Monthly Archives: August 2011

Working to the Future

As the assistant to Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth’s Artistic Director, I spend a lot of time talking with Howard about his work, theatre, politics… you name it! Howard directed Clybourne Park, so as the show’s run is finishing up, I thought I’d talk to him about the play, his process… and what comes next. Thanks to my trusty cell phone ‘Voice Memo’ feature, here are some of the highlights of the conversation:

Clybourne Park’s two acts take place in the past (the late 50’s) and then the present day. Where do we go next? What is Clybourne’s view of the future?

Clybourne Park looks back over the last 50 years and raises the question: has the actual situation with respect to race changed in America, or have just the terms of the conversation changed? And it certainly is a pessimistic play. It suggests a territorial worldview, suggesting that the terms have changed, but the underlying issues are a fundamental part of human nature. So the question for the future is… will it change?

Personally, I think there’s lots of reason for optimism. There is a generational shift happening: as more and more Americans grow up in diverse communities, then some of the impulse to go, ‘I have to live with people like me – and nobody else!’ is actually dropping away.

You often talk about Clybourne as a challenge: it demands that we have a better dialogue than the play’s characters do. How did that influence the production’s design?

I wanted to position the play as a public conversation where we, the audience, were voyeuristically looking into this home – where a private conversation was taking place, but we would be invited to interpret it as a conversation happening right here, in the theater where we are today. And that’s what led to the seats on stage, the reorganization of our auditorium, the thrust shape of the stage, and sinking our stage so that the characters would right on top of the audience – almost in our laps!

Did the countless difficult topics of Clybourne – race, class, urban transformation, war – come up in your rehearsals?

That was so exciting. You couldn’t help but have the conversation the play wants you to have while working on the play. In rehearsals, we would have debates about the honest representation of our characters like, ‘A black woman in the 1950’s wouldn’t do x – or would she?’ ‘How can each character have both positive and negative elements in their portrayal?’ ‘How can we give each character their due?’

By the time we opened, we almost felt like citizen artists. In trying to do their roles as skillfully and honestly as possible, and in the post-show exchanges, the actors were able to share the conversation that they had developed over the four weeks of rehearsal.

Clybourne was, of course, a remount. Does it have any relationship with the upcoming apocalyptic-flavored season?

Last season, we really started to ask: how can we let a play serve as a platform for conversation? And I think that Clybourne Park is one of the plays that made us bolder in plunging into that conversation with our community. This season we’ve decided to get even more direct, asking our audience at the outset, “Does our civilization have an expiration date? And if so… what comes next?” All of our plays reflect on that question in a huge variety of ways.

Now that I’m thinking about it, even Clybourne Park ties into that question. The play underscores one of the disturbing aspects of human nature: the tendency to draw boundaries that keep people like us in and people not like us out. It suggests that no matter how we pretend to get beyond that in our language, there’s something in our nature that tends to draw those boundaries. That’s true in our neighborhoods, and in the wars we fight overseas. In that respect, it leads right into the question of “Does our civilization have an expiration date?” Clybourne also starts to form a response, even, asking: Do we have other things in us that we can celebrate? That might help us move forward, towards a more positive and surviving vision of our future – rather than one that grinds to a halt? So I think it will be fun to keep Clybourne Park in the back of our minds as we move into our new season.

~ Doug Eacho, Assistant to the Artistic Director

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Neighborhood Spotlight: Southwest Waterfront

Ok, so full disclosure here: Prior to my fabulous tenure here at Woolly, I was a Fellow in the Media Relations department at Arena Stage. I started last August, just about a week or two after the Arena staff moved into the new Mead Center for American Theater. The building was gorgeous, we were gearing up for exciting homecoming and opening gala festivities, and I got lost…A LOT. I actually remember my first week of work there was a Washingtonian photographer doing a photo shoot, and I was supposed to show him up to the costume shop and then down to the costume storage area. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, and hence was pretty embarrassed (I saw the same photographer again later in the season and he remembered the incident…sigh).

But anyway, my first day of work at Arena was also my first day ever going to Southwest DC. (And I was no newcomer to the city, having spent four years at GWU). I quickly realized that the Waterfront neighborhood of Southwest was this sort of wasteland—it took me forever to get there on the metro, and lunch options in the area? Forget it. For the entire time I worked there it was the Safeway at the metro stop, the Subway across the street…and that’s it. (Let alone it took 30 minutes to get a sandwich at either location, but that’s neither here nor there). While I’m a fan of Cantina Marina, that was virtually the only place around to grab a bite or a drink after work with coworkers, and it was only open in the warmer months of the year.

As my fellowship continued, we learned from staff members (and a huge feature in The Washington Post) about the plans for development in the neighborhood and some of the challenges faced, such as preserving Arena’s amazing views of the city, and making sure that any development in the area wouldn’t tamper with that. And progress has definitely been made: a new restaurant Station 4 has opened, The Washington Kastles tennis team opened a new stadium there, and community events are starting to be planned, such as this SW ArtsFest planned for fall 2011. But there definitely is still a long way to go. The redevelopment plan is called “The Wharf,” a $1.5 billion project to redevelop the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood over the next 10-15 years. This SW blog has a great overview of these plans, which include residential units, hotels, office space, retail stores, museums, farmers markets, and more.

Since I no longer work at Arena and am not personally witnessing many of these changes anymore, I decided to ask former Woolly Intern (and current Concessionaire) Paul Kappel what he thinks about living in the Waterfront neighborhood of Southwest:

Redevelopment can take many forms, but for my neighborhood, the little quadrant of Southwest DC, it has had both profoundly positive and negative consequences. Southwest has been my home for just over a year now, and over these months I have seen a number of important changes stemming from a recent redevelopment project along 4th Street SW, the Wharf development on the waterfront, and Arena Stage’s new center. For the most part, the changes along 4th Street have been the most profound, with the recent opening of the delicious Station 4 restaurant and bar, and what is arguably the nicest Safeway in the city. This single block on 4th Street, which was until recently non-existent, is quickly becoming a new center of activity for our neighborhood.

But where was the old center of the neighborhood?

That question is from what I can tell, a difficult one to answer for any resident of Southwest, as the entirety of what can been seen now: the neighborhood’s soaring concrete apartment towers and the Soviet-Russia-esque L’Enfant plaza complex are the product of a failed redevelopment from the 1950s. Somewhere around that time, Congress decided that a then-thriving Waterfront community was blighted and in stark contrast to the gleaming marble just a few blocks north on the National Mall. In an effort to “cure” the city of this supposed cancer, new plans were drawn up by modernist architect I.M. Pei, and nearly every building and street was erased from the map forever and replaced with a utopian vision for the future.

From the mid-1800s through the turn of the century, this community offered work and shelter for freed slaves as well as for European immigrants. For decades, African Americans, Italian immigrants, Eastern European Jews, and others worked side by side in this working class neighborhood, rich in cultural traditions. Pictured here: Shulman’s Market located at N & Union Streets, a grocery store operated by a Jewish Lithuanian family. (For more info click here).

In a sense, this is exactly what the residents of Clybourne Park fear, when the prospect of new development moves into the neighborhood.

Today, the result of that redevelopment left Southwest split in half by I-395 with a federal center to the north, and our small neighborhood to the south, largely severed from the rest of the city. What is exciting, however is that recent redevelopment of the misaligned former redevelopment has been done more carefully and with a care for maintaining the neighborhood’s many charms, like the Maine Avenue Fish Market (a holdover from before the 50s). This current smart redevelopment plan and the projects that have already been completed are encouraging and certainly leading a sort of Southwest renaissance. This time, we’re not erasing history, but embracing it for the better.

Some of the project renderings for “The Wharf,” courtesy of: http://www.swdcwaterfront.com/

~ Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager and Paul Kappel, Southwest Resident & Woolly Concessionaire

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The Cost of Preserving History

Beneath all of the changes happening in the District and discussion of gentrification, there is also a concern to preserve the history of a neighborhood before renovations begin. There are so many zoning regulations and codes pertaining to historical preservation that it is almost impossible not to break one of these laws if you decide to renovate. There are design guidelines  for every part of your house including the porch, windows, doors, landscaping, and even energy conservation.

Once you start renovation, it’s hard to stop. The need for pretty windows, floors, and more becomes necessary, maybe even excessive. If there is enough money to historically preserve, it is suggested, in order to prevent historical disaster. How far will you go in preserving the history of your home?

My brother and his girlfriend recently moved into a late eighteenth century house. Rent prices were increasing in their apartment complex in Centreville, so they decided to look for a cheaper, happier place closer to my parents. It took some searching, but they found something more affordable, that also needed a lot of work. It’s cozy and adorable, but it’s also a hassle. The style of the house perfectly fits them, but it lacks a dishwasher, air conditioning, and a modern washer/dryer. Their roof is falling apart and looks like it’s been through four fires. What happens when you lose amenities that you’re so used to living with? Is style more important than efficiency or updated technology?

In the second act of Clybourne Park, an argument unfolds over preserving the neighborhood and the house that is being renovated. Personal connections to the house are introduced and arguments rise over what is good for the neighborhood.  I wonder what kind of conversations would arise if my brother and his girlfriend decided to put a koi pond in their back yard or install a tin roof?

My brother, a Civil War buff, has a painting of soldiers that hangs in their living room. I noticed it one day and wondered about the stories that live in their wooden floors and the closet beneath the stairs. What was once stashed beneath the floorboards? What general walked up the steps? It’s extraordinary when you think about all of the history that one home holds. It is understood why some want to preserve that, because if you build over it, what becomes of those cracks in the windows and the creaks in the floor? That history disappears.

If you have a development that is recognized for its historical architecture and up goes a modern six-story building, the identity of the neighborhood changes. The more modern buildings stick out like a sore thumb and the historic buildings don’t look so romantic anymore. There’s a cost to preserving history, but I think we learn from Clybourne Park that it’s worth it.

~ Noel Edwards, Marketing and Communications Assistant

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Gentrification Is…

Much has been written about the changes to H Street NE (aka, the H Street Corridor, the Atlas Distract), from the praiseworthy to the cautionary, and even an article solely discussing and analyzing all the other stories being written on the subject! These articles range in their characterization of the situation and use words from “rediscovery,” “revitalization,” “unease,” and “divide,” but all agree:  Gentrification has arrived on H Street NE.

And me? Where do I fit into this conversation? Let me introduce myself: Hi! My name is Ellys and I am a gentrifier of H Street. I moved to DC two years ago from NYC and into a house on 8th and F St. NE. My roommate had previously lived in a small garden apartment in Eastern Market and when her lease was up, she decided to cross East Capitol in search of a place a little bigger, a litter cheaper, and maybe even above ground.

As we were driving around on a weekend scouting trip for apartments, my friend was quick to point out that by simply crossing a street, we had made the transition between where was safe and where I was cautioned I shouldn’t be walking alone at night. I was very surprised by the geography of DC, particularly how close the “good” neighborhoods were to the “bad”.  The houses looked the same on both sides, but there was definitely a feeling of shift. The streets on the north side of H were dirtier; there were empty and dilapidated houses, the front lawns not as well maintained. At that time, H Street itself was a mess; most of the buildings were empty with huge for sale signs on shuttered, graffiti-decorated windows, it wasn’t a surprise when the street lamps came on in the evening and some did not, or to see the homeless sleeping in alleys and doorways.

However, there were signs of change and it happed very quickly. With Gallaudet University pushing south and the Hill community pushing north, that area in between, the “no-man’s land” is slowly being squeezed out. Real Estate developers, H Street Community Development Corporation, and the city were scrambling to capitalize on this up-and-coming community. It seemed that over night, planters and trees were being placed along the street, every weekend another restaurant or bar was having a grand opening, and the streets were being torn up in preparation of a promised trolley route, which will use H Street to connect Chinatown and the Orange line Minnesota Avenue metro station.

With all this rapid change, there is definitely tension and upheaval. Personally, I’ve been vocally harassed and told to leave the neighborhood, yelled that I was unwelcomed and should go elsewhere. My home has been robbed and my car broken into. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in NYC and understand that these things are part of living in the city. However, I don’t go running to tell my mother either!

I guess the short of it is I don’t know how I feel. I love my neighborhood. I’m excited by the changes but am very aware that these come with a cost. I hold a certain amount of white guilt while also acknowledging that I am now spending my money in an area when it would have gone elsewhere. I love the community I moved into and yet I also know my presence is the direct cause of its change. Who am I? I am a gentrifier.

Want to further explore this topic? Come to the Mammoth Forum “Gentrification Is…” this Sunday, August 7th following the 3pm performance. The forum will examine a range of perspectives on gentrification, and begin touching on the complexities of the issue as it is playing out in the DC area. The panel will feature:

Justin Maher, PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland.

Edward Jones, long-time resident of Bloomingdale neighborhood.

dany sigwalt, third-generation Washingtonian, youth worker, filmmaker and interactive/web artist.

~Ellys Abrams, Assistant to the Managing Director

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Neighborhood Spotlight: Anacostia

The Source

“In 1608 Captain John Smith became the first European to see these forested hills, teeming with wildlife, and to visit the centuries-old, Algonquin-speaking American Indian trading village Nacotchtank, located on the east side of the Eastern Branch. The people were called ‘Nacostines’ by the Europeans, the source of the word Anacostia.

Anacostia became associated with the land that had been occupied by the Nacostines and has been sometimes used to mean the entire area of the District east of the Anacostia River.  It correctly applies to only two communities, one white, one black.

The Anacostia historic district at the end of the 11th Street Bridge, laid out in 1854 as Uniontown and in 1886 renamed Anacostia, was a majority white community for most of its history. Immediately south of it was a historically black community laid out as Barry Farm in 1876, renamed Hillsdale by the territorial government of the District as a request of the local people in 1874.”

Washington at Home, Edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith

Probably in the 2200 block of Nichols Ave, S.E. Combination (5 – 10 – 25 cent) Store and Ice Cream Parlor decorated for the Fourth of July around the year 1919. [Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online]

The Population

Until the 1950s, Anacostia was predominantly White (approximately 85% of the population). The 2000 Census noted Anacostia’s population was 5% Non-Hispanic White and the 2010 Census listed 3.3% of the approximate 71,000 residents were Non-Hispanic White.

“’That number [the 3.3%] is growing as more white professionals move in’, Davis said.

He said many ‘For Sale’ signs in historic Anacostia are tagged with the graffiti, ‘No Whites,’ which ‘means that a small minority fear being pushed out of their homes’ by gentrification.

‘We have come across many of our posts defaced with the words ‘No Whites,’ Davis said. ‘We have had to fix them. But I think it’s just as wrong to discriminate against black people as it is to discriminate against whites.’

Many longtime residents said some of the investment flowing into Anacostia seems intimidating and unnecessary. They said they need jobs and better low-income housing, not luxury housing or office space.

‘The new owners — both black and white professionals — who are moving in are demanding regular police patrols, and now we have policeman on bicycles,’ said Davis, who is black and has been working in the area for 10 years. ‘You know the area is changing, the city is changing. It’s just going to happen.’

Butch Hopkins, president of the nonprofit Anacostia Economic Development Corp., said he is hopeful that the renovation of St.Elizabeths Hospital— slated to become headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security — will bring even more new faces to Anacostia.

More than 14,000 federal workers are expected to come to the new complex, and a 281,000-square-foot office and retail development is planned for across the street.

‘We hope that, over time, a lot of the folks who commute here will begin to see how lovely the neighborhood is, get sick of that long commute and realize that Anacostia is actually a nice place to live,’ Hopkins said.”

– Emily Wax, “‘Gentrification’ covers black and white middle-class home buyers in the District” Washington Post, July 28, 2011

The historic Anacostia Block Association: http://www.habadc.org/index.htm

The Freeway

The Anacostia Freeway (I-295) is a 8.05 mile interstate connecting I/95/I-495 and MD Route 210 to I-695 and downtown DC. It was opened in 1964 at 7.8 miles and extended another 1.7 miles in 1990. The freeway ostensibly separated Anacostia the neighborhood from the waterfront of theAnacostia River. Now, the traffic count on I-295 averages 85,100 vehicles on weekdays.

The Web Series

Now its second season: ANACOSTA – The Web Series! This episodic dramatic web series “follows the lives of the residents of ANACOSTIA, a small residential community in Washington, DC as they navigate through love, betrayal, deception, sex, and murder.”

What’s next?

The Washington City paper reported on Monday about plans to build a homeless shelter in the heart of Anacostia’s business district. According to the article, plans have been underway for months, but most residents just found out about it last week in an email blast from City Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Blogger Veronica Davis and others in the neighborhood are concerned that social service organizations such as a homeless shelter will impede development and revitalization efforts in the area (being as it’s a prime location for a new restaurant or retail shop).

This is just one example of the recent developments and controversies in the neighborhood. We’ll be on the lookout for more, and as always send us your thoughts!

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director and Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager

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