Place-Keeping; How Act of Non-Violent Direct Action Seeks to Navigate A Sea of Change In Shaw

By Omari A. West

When a 50-foot mural of what appeared to be a drag-queen announcing the arrival of The Shay apartments building suddenly appeared on the side of the new development in August 2015, some of the community’s long-time residents found it confounding. The mural appeared to depict a woman, but the announcement that ‘She Has Arrived’ was written in Red letters, except for the ‘S’ in the word she, which was painted light grey. At night, the S became invisible, and the sentenced effectively changed the meaning to ‘He has arrived.’

It was a clever marketing ploy for a business hoping to attract couples with high disposable incomes willing to pay top dollar for a destination neighborhood on the rise. And it was clear that by promoting the building in the way it did, the developers sought to make a statement. It was a statement that ultimately came to typify to long-time residents a class-struggle between ‘old’ Shaw, a working-class community consisting primarily of African American families and a new type of resident – largely gay, primarily white, and characterized by conspicuous – even ostentatious - displays of wealth. Perhaps unconsciously, the building’s owners and leasing agents also intended to create a visual confrontation between their new vision of Shaw, and another symbol – a cell phone store and music CD shop that sits directly across the street from the Shay. Metro PCS has for years basted local Go-Go music from a loudspeaker placed on the front of the shop to attract passersby on Georgia Avenue. Whatever the intention of the developers, the clash of sound and fury signified a dividing line between old and new.

But even more fundamentally, the new building, along with others being constructed in the neighborhood, literally changed the landscape. Long-time residents took who had unconsciously depended on certain landmarks to navigate the neighborhood, began to lose their bearing. Whereas the old CVS drug store, the 70 and 90 bus stops, the Metro PCS cell phone shop, had long served as familiar visual cues, the imposition of such a large, incongruent structure in the midst of the community reduced their feelings of of familiarity. An informal survey of the neighborhood taken by the Shaw Community Center, a non-profit organization that serves educational and social needs of underserved children and families in Shaw, revealed not a single student or parent had walked across S street since new properties had been built, even though the development was placed within their own neighborhood and the stores and shops were available to them.

Most of these residents spend almost their entire dollar locally, but find themselves increasingly alienated among the strange new stores and restaurants. A Warby Parker eyewear store at the base of The Shay has a display of expensive name-branded frames along its storefront window and presents a distinctly upscale image, with a smartly dressed staff and the ambience of an Apple Store. One long-time resident who needed a new eyeglass prescription did not even consider going inside, assuming “that the stuff in that store will definitely break my budget.”

An upscale clothing chain called Kit & Ace, which specializes in ‘technical cashmere’ also graces the Shay’s lobby. Most of the old residents are disconnected from the economic and social significance of the concepts they are seeing represent in the brick and mortar shops. And most, of course, could never even dream of affording such luxuries even if they did.

Reclaiming Some Space

Beginning with the race riots of 1968, which destroyed the once-thriving business district in Shaw, the neighborhood suffered from underdevelopment and decline. The businesses that sprung up amidst the desecrated landscaped were primarily mom & pop corner stores, barber shops and small markets that thrived amidst a cash economy. Beginning in 2000, the city began to redevelop the neighborhood and home values started to increase. Local residents who owned their homes sold to wealthier buyers who began to renovate their properties and gradually transformed the face of the neighborhood. New restaurants and cafes opened to serve the more up-scale urbanizing clientele. Long-time residents who remained were mostly renters who lived in subsidized apartments. For more than a decade the old and the new managed to coexist in a sort of limbo, with older residents representing a long-time voting base and new residents bringing private economic power to bear.

Last of The Mastodons

Many people would be surprised to know that the last of the world’s Woolly Mammoths survived up until relatively modern times – in fact as recently as 156 B.C. there was a thriving population of Mammoths located in an isolated area in Northern Siberia. What, then, accounted for their sudden disappearance? Some archeologists have credited over-hunting and climate change as likely culprits. The cautionary tale of the last Woolly Mammoth population serves as an apt metaphor for the increasingly marginalized urban residents of Shaw.

To begin with, it is important to understand that a formerly robust municipal work-force created in large part by pioneering black mayors Harold Washington (D.C.’s first black Mayor) and Marion Barry opened up opportunities for Blacks obtain roles in government and private industry. These relationships endured from the 1970s until the turn of the century, when, in 2000 a New Mayor was elected with a specific mandate to streamline government and turn the city around financially. Under Mayor Anthony Williams’ tenure, all of the governing consensus began to change. The D.C. Government worked with private developers to revitalize blighted areas of the City and attract a higher tax base. As evidenced by the development of Shaw in particular, repurposed properties – including vacant lots and storefronts, flea markets, and boarding houses – have transformed into a multi-billion dollar slew of private real estate development. The beneficiaries of the changes have primarily been D.C. Government, the real estate industry, and upper middle class residents. Despite their political leverage in terms of voter base the poor have largely been excluded from the nearly two decade-long transformation.

The transformation in real estate value was particularly disruptive to a community that had been largely decimated by drugs, crime and incarceration in the previous decades of the late 1980s and 1990s. Over two thousand inmates return to D.C. each year to neighborhoods that are no longer home. On any given day in Shaw, one can typically find aging 1980’s ex-drug dealers, recently released from decades-long prison sentences, marching around the drug turf they previously ruled looking like starving beasts of a bygone era.

As things stand, the old and new appear locked in a silent death struggle, with the old increasingly losing ground. This is particularly ironic in Shaw, which has become a model of sorts for a political narrative about social sustainability amidst rapid change. Candidate Hillary Clinton made much-publicized appearances in the neighborhood in 2015 to tout the Federal Government’s role in preserving and expanding affordable housing. D.C. Mayor Muriel Browser has also used Shaw as a political prop - appearing on a rainy day outside of Progression Place to tout her administration’s commitment to affordable housing in the neighborhood. While new affordable developments have come on line over the past two years, the supply (roughly 150 units constructed thus far), is a drop in the bucket compared to the increasing demand.

An enduring trend seems to be that despite some of the glitzy publicity around Shaw as a neighborhood that got gentrification right, there are in fact, very few avenues for creating real social integration amidst an intensifying contest for space in the ‘New Shaw.’ The neighborhood went from having a 20% vacancy rate in 2000, to a vacancy rate of less than 1% in 2017. Many of the places where long-time residents shopped – Dollar Stores, carry-out restaurants, and small markets, have closed. In their places, new shops have emerged, most of them catering to upscale clientele.

The economic divide is telling. While median household incomes in Shaw now exceed $108,000, more than 40% of the residents earn less than 50% of the median income for the neighborhood – that is, less than $50,000. This divide puts intense pressure on housing affordability and local social services for a significant number of the Shaw residents. Even some of the apartments set aside within these developments for ‘affordable housing’ market to residents between 60% and 80% of the local median income. They also come with strict credit requirements for leasing, thus placing these options well beyond the reach of many local residents who earn far less than it would take to qualify for even the reduced rates.

Police are increasingly out in force in the neighborhood, attempting to manage street crime and remove newly displaced residents who nonetheless hang out in the area. Even the subsidized housing projects have become heavily secured forts, patrolled by guards and embedded with electronic security features that limit the number of people who have access to the premises. Loitering laws are being strictly enforced – and individuals who would traditionally hang outside of local restaurants are being told to move on or be arrested. In essence, public space is being privatized and regulated on a mass scale. In one apartment complex along seventh street, long-time residents were able to keep their apartments after thy were renovated, but the open area in the building that had previously served as a playground for children was converted into a dog park. There is a sign above the park that warns children to stay off the grass.

Long term residents and their families are increasingly feeling unwelcome in their own neighborhood. Those not yet displaced by housing affordability issues, are nonetheless feeling estranged by cultural phenomena that marks them as the outsiders. This sense of displacement has especially affected the youth of Shaw (and around the City) who are demonstrating symptoms of disconnection from the overall society. Washington is a city is on the move, but it seems to have left its many of its most-vulnerable residents behind.

Place-Keeping (A Movement for Cultural and Racial Justice)

Shaw Community Center (SCC), a local non-profit organization focused on youth and families has witnessed the effects of the changing local demographics on the local population. SCC Executive Director Sudi West, a native Washingtonian, has worked with local youth for over a decade and is concerned about the effect some of the changes are having on the community.

“The barriers that have erected in the neighborhood are not walls and gates per se, but clear demarcations based on development. When the new apartment buildings between 7th and 9th street were erected, it greatly affected the basic navigational orientation of the youth,” West says. “Youths who had previously roamed the area, now rarely venture north of “T” Street.” They don’t see it as a place they recognize of feel at home in.” West’s sentiments also coincide with those of even recent residents who moved to the neighborhood within the past decade. Some of them see themselves as ‘pioneers’ or ‘settlers’ and regard the residents of the new high-rise apartments and condominiums that have sprung up on U Street and just north of U Street as interlopers who are destroying the basic character of the neighborhood with an industrial façade reminiscent of some of D.C.’s suburbs like Tyson Corner.

In response to what the community viewed as a displacing façade emblematic of the changing neighborhood, in the summer of 2016, children of the Shaw Community Center came together to engage in a collaborative public art project called ‘Place-Keeping.’

The concept of Place-Keeping originated in a project began in Oakland, California to protest the rapid gentrification taking place in the San Francisco Bay area that saw housing prices skyrocket while local ‘indigenous’ populations were eventually forced out. As described by writer and community activist Roberto Bedoya in an article for Creative Time Reports, an ongoing tradition of “white special imaginary” results in the “development of public policies that created restrictive covenants excluding Jews, African-Americans and other communities of color from neighborhoods circumscribed as enclaves of whiteness. A spatial imaginary that persists today, in discriminatory policies and practices that disproportionately affect communities of color, such as New York City’s stop-and-frisk tactic, Florida’s stand-your-ground law or the reckless militarized policing in Ferguson, MO.”

As a direct reaction to the confronting encroachment of ‘white spaces,’ communities of color in the San Francisco area engaged in an artistic movement of place-keeping or “Rasquachification” designed to reclaim and preserve cultural identity amidst the whitened sepulchers of gentrification. Rasquachification involves artists developing culturally concentrated art projects in the midst of rapidly gentrifying areas.

“The children in Shaw had already been exposed to the concepts of non-violent direct action as practiced by Dr. King through their participation in an annual Celebrate Your Heritage play,” Mr. West stated. “Furthermore, they had been exposed to the concept of ‘Formation’ during an exploration of the music and visual imagery of ‘Beyoncé.’ We wanted to explore how they could implement those concepts within their own community, and thereby develop agency and voice.” In collaboration with local visual artists Tsedaye Makonnen, an Ethiopian-American performance artist who was born in Shaw grew up in the Washington area, and Serena Wiltshire, a long-time volunteer art teacher at the Center, SCC developed programmatic themes to accompany an artistic piece to be performed in the community.

Clay Boats – Migration & Displacement

Tsedaye Makonnen, a locally, based performance artist was born in the United States to Ethiopian immigrants. She has long considered herself a cultural ambassador, bridging the divide between her roots on the African continent and her life in America as a U.S. citizen. Three Summers ago, in 2013, at the height of the Mediterranean refuge crisis, Makonnen began to connect with local and international refugee communities to develop a means of bringing awareness to the issue of displacement using art.

In 2013 Makonnen noticed that artists in Europe were developing representations of boats to highlight the problem of the European Union’s refusal to refugees. She found it especially Ironic, that “These are the same countries that have ruined most of Africa. Now Africans are trying to flee and they are being turned back.” Since Makonnen had worked extensively with clay as a medium, she began to conceptualize a performance involving clay boats. “I have worked a lot with clay and thought about making these clay boats. I had already been experimenting with unfired clay and how it breaks. But then [French satirical magazine Charlie] Hebdo had just come out with an image of African refugees drowning at sea and connected it to black women on welfare in America. I had also been working with low income black women in DC as doula and seeing how they were being mistreated.”

Over the past few years Makonnen began to merge the themes of displacement and migration common among both African migrants and African-American residents of Washington, D.C. In the Summer of 2015, Tsedaye performed a performance art piece for the children of the Shaw Community Center that is part of an ongoing series involving clay boats titled “Lost & Loss.” The performance focuses on memorializing the lives, families and sense of self-identity lost during the course of displacement and force migration.

“Two summers ago, I did the clay boat performance for the [Shaw] kids. I wore an Ethiopian white scarf and had a pianist – who played a recording from Ethiopiques, an original Ethiopian jazz composition from the 1970s. I used spices like ground cinnamon, coffee and cloves and cardamom to stimulating the senses of sound, scent and tactile elements – all to evoke a response from the audience. We also incorporated fresh cut grass, which are used in traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. I created a ritual in which I laid out the boats in a circle and placed fresh-cut grass and ground spices around them, and then slowly crushed each boat.” According to Makonnen, the children became excited about the scents and the sounds, and some of the older children were able make the connection between the artistic presentation and the elements of displacement in Shaw.

The following summer Makonnen decided to do a public performance of the clay boat ceremony to help children draw the connection between dislocation and displacement around the world and the changes taking place in their own neighborhood. “We wanted to show them that you can use art to protest and make yourself known wherever you are. Art can also be an effective way to take on political issues.”

As part of the public display, the children marched over to The Shay, and stood in front of the ironically named ‘Compass’ Coffee.’ “That’s where the children felt this invisible border.” It was a hot July day when the children showed up and laid out the clay boats they had created one by one at the residents’ entrance. A UPS delivery man gingerly stepped over the boats. Tenants coming in and out of the building passed by, walking around the boats and eying the group warily. Soon thereafter, the building’s concierge showed up and asked the group to remove the boats from the sidewalk in front of the building. “This is private property and the residents are complaining,” he stated, pointing at the sidewalk. To children who had walked these city blocks and felt welcome there for years, the concierge’s statement about private property and easements seemed especially unsettling and confusing. After all, hadn’t the sidewalk always been a public space?

A construction worker who had been working on a nearby building and observing the scene eventually came over and talked to the group. He explained that he had grown up in Shaw and still owned property on 8th street just a few steps away from the Shay. But he talked about being pushed out by the increased taxes and costs of living in the neighborhood. He now rented his former home out to some of the new residents.

As the children lined up to leave, the building’s concierge began to pick up the clay boats and took them inside. The group of children walked down U Street, passing the Marie Antoinette-like mural and looking up at it in awe and some confusion. They crossed seventh street and were met at the front door of Metro PCS with welcoming gestures from some of the staff, who turned up the loudspeaker playing Go-Go music. An impromptu dance party soon erupted. A mail delivery man stopped on his route and joined the children, demonstrating old school Go-Go dance moves.

Go-Go music culture represents in a sense the exact opposite of the rampant commercialization and commodification of space offered by The Shay. Makonnen sees Go-Go as “a hyperlocal place affirming art that can’t be exploited by the music industry because each performance is unique.” Tsedaye also see Go-Go as an art form that is somewhat confronting in the face of the newcomers and their cultural aesthetic. “It is these cultural values as well a signifier of place that cannot be commodified and are difficult to simply erase, that make communities unique and imbue lasting value.”

Both gentrification and cultural preservation create unlikely winners and losers. In Georgetown, a traditionally black Washington community up until 1950, curbs on development created housing scarcities that drove housing prices up and dislocated blacks to other parts of the city. In 2016, the accelerated pace of development has grown the D.C. government’s tax base, removed decades of blighted structures from Shaw, and displaced long-time residents who can no longer afford to live there.

The old neighborhood now has a gleaming new face. But to those who called the neighborhood home during the past half century, it seems the custodians of the new value hierarchy proliferating in the neighborhood may have unintentionally thrown out the baby with the bathwater.