Anacostia: Washington's Next Arts District?

The historic DC neighborhood gets ready for its closeup.

By: Sophie Gilbert

The center of Anacostia is two miles from Capitol Hill, but for many, says Phil Hutinet, it may as well be in a different time zone.

Hutinet is used to people thinking “Anacostia” means a broad swath of Southeast DC from Congress Heights to Fort Dupont Park—the area vaguely defined by many as “east of the river.” It’s actually a small neighborhood and historic district roughly bounded by Good Hope Road, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Suitland Parkway, and Fort Stanton Park. As founder of the East City Art blog and chief operating officer of ARCH Development Corporation, he has a mission to make Anacostia Washington’s next emerging arts hub and to persuade Washingtonians that it’s a trip worth taking. Says Hutinet: “There’s a rich culture east of the [Anacostia] river that’s very different from other parts of DC.”

This summer, H Street Playhouse announced it was relocating from Northeast DC’s Atlas District to Anacostia, in part thanks to Hutinet’s efforts. It’s a bold step for the theater and significant for the neighborhood: Anacostia currently has no performing-arts venues, few stores, and even fewer sit-down restaurants. (A Washington Post article cited only six eateries with waiter service in Wards 7 and 8—which include Anacostia.)

Anacostia does have history and culture. The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum sits just south of Fort Stanton Park, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site—where the abolitionist lived—overlooks Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to Capitol Hill and beyond. Anacostia also has several venues for visual arts: Honfleur Gallery, which opened in 2007, and the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, which has been devoted to photography since 2009. Both are the work of ARCH, which also owns the Hive, an office-like space on two floors for use by members, and Blank Space SE, which can be rented for exhibits and events; a bigger Hive II opens this month.

ARCH’s attempts to redefine Anacostia have borne fruit, but the nonprofit was initially established to provide job training. Founder Duane Gautier, a New Jersey native who first visited Anacostia in the ’60s when it bustled with shops and restaurants, returned in the ’80s to find it depressed. ARCH was born in 1983 to help reverse the trend, and in 2004 it shifted its focus to arts promotion.

Arts institutions, says Hutinet, are uniquely suited to provide economic growth: “I’ve seen from my experience running galleries on H Street that arts bring people in. Artists or people who like the arts tend to be open-minded and less concerned about their surroundings. They’re not frightened that there’s a boarded-up building next door. They can see the potential.”

This year, Gautier and ARCH announced the East of the River Distinguished Artist Award, which recognizes local figures. The first $5,000 prize was awarded to BK Adams, known for his vibrant installations. Hutinet says the group received more than 15 applications and heard from many who missed the deadline. Honfleur Gallery also shows an exhibit of local artists each year—particularly popular among residents.

The challenge for ARCH is to continue to promote Anacostia as a place to visit and to live while maintaining its character. Gentrification is a dirty word in parts of DC, where residents can be priced out of areas where they’ve spent their lives. Hutinet, a third-generation Capitol Hill resident, mentions Barracks Row as an example of a neighborhood where a focus on new restaurants has altered its fabric. Providing Anacostia with arts venues will, he believes, help it keep its personality and sense of community but with new resources and a reputation as an incubator for creativity.

“I wanted to steer people away from this notion that it’s the yuppie land grab,” says Hutinet. “We can’t control everything about who’s going to come live here, but we can at least try to be a force for good.”