No Still Life: D.C. artists look for new options to work amidst cycle of displacement

By Eli Fosl

As Aaron Martin marched his way to the front of the D.C. Zoning and Planning Commission on the first night of this past February, he stifled a laugh.

“Do I look familiar?” He asked the commission, grinning.

That night was the first of many hearings for Martin and many more paint-splattered, sign-carrying men and women that packed the hearing room beyond capacity to protest the fate of Union Arts, an arts space on New York Ave. set to suffer the same fate as many before it: redevelopment.

But for many crowding the hearing room, the issue is not just this building, but a greater narrative of displacement.

Over the past year, District artists have more and more begun to distress over a lack of affordable working spaces. The city’s finite boundaries and rising rent prices have led to a pattern of creative workers moving from one place to the next, being unable to secure a long-term space. Though some have tried to create communities within this nomadic framework, others hope the city government will chip in to stop the cycle.

Martin himself was forced out of the DIY venue Gold Leaf Studios in 2012, but now he said when he passes the old Gold Leaf building on bike rides with his daughter, it’s still completely empty. He’s worried the same will happen to Union Arts, and again to whatever place he finds next.

Martin is a veteran of this process. He’s seen many studio spaces come and go. And he’s far from alone in that.

 

A temporary fix, permanently.

George Koch, President and CEO of the Center for the Creative Economy, has been dealing with the problem of space in the D.C. area for years. He sees the District in a uniquely difficult situation: no large industrial warehouse space and no possibility of expanding the city’s size.

“If I went to Baltimore I could get five times the space I could get here because Baltimore’s had a warehouse district” Koch said. “D.C. has never had that, so we don’t have buildings to recycle.”

Koch has led the establishment of multiple spaces he said are still in the hands of artists such as the Jackson School or the Takoma Metro Arts Center. But for now in D.C. he finds hope in a different plan: something he calls the “incubation method.”

What Koch means is this: though there are many buildings reserved for development in D.C., some of those spaces won’t be developed for years. Koch hopes artists and real estate entrepreneurs can work together to turn these buildings into temporary art spaces.

“As D.C. continues to develop, these opportunities [for the long term] are going to diminish,” Koch said. “But the fact that there’s temporary space isn’t. There will always be temporary space that can be utilized.”

Even in the short time since the announcement of Union Arts’ redevelopment, a few of these incubation spaces have already begun to sprout.

The S&R Foundation, a D.C.-based non-profit, recently announced it would be opening the doors of its Fillmore School building, a recently acquired historic studio building in Georgetown, for artists to use free of charge.

Ten up-and-coming artists whose work demonstrates both skill and attention to social issues will be chosen to join the free program and given six months of free studio space this coming year.

Following in the footsteps of S&R, philanthropic giant The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation announced a similar –but much larger– project called Art Place at Fort Totten. This multi-faceted development plan is set to include over 900 apartments as well as 170,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces, as reported by Inside Philanthropy.

Although these projects show promise for a more accessible future for artists –141 of the apartment units in the Fort Totten plans are listed as “affordable”– there are still concerns in the long term.

In terms of space and numbers, the openings for 10 artists at Fillmore school building can’t compete with the closing Union Arts, which served as a space for dozens.

And, most importantly of course, there is always the question of where the artists will go when their six months are up.

In addition, some who work in art spaces have their reservations about private development.

Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator for the Katzen Arts Center museum, has worked to make space for arts in the District since he moved here in 1973. Framed by his bookshelves in his American University office, he said he thinks the city should be stepping in to subsidize the arts, not just private enterprise.

“The question is always who’s gonna pay for it,” Rasmussen said. “The Fillmore School will be a philanthropic endeavor, the Fort Totten project might be a speculative venture by entrepreneurs, but it will be doomed by its own success sooner or later.”

Rasmussen clarified this latter point in an email, saying that the prices in these areas are too high to be self-sustaining, and therefore they must rely on philanthropy: an unstable predicament, he pointed out, because philanthropic interests change.

But for Emily Arden, the potential for artists and real estate entrepreneurs to work together may be the best way for artists to make it work in the area.

In order to find available spaces, Arden worked with her friend and fellow D.C. artist to start ReCreative Spaces, an organization designed to find unused spaces and turn them into creative environments.

But, even for Arden, the preferred end goal would still be a permanent space, because finding cooperative spaces can be difficult.

“A lot of business owners don’t like the idea of having artists in their space,” she said. “For a long time we took what we could get.”

Arden paints a picture of this displacement cycle similar to that emphasized by Martin, Koch and many others. Artists look for an affordable place to be creative, she said, which is often in a lower-income neighborhood. But soon, the neighborhood becomes their community too, and then it isn’t long until developers jump at the opportunity.

“I think we all know intuitively arts and culture is what makes a vibrant neighborhood or city,” Arden said. “A lot of times development follows that, then capitalizes on that.”

Arden said many artists don’t move to a neighborhood in order to make huge financial gains, but to get more space and inspiration to create, so once development begins to increase the prices, they can’t stay.

 

Searching for state support in the long term

The issue of gentrification in the arts is not confined to the District’s nomadic young artists.

Quique Aviles, who came to D.C. from El Salvador in the 80s and has worked here since, is the youth leader at Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Paso Nuevo Youth Program.

Aviles uses theater and the humanities to teach kids about their own identities, a task he said has become increasingly more important in the face of gentrification.

“You have to be able to use your voice, to speak up, to say what you need to say about your own situation and your own reality,” Aviles urges. “You have to do it with a sense of dignity. We teach the kids that we don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Although Gala has stood overlooking 14th St. for decades, the neighborhood around it has changed drastically over the past few years. Whereas the families that make the Paso Nuevo community used to live walking distance from the theater, they now live far away, in the Northeast or the South. For some parents, it’s too far to continue sending their kids to Gala.

As for the new residents, Aviles said there has been a serious disconnect between them and those who have lived their for years.

“Why move into a cultural neighborhood just to hang out with your own? Because that’s what’s happening,” Aviles said. “You go to bars and restaurants and you see large congregations of just white professionals.”

Aviles, along with many protestors of the Union Arts closure, places a generous portion of blame on D.C. Government.

Even though, Aviles said, it has worked in other places like Brooklyn and Baltimore, the D.C. government has failed to ensure the longevity of the arts by giving insubstantial economic incentives for artists.

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Aviles explained. “You just have to convince and make a condition for developers that if they’re going to develop certain sections of the city,  certain numbers of that square footage should be reserved for artist working space.”

Rasmussen points to similar examples –Mount Rainier and Maryland neighborhoods specifically– where artists are more likely to work because the state government has encouraged the arts. Whereas in D.C., Rasmussen said there is practically no commensurate encouragement for the arts, thus making long-term affordable arts spaces very difficult to come by.

More financial encouragement may be on the horizon, though.

Last November, Arthur Espinoza was enlisted as the newest director for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Siting the space limitations of D.C. of both its borders and its height ordinance, Director Espinoza addressed in an email statement the unique challenge D.C. artists face when looking for affordable space.

This issue, he wrote, is one he plans to see addressed in the city’s first Cultural Plan, which is currently being drafted by the Office of Planning in consultation with the DCCAH and forecasted to be released in early 2017.

“Through our grant programs and professional development opportunities,” Espinoza wrote. “The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities seeks to ensure that those who are interested in pursuing their passions are supported in a way that allows them to do that for the benefit of District residents.”

 

Looking forward while looking back

Without the possibility of a long-term space with help from the D.C. government, many facing displacement at Union Arts fear they will lose the sense of community they hold dear.

For Martin, the inevitably loud nature of his art –alto saxophone and freeform jazz– will make the hunt for a new space more difficult, as many places have noise ordinances.

On top of that, the nomadic lifestyle is unappealing to Martin, who is happy to stay where he is with the people he’s surrounded by.

“A whole community vibe will be lost,” he mused to himself, preemptively mourning the walls around him in his small, equipment-filled studio. “Here we are again. I love this place.”

Aaron Martin playing saxophone
Aaron Martin practicing on his saxophone in his Union Arts studio space. (Photo by Eli Fosl)

Even for Arden, who works most often in short-term spaces, community can be difficult to uphold. But, she said, they make every attempt to keep community strong even while relocating again and again.

“Whether you’re doing this for three weeks or three years or 30 years, it’s about staying connected with those people afterwards,” Arden said.

Arden added that the key was not only staying in touch, but also being open to new neighborhoods, meeting the people and learning popular places whenever you move into a space in order to add to that community rather than just live there.

Ava LaTanya Hilton hopes artists will be able to hold onto their community as well. Hilton is the interim director for CulturalDC, the arts group working with the developers of the Union Arts building to include a creative element in the building’s new design as an arts hotel.

“There are all types of ways to preserve these cultures,” Hilton said. “It can be preserved regardless of where [the artists] may be.”

Hilton said they have reached out to the artists at Union Arts to include them in the new project in order to retain their goal of creating long-term opportunities for artists.

But Martin said he isn’t interested. Instead, he’ll try to find some new place to practice, whether it’s a new independent studio or a university that will let him practice if, he said, he got on his knees and begged. Either way, he’ll carry on his work.

“You can get in here for 5 bucks! You don’t need money to see a quality performance,” Martin said. “This is going to be hard to replace.”

For now, whether it’s with ReCreative Spaces, at the Fillmore School, at Fort Totten, or in creating a new space, artists leaving Union Arts will have to find a new temporary fix, a bandage for a wound that needs more proper care. That’s the only option, Arden said, at least until they can reach the goal of a long-term opportunity.

“What it’s going to take is artists not only feeling they have a stake in the face of what’s happening, but that they really have a place at the table,” Arden said. “There’s a lot of good intention with setting up these artists spaces, but if artists in the area haven’t been consulted or aren’t part of the process or don’t have access to that space, it’s not actually creating anything helpful.”

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House pressures Obama to take action against “terrorist organization” Hezbollah

By Eli Fosl

While still mourning the lives lost in the attacks on Belgium last Tuesday, the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa intensified pressure on the Obama administration to take more forceful measures to combat Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant organization.

Following Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist organization by both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) called on President Obama to deliver a comprehensive strategy to combat the growing group, which she called one of the world’s most dangerous and capable terror organizations.

“The Obama Administration needs to do more,” she said.

Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen commences the House committee's hearing on Hezbollah as a growing international threat. Photo by Eli Fosl
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen commences the House committee’s hearing on Hezbollah as a growing international threat. Photo by Eli Fosl

Ros-Lehtinen emphasized that Hezbollah’s strength, as well as its most serious threat, came from its relationship to Iran and Russia.

The chairwoman said that Hezbollah had been given enforcements and funding from the Iranian government in order to protect Iran’s interests in Syria. Hezbollah has and continues to fight on the side of the Assad regime in Syria.

Ros-Lehtinen also blamed the “weak and dangerous” nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States for Hezbollah’s growing threat, and claimed it was as near of a guarantee as one can have that the increase in funds to Iran will lead to an increase in funds for Hezbollah.

According to Ros-Lehtinen, Hezbollah has been given advanced weaponry from Russia as well.

“Any time we have Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah operating in the same sphere with the same objectives,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It cannot be good for the security and stability of the region.”

Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Florida) reiterated some of the worst attacks attributed to Hezbollah, including the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing in Argentina, which killed 29; the 1994 bombing of the Imad Jewish Center, which killed 85; and the attack on a bus of tourists in Bulgaria in 2012, which killed six.

He also said that Hezbollah was mainly responsible for the destabilization of the Lebanese government.

Although Hezbollah has been a designated U.S. terror organization since 1997, Deutch said, it still operates freely around the world as a so-called political group, which allows it to fundraise throughout Europe and Latin America.

Both Deutch and Ros-Lehtinen underscored that Hezbollah’s biggest threat to U.S. National Security was its threat to Israel.

According to Deutch, Hezbollah was created as a resistance group determined to destroy the state of Israel.

Ros-Lehtinen said Hezbollah was responsible for firing over 4,000 rockets into Northern Israel in 2006, and although it was currently occupied with Syria, it would soon turn an eye back to the Israeli state, which she called a close friend and ally to the U.S.

“Make no mistake about it, the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah has nothing to do with Hezbollah not wanting to fight Israel,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It has everything to do with the terror group restocking… so that it can once again launch an all-out attack against the Jewish state.”

Deutch criticized the lack of action taken to disarm Hezbollah, which both he and Ros-Lehtinen outlined as the most crucial and effective way to take on the group.

Deutch demanded the international community step up its efforts to support the United Nations Security council. He claimed the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Lebanon do not have the ability to disarm Hezbollah because there is no enforcement mechanism.

The House heard from three witnesses: Dr. Matthew Levitt, Tony Badran, and Dr. Daniel Byman, all experts on counter-terrorism, security and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

The witnesses enforced the points made by congressional members, emphasizing the growth of Hezbollah as a real, militarized threat, while also underscoring the organization’s involvement in drug and weapon smuggling and warfare.

 

Longtime D.C. Actor Fights Gentrification’s Impact on Youth Through Theater

By Eli Fosl

When Quique Aviles started his first theater group at the age of 22, he already had a good idea about the stereotypes held against him. He and his friends had to name their first performance “No Breakdancing Tonight,” because when people saw two black guys and two Latino guys, they assumed breakdancing was all they could do.

Since then, Aviles has made a name for himself in the District theater scene mostly through Gala Hispanic Theatre, where he uses drama to teach kids to claim their identity and make a voice for themselves in the Paso Nuevo youth program.

“You have to be able to use your voice, to speak up, to say what you need to say about your own situation and your own reality,” Aviles urges. “You have to do it with a sense of dignity. We teach the kids that we don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Aviles, who came to D.C. from El Salvador in the ‘80s, is one of the founders of the program along with Gala, which has stood in as a cultural icon in Columbia Heights for almost 40 years.

Aviles said he arrived at the age of 15 to a city riveted with racial conflict between black communities and Latino communities in poorer neighborhoods.

“We didn’t know there were blacks in the United States,” Aviles said, expounding the extent to which his family was unprepared for the situation. “We thought the United States looked like the television programs that we watched.”

After finishing three years of theater school, Aviles said he was moved to action by the violence he saw in the community around him. He and some friends decided to start their first group, which came to be known as “Latinegro.”

Aviles spent many years doing his own theater work –often brandishing his own identity as an artistic tool in monologues and poetry. But now his work is focused more on what the kids around him have to say.

Unlike in its past, where most of its members were immigrants themselves, Gala now involves those who are the children of immigrants –a big change, he points out. But still, many kids feel marginalized in the community around them.

“You shouldn’t lower your head!” he said. “A lot of these kids they feel like second-class citizens, a lot don’t even consider themselves American.”

Through his teaching at Paso Nuevo, Aviles hopes he can both connect kids to their heritage and encourage them to keep their heads up as they face a neighborhood divided by gentrification.

Gala overlooks 14th St. NW in Columbia Heights, a front line for the conflict over loss of black and Latino neighborhoods in an increasingly gentrified District.

Although Gala has continued its role as a hubspot of Latino culture, the changing of its surrounding are has led to some changes in its programming itself and, Aviles said, some new tension.

“Why move into a cultural neighborhood just to hang out with your own? Because that’s what’s happening,” Aviles said. “You go to bars and restaurants and you see large congregations of just white professionals.”

Aviles worries about the divide between the community and those he calls gentrifiers. He points out that both he and most parents involved in Paso Nuevo have had to move far away from Columbia Heights due to rises in rent.

Aviles finds some issues some fault with the city in the lack of affordable space for the arts, something that has been a central issue for the discourse on gentrification.

Other than Gala and the D.C. Arts Center, Aviles said the lack of affordable space for artists –painters, actors, and musicians—makes being an artist almost impossible.

“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Aviles explained. “You just have to make a requirement for developers that if they’re going to develop certain sections of the city, certain numbers of that square footage should be reserved for studio space.”

For Aviles, however, some of the work to combat the newly arisen tension has been self-reflection, thinking on how the gap between victims and contributors of gentrification can be breached.

Gala, he believes, may be able to cross these boundaries by trying to include the gentrifiers in the productions, by giving both sides a platform on which they can speak and listen to what one another has to say.

Aviles added that neither his community nor the gentrifiers are going anywhere, so they need to learn how to live with each other.

“If you want to participate and if you’re comfortable being with people that are different than you, you’re welcome,” Aviles said. “And that’s one of the things that needs to happen with gentrifiers, we all have to find a way to be comfortable with one another.”

Arts Collective Takes Aim at Capitalism with Massive Illustrations

By Elijah Fosl

Emphatically gesturing in front of a small audience, Entre Aguas guided his hand from detail to detail on the enormous map behind him. The map was completely covered in bugs, guns, brand names, and horrifying mechanical figures.

Aguas, a short, tough, 33-year-old Miami-born man of Colombian descent, is a member of the small radical arts group known as the Beehive Collective.

The group has worked on a variety of issues from strip mining to fair trade agreements, but on Friday Aguas presented their work on resistance against capitalism in Mesoamerica, from Southern Mexico to Northern Colombia.

The presentation was held in American University’s Bender Library last Friday to as a part of Sustainable Development Week.

Behind Aguas, machete-wielding corn clashed with robotic police, a faceless judge played whack-a-mole with political groups, and a mechanical doctor surgically altered the geography of Mexico.

Each of the thousands of insects and nightmarish creatures represented a different aspect of the past and present of imperialism in the region. Together, these images contributed to a giant tapestry, an illustration over ten feet long.

Entre Aguas points out details on the huge illustrated canvas behind him. Photo by Elijah Fosl
Entre Aguas points out details on the huge illustrated canvas behind him. Photo by Elijah Fosl

The collective, founded in 1999, uses images and artwork rather than speech or text to tell vast and complex histories of colonialism, capitalism, and the communities organizing to fight against them.

“In many organizing communities we lack an effective communication tool,” Aguas said. “With graphics, it doesn’t matter if you’re educated or if you have electricity.”

The selected works he presented to the small group of students on Friday portrayed one story from two sides, Aguas said.

The smaller told the history of trade colonization from the perspective of four institutions: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the Interamerican Development Bank. Each was depicted as a faceless, mechanical character extracting life from the land and animals.

The other tapestry, more than twice the size of the first, showed another story altogether. Here, multitudes of local communities were depicted as different animals and plants, communicating and working together to fight off industry and consumerism.

Though quite different, both stories have one thing in common: the mission of liberation for communities by communities.

A core part of the collective’s work, Aguas said, is the long, community-based research component. In order to create each graphic, members travel for years to communities hurt by poisoned land and labor exploitation and ask them to tell their histories and current struggles. Then, once they have started working on a draft, they return to those communities and ask for their input again.

“On each listening tour [the communities we work with] said their liberation is their job,” Aguas said of the research projects they perform before the drawing begins. “Our liberation is our collective responsibility.

Aside from their overlapping topics, the two pieces also shared a shocking level of detail. Each animal represented a different community, each column told a different story of trade history, every ship represented a different export. Over the nearly one-and-a-half-hour presentation, only a fraction of the artwork could be explored.

To tie in the topics with the event of Sustainable Development Week, Aguas paid special attention to the problems of green energy.

On the bottom of one canvas, Aguas showed the story of how many businesses claiming to be “green” through renewable energy such as water and wind actually contribute to displacement and pollution. According to Aguas, these companies set up dams that flood communities and use their profits to open coal and oil industry in other countries.

Coupled with his work in the Beehive Collective, Aguas also represented Movimiento Ríos Vivos, a Colombian organization working to stop the privatization and damming of rivers that would lead to the destruction of land inhabited by local communities for centuries.

Halfway through his lecture, Aguas showed a short film on the fight for rivers in Colombia. It showed small communities, built on independent agriculture, turning into political units and protesting the rise of industry.

As a native Colombian, Aguas said that these were his people and that he could not go into too much detail over what they had faced because he could not hold back his tears.

To clarify the group’s mission, Aguas identified three territories designated to every person: first, the heart and mind; second, the body; and third, the individual’s geographic location.

“If we’re really speaking of liberation, all our territories need to be liberated,” he said.

Aguas said the work he did in Colombia, more so than work in the United States, was incredibly dangerous. The collective only went to communities where they were guaranteed protection, and had been threatened and attacked before, he said.

A visitor thumbs through the patches for sale from the Beehive Collective. Photo by Elijah Fosl
A visitor thumbs through the patches for sale from the Beehive Collective. Photo by Elijah Fosl

Concluding his presentation, Aguas asked for questions and encouraged the group to examine and purchase the poster replicas of the work as well as colorful handmade goods from involved communities.

After the presentation, students and staff members alike associated with AU Beekeepers, Fossil Free AU, and other organizations asked about next steps and about how to get involved.

Aguas had few words on the future of his work.

“We have to keep fighting,” he said.

Heavy Workload Can’t Weigh Down Student Activist

By Elijah Fosl

Jaded, aggressive, or condescending are stereotypes frequently thrown at student activists on American University’s campus, but Gordon Edwards, 21, wards them off one full-body smile at a time.

On top of being a second-semester senior, Edwards fills his time with more organizations than he can name in one sentence. The Darkening, Alpha Phi Omega, Phi Beta Sigma, and Men of Empowerment and Excellence are just some.

It’s impossible, however, to see Edwards as an overworked busy-bee. He’s more in the class of a social butterfly. He can barely talk for more than two minutes in public without pausing to sprightly say hi to a passerby.

Gordon Edwards waves to the students who holler to him from across the Mary Graydon Center. Photo by Elijah Fosl
Gordon Edwards waves to the students who holler to him from across the Mary Graydon Center. Photo by Elijah Fosl

Growing up in the Bronx, Edwards says his parents taught him to always stand up in the face of injustice.

With The Darkening, which promotes an environment of acceptance and sensitivity for all people on campus, Edwards was moved to action by the passivity towards injustice, especially racism, he perceived from his university.

“It’s one thing when you see people say something bad,” he said, referencing the racist comments from social media platform Yik Yak that were spread around Facebook. “It’s another when you don’t see anyone say ‘those things are bad.’”

Edwards serves as the communication liaison chair for The Darkening, where he works on bringing organizations to teaching and training events about challenging injustice.

One of the biggest victories Edwards says he’s seen is the newly proposed general education program at American, which includes a diversity requirement for all students.

“We [seniors] never even thought we’d hear about it,” he said.

The proposal is a big deal for Edwards, who sees one of his main obstacles as teaching students who wouldn’t otherwise volunteer for the trainings.

“The people not involved are the ones that need to get involved,” Edwards explained. “The people involved don’t need to get more involved.”

But in front of all of Edwards’s determination and fight is his full-tooth grin and energetic waves to friends he sees in the halls of the Mary Graydon Center.

For Edwards, the ferocity of activism takes no toll on his demeanor. He says he always remembers to take a humble approach since people’s upbringings affect their actions.

“I don’t see myself as a leader,” he laughed. “Just part of a community.”

Even while juggling extracurriculars, a Public Health major, and two minors, Edwards constantly reminds his peers that he’s not the face of justice. But with his booming laugh and the chorus of salutations aimed his way, it would be easy to be convinced otherwise.