Living in Anacostia: Nikki and Beth Discuss Anacostia's Creative Economy


  July 16, 2012, Washington, DC: On most mornings, Nikki Peele drives to work from her condo in Congress Heights. Beth Ferraro bikes over the river from her apartment in northwest DC. They meet in Anacostia, a neighborhood that many Washingtonians avoid. But it's there in the southeast quadrant of the city that Nikki and Beth invest their time, their energies, and their passions into an historic neighborhood where change is underway.

Alongside many others, Nikki and Beth are instrumental players in a collaborative effort to redefine Anacostia as a hub for artists and an incubator for small businesses. Nikki serves the director of economic development and marketing for ARCH Development Corporation -- a community non-profit intent on fostering a creative economy to fuel community revitalization -- and Beth works as the creative director at Honfleur Gallery and the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, two of ARCH's projects. Where some see blight, people like Nikki and Beth see potential. Where some see an empty lot, they envision a sculpture garden.

They are now among many in Anacostia who frequently come together to celebrate this community's ongoing makeover. On Friday night, crowds gathered at two neighborhood art galleries for opening receptions: At Honfleur, they came to see "East of the River", an exhibit featuring the work of 17 artists with roots in the communities east of the Anacostia River, and at Vivid Solutions, they explored "Inside Outside", an exhibit showcasing first-person accounts of formerly incarcerated men. The events were prime examples of increased levels of neighborhood participation, using art as the vehicle for change.

"We have events for the exhibits here at both Honfleur Gallery and the Gallery of Vivid Solutions every six to eight weeks, so there's usually a big opening," Beth recently told Neighborhood Nomads. "They always go longer than they should, everyone goes out afterwards, and it's always a pretty good mix of random people, both locals and the art crowd. It's a good diverse group."

"Obviously, I love the galleries, but it's not just the exhibits that I love," Nikki said. "I like these spaces because there are few opportunities in our communities to commune with one another. For me, in Anacostia, all of my good times when I get to see my neighbors or my coworkers or meet new people have been in these spaces."

"I think we are really at the precipice of some amazing things going forward -- absolutely," said Nikki. "I keep saying, If you're not here, get over here asap."

Both Beth and Nikki are neighborhood nomads: Beth comes to Anacostia via a small town in Pennsylvania, a career in New York and a stint in Australia's Byron Bay; Nikki comes to the neighborhood via a childhood in Virginia Beach and a decision to attend college in Washington, DC at Howard University.

Both now feel at home in the neighborhood where they devote their time and talent.

"My favorite thing about Anacostia is the people," Nikki said. "It's an urban space but it feels very much like a village and suburban. People see your face a lot and they wave."

"I don't think I've ever opened a door when I'm carrying something," Beth added. "Someone always opens the door. I feel like when I'm here, a lot of people are looking out for me."

Mere minutes from the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill, Ward 8's Anacostia neighborhood just  across the Anacostia River is undergoing a physical transformation. The examples are plentiful -- from the rehabbed building that opened a year ago as Uniontown Bar and Grill to the renovated Anacostia Library. In 2010, The Hive, also an ARCH project, opened to provide shared workspaces for rent to small, local businesses.

On the arts scene, a house nearby has been home to artists-in-residence who have come from other countries to the galleries of Anacostia. In partnership with the DC Office of Planning, the digital print lab at Vivid Solutions recently created vinyl prints to adhere to the windows of blighted, vacant buildings, in part to disseminate information to members of the community without computers. In partnership with organizations including the District Department of Transportation, advisory neighborhood commission representatives, and the Pink Line Project among others, the ARCH Development Corp. team created a massive festival this spring called Lumen8 Anacostia, an explosion of temporary art spaces that brought some 3,000 people to the neighborhood.

Just this weekend, about 20 local high school students were paired with industry experts to develop apps for Anacostia. Tomorrow, for the first time ever, a panel will judge entries in an East of the River Distinguished Artist Award, another opportunity to recognize artists who live in Wards 7 or 8. The winner of the $5,000 Distinguised Artists award will be announced in early September.

"We are thinking creatively, thinking outside the box," Beth said. "You really do have to look at it from all different angles and bring in the right people to work on the projects together."

"It's storefront by storefront, project by project, exhibit by exhibit -- it builds this buzz," said Nikki. "Things look different, but they also feel different. People are feeling engaged. They are encouraged to get involved. They're running for ANC positions, they're starting groups, they're starting companies. What people are asking for is also different. When I first came over here in 2007, people were asking for more services. But now what they're asking for is economic development. They want progress, they want space, they want retail spots. They understand how the economics of their situation are tied in to the growth of their community."

Nikki's own involvement east of the river began when she bought a condo in Congress Heights in 2007, an area she hadn't previously considered.

"I didn't think I could afford the DC that I wanted to live in and to be quite honest, everything that I heard about east of the river was to stay away from there," she said. "I had never even really been there. I think that parallels a lot that we all heard about this area."

But once she got got there, she dove right in. In June 2008, the self-described "fixer" began writing a blog called Congress Heights on the Rise. Today she keeps up the blog while also playing an integral part in ARCH's many programs.

With its main street, historic homes and proximity to downtown Washington, Nikki calls Anacostia "the jewel of Ward 8."

"It sounds funny, but I think people are gonna say, Anacostia's a neighborhood for families," she said. "It's gonna sound funny, but I think it's true. The influx of new people in the community have been single professionals, and now they're getting married, and they bought these houses because they could afford houses here. And now they can stay."

East of the River is open at Honfleur Gallery now through September 8th. Inside Outside is open at the Gallery of Vivid Solutions now through September 28. Both galleries are free of charge and open to the public, Tuesday through Friday 12p-5p, Saturday 11a-5p.

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