Place, space and origin stories matter.

Almost every day I walk through my neighborhood to the train. On that walk, I'm doused with sights, sounds and smells of what has been deemed "revitalization" -  new names for neighborhoods that have been around for generations, new routes and borders to get there, construction. Oh, the construction! The waves of overwhelm and wonderment at the speed my neighborhood is morphing. All of this sticks to me. As I make meaning, I wonder who the benefactors will be?  Recently, I turned to Twitter to crowdsource scholarship on the psychological effect of gentrification. I didn't get any scholarly leads from that inquiry but I did see a spike in re-tweets and the deepest dialogue on the topic 140 characters could hold.

Cue my experiences with The Black/Land Project and Dupont Underground - two distinctly different, unrelated organizing efforts that share common thin threads of exploring place, space, origin stories and a vision for something new.

Recently I joined a group of organizers and cultural workers to learn about The Black/Land Project and Narrative Based-Organizing as a methodology. The Black/Land Project offers conversation about public policy and history that is relevant to anyone working with or within communities of color on justice issues. The method, "narrative-based organizing," is used to craft effective strategies towards justice and policy outcomes.  Black/Land's narrative focus on the stories of people of African Descent, is intentional--there is a wealth of language and analysis used by Black people to describe the current moment and it's policy and organizing implications. Thanks to technology, The Black/Land Project's Executive Director Mistinguette Smith guided us through an eye-opening webinar that forced me to interrogate my own relationship to land and place. This time those same feelings I experience during my walk to the train were met with theory, data and language that reflected back my experiences in a larger, cultural, connected context.

I couldn't resist asking a question about art's role as a catalyst for revitalization. There was a sense of knowing that when "Art" is brought to a particular neighborhood it is a marker of some sort.  A warning sign? For some. Change? For all.

Lumen8Anacostiais a great case study.  Lumen8Anacostia was a series of temporary creative spaces in the commercial corridor of Historic Anacostia this Spring. The festival boasted that, "the corridor will come alive with illuminated storefronts, landmarks and murals." Anacostia is a historic neighborhood in Washington, D.C.  and is the most famous neighborhood in the Southeast quadrant of the city. Household sizes and poverty levels are significantly higher in Anacostia compared to the rest of Washington, D.C. and unemployment is 50% higher than in the rest of the city. Anacostia is also the battleground for countless conversations about gentrification and displacement. The name of the festival was telling; Lumen8, to illuminate, to bring light to a perceived dark place. I argue that Historic Anacostia had community long before the festival was brought to the neighborhood.

Going Underground

Three days after the Black/Land Project convening I found myself underground. Literally 20 feet below Dupont Circle on a Provisions Library Tour of Dupont Underground, a revitalization project of a massive abandoned vacant street-car tunnel. The purpose of the guided tour of the tunnel was to "launch discussions about the histories, presence, and secrets of the space -- its collapsed dreams and current potential". My half-baked fantasies of being a quirky cultural anthropologist rushed to the surface as soon as we entered the hot, moist, quiet tunnel. As some of People of Color (PoC) do when we're in large, crowded settings...I looked for the other colored people. No secret here. There were less than a handful of identifiable PoC's in the large crowd. I wanted to send a bat signal to The Black/Land Project participants so badly!

The Dupont Underground timeline is compelling: a streetcar system that began in 1862, and the last of the trains ran a hundred years later in 1962. Lots of politics and faux pas around the use of the space since then. Learn more here.

The tour guide was knowledgable and engaging. As I simmered with what I learned just a few days before I couldn't resist asking the guide about Provision's process of gathering stories.

Me: "How are stories being collected from people who used, weren't allowed to use or conducted the railcars?" Tour Guide: "That's a good question...Old narratives have been collected from the Washington Post but not many anecdotal stories from riders. We're focused on creating a new vision for the space."

As a lover of Visionary Organizing and the power in dreaming up new worlds (see: Grace Lee Boggs and her brilliant definition), I appreciate the goal of Dupont Underground but what does this project miss out on if  Narrative-Based Organizing doesn't inform the vision?

And, if you are wondering, yes during the tour there was talk of turning Dupont Underground into an arts space. Oh, and in 1968 there was talk of turning the tunnel into a play space for "at-risk" youth. Seriously.

Appendix: Some ideas and questions I jotted down from the tour...

  • Who was not on the tour that should have been?
  • Design a DC Public Schools curriculum that explores the history and possibilities of the space.
  • If we're going with art spaces...Art-o-matic 2013?