Browsing Category

Local History

Local author explores varied responses to gentrification in her oral history of DC’s Shaw, LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods

By Dylan Klempner

 This article was first published in The DC Line here.

What does gentrification feel like? 

The answer is complex, it’s safe to say. Perspective matters. If you have been displaced or if the neighborhood you grew up in is no longer recognizable, maybe you feel anger and resentment. If you are a developer who made a profit from condominiums you sold, maybe you feel satisfied. If you’ve cashed out the equity in your home after seeing the area you used to consider run-down and crime-ridden become vibrant and safer, maybe you feel some mix of relief and pride — or if you’ve stayed, maybe you feel annoyed by the new residents who don’t bother to say “hi” when they pass you on the sidewalk. If you just moved into a gentrified area, maybe you feel fulfilled in having found a hip neighborhood with all the amenities you wanted. 

These and other complicated emotions are expressed in Shaw, LeDroit Park & Bloomingdale in Washington, D.C.: An Oral History by Shilpi Malinowski. Published last October, her book examines what it feels like to live in a gentrified community. Malinowski, who lives in the area she writes about, focuses on the thoughts and feelings of 13 neighbors, blending their narratives with her own. A reflective narrator and effective interviewer, she gets her neighbors to open up about their closely held reactions, emotions and beliefs. Together, the 14 of them consider gentrification’s impact by discussing a wide range of topics including displacement, crime, public education and politics.

In 2011, Malinowski and her husband bought a four-bedroom home that had been divided into two two-bedroom units. It was their first experience as homebuyers. As a condition of the sale, the prior owner — who also rented out several other properties in the neighborhood — stipulated that her downstairs tenant, a single mother, would not be evicted. The couple agreed to the terms, and the tenant remained until 2018. 

But another tenant — also a single mother — lived in the unit that the author and her husband eventually occupied. She was displaced. “I am still unsure of how I feel about that series of events,” writes Malinowski. She now understands that a key part of gentrification-related displacement occurs when owners sell their houses and evict their tenants. But she didn’t realize that at the time. The memory prompts a sequence of soul-searching questions: “Were we forgiven because we had at least maintained one unit of affordable rental housing in the neighborhood? Who was responsible? What would have been the most just series of events?” 

She is still trying to answer these questions, she writes, allowing that their decision to move to the Bloomingdale neighborhood was based on feelings of excitement about the area’s advantages. “We moved into a thumping neighborhood.” She lists its highlights, including the Sunday farmers market, busy sidewalks and Big Bear Cafe. 

Gentrification’s most devastating impacts are experienced by those least capable to deal with them, yet the thoughts and feelings of the displaced are largely missing from Malinowski’s book. It feels like an oversight. Did the author attempt to interview the single mother she and her husband displaced? Would hearing her voice now have helped the author answer her questions and deepen her understanding of her place in the neighborhood and her role in the gentrification process?

Greg Mason’s story of partial displacement provides the book’s best opportunity to portray the feelings associated with what Malinowski refers to as gentrification displacement. Mason, who is Black, was born in Shaw in 1956 and lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. He reminisces about its “family atmosphere,” when crime was low and he and the other children got 5-cent ice cream cones from Mr. Palmer’s and were offered free bags of day-old cupcakes and pies from the Wonder Bread Bakery on Georgia Avenue NW. In 2000, after experiencing a series of losses, including the deaths of his brother, father and mother, Mason received support from his neighbors — including the local drug dealers: “Everybody surrounded me. Everybody came together, you know. ‘We got to look out for Mason.’” 

But members of Mason’s family fought him in court for ownership of his home. After a five-year battle, Mason lost the property. “I didn’t have the money to buy them out,” he tells Malinowski. He lived in his SUV for a year. Now he lives “a few blocks east of his childhood home” while maintaining a constant presence in the neighborhood. Owing, it seems, to Mason’s fortitude and deeply held commitment to the property, subsequent owners of the house have allowed him to take care of the rose bushes his mother planted 70 years earlier. “When I come in here and work on the rose bushes, I’m at peace,” says Mason.  

Nick Grube and Christina Papanicolaou, who are white, currently own Mason’s childhood home, which they purchased in 2020 for $1.3 million. Malinowski writes that they have “a relationship with Mason and complex feelings about how they ended up in that home and what their responsibilities are.” Papanicolaou says that she and her husband are “hyperaware” that they are gentrifiers. As a result, she feels “self-conscious” as well as a sense of “guilt.” She says “gentrification is a lot like colonization.” After taking land and resources from local inhabitants, “you are depleting the culture of what was originally here.” Her solutions: “Be respectful to the people that live here and that are originally from here.” Grube, her husband, says growing up in Hawaii taught him about being respectful. Those who are oblivious to their surroundings are disrespectful, he says. “You’re using the place rather than being a part of it. You’re extracting.” Papanicolaou wants to do more for the community but comes across as overwhelmed and dissatisfied with the options she is aware of. “How can we give back in some kind of way — or at least shop with local businesses? And I don’t know, support local music or culture? I don’t know. Do we give mutual aid donations? I don’t know.”  

In a recurring topic throughout the book, Malinowski and her neighbors seek to understand diversity and integration in their community through discussions about their children’s education. The author writes that the diversity of her children’s school, Seaton Elementary, was a “huge plus.” Her husband is white, and she describes herself as a “relatively privileged South Asian American” used to navigating majority-white spaces as a racial minority. At the same time, with her parents having immigrated to the United States, she “feels huge amounts of tenderness, empathy and similarity with immigrants who are putting their kids in the public school system as a path to success.” 

Public education also appears to reveal the extent to which the community really is integrated. Seaton has racial and language diversity, and it is designated as Title 1, meaning more than 40% of the students are from low-income families. For most of the parents, there was more integration in the school than they had ever experienced, she writes. Yet the parents themselves tended to self-segregate: “People of the same race often clustered together.” 

Using a more scientific approach, Derek Hyra’s 2017 book Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City reveals that beyond reduced instances of crime, few advantages ever reach low-income people who stay in gentrified areas. Hyra, an American University professor and founding director of its Metropolitan Policy Center, spoke with 60 residents and community stakeholders in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood between 2009 and 2014. He found that longtime residents often lose political positions and cultural roles, and they tend to feel they’ve lost their community. “Few deep, meaningful interactions occur across racial and income divisions,” writes Hyra, who is white. He calls the phenomenon “micro-segregation.” 

Particularly given the geographic overlap, it’s a bit surprising that Malinowski doesn’t mention Hyra’s work.

In Malinowski’s book, her African American neighbors describe their thoughts and feelings about diversity and integration. Longtime residents such as Leroy Thorpe and Michelle Carthen offer varied reactions to the changes they’ve experienced, including a sense of lost culture and political power. 

Thorpe served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner from 1986 to 2006, and a key tenet of his tenure was fulfilling his pledge to rid the area of open-air drug markets and crack houses. “And I did,” he says. As an ANC commissioner, he fought for the interests of the neighborhood’s Black residents. He grilled businesses that appeared before the neighborhood commission: “Are you going to provide jobs for the people?” Thorpe saw gentrification coming. One signal: As white people moved into the neighborhood, his share of the vote in ANC elections decreased. Mindful of the changes ahead and the likelihood of displacement, he bought a house in the neighborhood in 1998 and encouraged other Black people to do the same. “Property values are going to go up; you better get a house right now,” he told them. 

Thorpe told Malinowski that he sometimes feels out of place in his own neighborhood. White people often try to control the economics, politics and education of an area, he says. “I feel that the White folks around here look at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’” They don’t realize that the neighborhood is safer because of his work in shutting down the crack houses and open-air drug markets. Thorpe decries other unwelcome changes that came with gentrification. Black people lost their culture, he says. “There are no clubs.” The places where Black kids played are now dog parks. He also sees a segregated DC. White and Black people don’t hang out, he says, unless they are “high society, when these people are the head of a company or a politician, but there is no socialization.”

Carthen, who attended a local elementary school in the 1970s, says her oldest son was born during the city’s crack epidemic. In parenting her two boys, Carthen says she had “five pillars: I wanted them to get out of the city alive, drug-free, baby-free, disease-free and record-free.” Both of her sons went to college on scholarships. “It was hard because, in order to do that, you have to give up yourself — you have to give up your life.” Today, her boys, who grew up in the neighborhood, feel as though people look at them as if they don’t belong when they come to see her. While she says she is glad she stayed, she has mixed feelings about the neighborhood: “It doesn’t feel like a community anymore. It just feels like a place where we live.” 

Of all the people Malinowski interviewed, Gretchen Wharton has lived in this part of the District the longest. Born in 1946, she has called the neighborhood home ever since. Now retired, she is a member of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and chairs the board of directors for Shaw Main Streets, a nonprofit whose mission is to revitalize business corridors in Shaw. She welcomes some of the changes that have occurred over the past 15 years, including seeing people feeling safe enough to walk the streets. “Community is what makes you feel good about where you live and what makes you want to stay there and make it grow,” she says. But she also sees evidence of DC’s racial divide: “The decision making/power play role has always been at the behest of Caucasians.”

Creating more equitable and just outcomes for longtime residents in gentrifying areas requires intentional policies that protect their ability to stay and thrive for years to come, according to Hyra. In his book, he recommends that communities preserve affordable housing and small businesses while also helping low- and moderate-income residents obtain living-wage jobs and retain positions in local governance. He further proposes that neighborhoods establish “third spaces” — places where people of mixed incomes can come together for shared activities. 

Through listening and recording her neighbors’ thoughts and feelings, Malinowski has created a literary “third space” of sorts. She writes of her hope that readers will “feel liberated to come up with their own understanding of life in our gentrified neighborhood.” Her volume of candid oral histories and personal narrative offers an opportunity for reflection and invites readers to consider their own views of gentrification, whether or not they live in Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park and Shaw.

Shaw, LeDroit Park & Bloomingdale in Washington, D.C.: An Oral History by Shilpi Malinowski (160 pages, $21.99) was published in October 2021 by The History Press as part of its American Heritage series.

This article was produced in conjunction with Day Eight’s February 2022 conference on “The Crisis in Book Review.” The DC Line worked with conference organizers on the New Book Reviewer Project, an initiative to grow the cohort of qualified local book reviewers. Dylan Klempner is one of eight writers assigned as part of the conference to write a review for The DC Line or the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Award-winning playwright Adrienne Kennedy debuts new play in upcoming festival

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published November 2, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

When I first encountered Adrienne Kennedy, through her Obie award winning 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro as a student in graduate school, I was surprised I had never heard of her. After all, I had studied Theatre and English literature as an undergraduate, attended a woman’s college, and completed a great deal of coursework featuring female playwrights. Yet here was this Black woman writing experimental, challenging theatrical work in the 1960s, and I was not familiar with her.

While the Black Arts Movement is known primarily for names such as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Sonia Sanchez, Kennedy is rarely included in this esteemed list. Despite her numerous career achievements in theatre, her creative collaboration with theatre giants such as Edward Albee, and the inclusion of her work in university classrooms, one would be hard-pressed to find her plays receiving full productions in regional theatres. Even though I have read her plays and written on them for courses, I have never even heard Kennedy’s words out loud, let alone experienced a full production.

Knowing that there were many people out there who also had never even heard of Adrienne Kennedy, let alone ever read or seen her work, Nicole A. Watson, former associate artistic director of Round House Theatre and incoming associate artistic director at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, sought to change that. Two years prior, Watson directed a staged reading of Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber at Shakespeare Theatre Company for its ReDiscovery Series, a program designed to introduce audiences to lesser-known playwrights. “It got me thinking,” Watson recalls, “Why wasn’t I directing her work? Or anybody?” An audience member during the talkback also asked the same question, further clarifying that this was a dearth that needed to be rectified.

And then, in March, the theatres shut down. In a discussion with another black woman about the state of theatre, Watson remembered saying, “We’re not bound by the things that go into a season selection.” The unprecedented amount of uncertainty accompanying the impact of the pandemic on the global theatre industry is certainly enough to be anxiety-inducing for theatre artists and professionals everywhere. But Watson considers that there is “a freedom in this moment to rethink” and that freedom led her to proposing the idea of a way to celebrate and produce Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Noting that her plays are “real, visual, and poetic,” Watson recognized that it could be interesting to produce Kennedy in the virtual platforms as they lend themselves to the form well.

Thus, “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence” was born. A partnership between Round House Theatre Company and McCarter Theatre Center, the virtual festival features four of Kennedy’s plays: He Brought Her Heart in a Box, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Ohio State Murders, and Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. Directors include Raymond O. Caldwell, Valerie Curtis-Newton, Timothy Douglas, and Watson herself.

Watson was drawn to He Brought Her Heart in a Box because of its timeliness for our current political and social moment. “In a time where we’re really being asked to examine our thinking and the way in which our thinking (or someone else’s historical thinking) has influenced racist institutions and white supremacy, to have [Kennedy] render that theatrically in such a direct way, I was so struck by it,” Watson remarked, also noting how Kennedy’s work is forward-thinking. One of the plays, Etta and Ella, marks the world premiere for the 89-year old playwright. Watson emphasized the decision was made to highlight this new work and its lyrical and incisive language, a trademark of Kennedy’s plays.

Another of the plays, Sleep Deprivation Chamber—which Kennedy co-wrote with her son, Adam Kennedy—has a timely and painful geographic relevance: the play details Adam’s personal experience with police brutality at the hands of the Arlington Police Department. Watson believes that this play had to be included, especially since Round House is located in a part of the DMV theatre community.

Watson sees it as the perfect bridge between her closing chapter at Round House and her new position at McCarter, which is funded by a BOLD grant for female-identifying leaders. But the partnership also has benefits for both theaters, which includes the reach to a wider audience, leading to more people being exposed to Kennedy’s life and work. Noting that it “allows for a different kind of access,” this is an opportunity to really demonstrate the importance of Adrienne Kennedy in the theatrical world. “For me, it feels like a huge gift,” Watson says.

4615 Theatre creates a museum of the future for museum 2040

A headshot of Jordan Friend.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published March 3, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Starting this week, Washington, DC is getting a new museum, and a different kind of immersive theatrical experience.

4615 Theatre’s upcoming production, Museum 2040, written by Renee Calarco and currently in its last few days of development by the cast and crew team at 4615, is set in a museum curated to highlight a domestic terror event that occurs in Washington, DC’s future, with exhibitions that detail the political atmosphere of the era.

Repurposing the northwest DC space Dance Loft on 14 to create The National Museum of American Reconciliation, the team behind 2040 is designing an entire museum wing, with audio-visual exhibitions, historical anecdotes, and TED-level talks being filmed, produced, and set up for display as part of the production.

Helming the project, 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend looks to the extraordinary future Calarco predicts: “It was the kernel for something extraordinary, but we knew history would be hot on our tail. We’ve spent the past year expanding it into something even more sprawling, terrifying and thrilling than before.”

Which means? The production team is trying to stay ahead of current events while extending out to the year 2040. In the midst of their rehearsal process script lines, exhibitions, and props are being altered based on what frenetic news as it hits. One example described by 4615’s production manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett, is how she thought about the exhibitions and props during the impeachment hearings and acquittal of President Donald Trump.

“Anything Trump related can be expected to change the day before or midway through the production,” Brooks-Bartlett says. A display may be removed or updated, news clips are constantly being added. “It’s a lot of designing as we go.”

The team behind the development of this museum of the future is still focused on creating a traditional immersive presentation of sorts, which they describe as ” providing dynamic historical interpretation of past events.” Their promotional strategy, however, is anything but traditional.

In the weeks leading up to opening, Friend has engaged in an acute marketing strategy, aiming to blend a little of the immersive experience that audiences can expect when they attend this performance. Social media has become their strongest asset. A website for The National Museum of American Reconciliation is up and running. They are offering walking tours of the National Mall of 2030 and other special events. A performance by Sean Harrison (Sean Chyun performing in character) was held at the Harp and Fiddle on February 20th.

Not content to stop there, the production invited small groups of audience members and individuals into their rehearsal process for a number of sessions they’ve dubbed as ‘Beta Testing.’ Picture a preview rehearsal weeks in advance, where actors get to practice their roles, improvising when necessary, among a live audience while they tour the exhibitions. Friend and the production team have been gathering feedback from the groups to continue to make changes.

Friend tells us what they learned from the Beta Testing:

“We had a lot of asks from the audience about what else exists in this [2040] world … For example, we had somebody ask “I wish I knew what happened to the Green New Deal?” and rather than go ‘Oh, we really should add something about this,’we instead go, ‘Ok, lets leave just a few more breadcrumbs about the climate, and then let people construct in their minds what that might imply’. That way, we aren’t just spoon feeding them with world-building, but we’re also identifying the place where people just need a little more of a lead.”

Going one step further, the 2040 team created the short film “I Am Simmons” which drops hints  while leaving breadcrumbs for the audiences.

For Calarco, a founding member of The Welders Playwrights Collective, this work is intended to be “unproducible,” impossible, and experimental” in any one specific iteration. When she first developed the piece in 2015, it was already clear that the news cycle would outpace the vision for for the future.

“By June 2016, Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and by January 20, 2017, it was clear that whatever scary fiction I’d invented might be exceeded by reality,” Calarco says.

“Another event is more recent,” Calarco says. “The emergence of the Coronavirus. There’s no mention of it in the play at the moment. As I’m answering this question, we’re five days from opening, so there’s theoretically time to add something.” “Stay tuned,” is a comment Friend and Calarco say often.

[Museum 2040] is a reckoning, not just with what is happening now, but with how we will choose to remember ourselves,” Friend says.

New Cleveland Park Library Exhibits Community’s Storied Past

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

When the Cleveland Park Library reopens its doors Saturday after two years and a $20 million rebuild, the sparkling-new facility will prominently display 10 glass panels that pay tribute to a neighborhood icon’s definitive work. These glass panels connect two generations of artists, and library supporters.

Construction of the new library at Connecticut Avenue and Macomb Street NW was a joint venture by Perkins Eastman Architecture and Gilbane Building Co. to replace an aging structure that debuted in 1953. The D.C. Public Library system’s data show the Cleveland Park branch to be the busiest neighborhood library in the city.

The story of the art within the new library starts with Catherine Cate Coblentz, who graduated from George Washington University in 1930 and went on to write 12 children’s books over the next 20 years. The most acclaimed of the dozen, “The Blue Cat of Castle Town,” earned Coblentz a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and a Newbery Honor. As Coblentz established herself as a noteworthy author, she also became deeply invested in raising funds for the parcel of land that would ultimately house the Cleveland Park Library, as explained in a branch history prepared by the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library in the 1990s.

Although Coblentz died before the 1953 opening, the Connecticut Avenue Citizens Association (now known as the Cleveland Park Citizens Association) recognized her contributions by commissioning 10 glass carvings for the library that would feature illustrations from her catalog of books. Harriton Carved Glass and then-partner Anthony D’Attilio created the carvings, which were placed in the original Cleveland Park Library. As time passed fewer people knew the story of the glass panels.

As the design team for the new Cleveland Park Library thought through ways to pay homage to the original library, Jill Bogard, the longtime president of the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library, had the idea to more prominently feature the glass panels. Bogard — like Coblentz, a lifelong resident of the Cleveland Park area and a staunch supporter of its library — went so far as to track down the son of the artist who had overseen the project.

“We should not forget the beauty and the importance of the past particularly as we face the future,” she said, explaining why she felt compelled to make sure Coblentz was honored in the new design she said.

Anthony D’Attilio’s son, Lawrence, is an artist who has worked in constructed photography, among other artistic mediums. He plans to visit the new Cleveland Park Library, where he’ll see a family legacy that stretches beyond his father. While his father was an important figure in the creation of the Coblentz panels, his uncles Dominick, Ralph and Phillip were also key contributors to the work that was produced by Harriton Carved Glass. Although he can’t make it to Saturday’s reopening, D’Attilio has committed to come back and share his knowledge of the subject of sandblasted glass and his family’s role in its development.

“The work done by Harriton Carved Glass walked that fine line between fine art and applied art,” Lawrence D’Attilio said in a recent interview. “It was fine art because of the process and what was produced, but it was also applied since the work started as window signs and had a very practical purpose.” As the doors reopen on Saturday to a brand-new facility that features conference rooms, study spaces and expandable meeting rooms–as well as the carved glass panels–the Cleveland Park Library is acknowledging and honoring its past and embracing what is on the horizon.