four or five people who own the property there. H Street is very long and big, so I'm hoping its size will keep it from being gentrified as quickly as Barracks Row was.

Over here, it's like a little village, but it could get overrun very quickly. There's tons of vacant lots, beautiful wooden-frame homes, completely rehabbed. There's room for new people...until there isn't.

To learn more about the project, visit the website, or follow updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out a slideshow of the available temporium spaces, presented during the walking tour on February 4 (photos by Robin Bell of BellVisuals):

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.