How Two Art Spaces Have Survived In Gentrifying D.C.

By Maxwell Tani

D.C.'s Back Alley Theater has existed in one form or another for nearly 50 years.
D.C.'s Back Alley Theater has existed in one form or another for nearly 50 years. Layne Garrett

On May 21, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library hosted “District Of Change: Making D.C. Better For the Arts,” a panel that examined the problems facing D.C.’s creative industry.

Moderated by Vox Executive Editor Matt Yglesias (who’s written about D.C.‘s economic disincentives for artists), it found performer and writer Holly Bass, ex-Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, and Transformer gallery co-founder Victoria Reis expressing familiar concerns about creativity’s chances in gentrifying D.C.

“As we go through the process of bulldozing the city, let’s just leave a little bit for the artists,” Canty said.

Every time another alternative art space closes, it seems to confirm that small plates have supplanted underground arts in this town. But while it’s clear that development and rising property values have deeply impacted the arts community, DIY venues have always come and gone in D.C. Sometimes, gentrification is to blame. Other times, it’s a different story.

Take the late Bobby Fisher Memorial Building, which closed when its tenants reportedly couldn’t renegotiate a lease with their landlord. Basement spot Subterranean A stopped doing shows when its residents decided to move on or move out. Casa Fiesta’s management curbed its punk and metal shows, saying loud music drove away customers.

Meanwhile, D.C. DIY has sprouted branches. The ethos of “DIT” (Do It Together)—a more community-focused take on DIY—is catching on here, evident in the Brightest Young Things column written by Paperhaus’ Alex Tebeleff, in addition to plans for the first In It Together Festival. Local alternative music spaces continue to open. Some of them crop up in people’s houses (like The Dougout and Ft. Loko)—but more “official” alternative spaces exist here, too.

How are they doing, and what are they doing right?

To find out, I talked to the people behind two of those spaces, Union Arts and Back Alley Theater.

Union Arts
Located inside a gray, blocky building on New York Avenue NE, Union Arts has become one of the busiest DIY venues in the city. Its tenants hope it remains that way for a while—even though the building it occupies may be sold soon.

As reported by Washington City Paper last year, after artist hangout Gold Leaf Studios (formerly The Hosiery) shut down in 2012, a core group of members—including owner Mike Abrams—founded Union Arts in the old Warehouse Loft space at 411 New York Ave. NE. Since then, it’s offered relatively affordable studios and concert space to its renters. Its events are now run mostly by musician Luke Stewart, who says that shows are somewhat of a bonus for the space.

“Even though we have shows here, that’s not our primary focus,” he says.

Union Arts hosts events almost every week, but the shows don’t have to make money. The space is paid for by the artists who rent studios there.

Stewart values the diverse artistic output that Union Arts facilitates. Studio members are in charge of booking or approving events, resulting in a wide range of shows, from experimental jazz to hardcore punk to sufi and ambient music. Studio members hold biweekly meetings and maintain email threads about shows and an internal event calendar. Union Arts is also on its way to becoming a nonprofit, he says.

“The way to be sustainable is to organize, get your [act] together,” said Stewart. “When you start there, you can talk about how to sustain. Otherwise you’re flying blind.”

There’s an element of luck here, too. Unlike spaces in more residential areas, Union Arts dwells in a warehouse district, where gentrification and noise-averse neighbors don’t pose a constant threat. The building rests in a commercial and light manufacturing zone. (Union Arts is also known as Union Arts & Manufacturing.)

But 411 New York Ave. NE has been on the market for more than two years now, says its owner, Gail Harris. (Asking price: $7.5 million.) A contract is now being negotiated with a potential buyer, whom Harris says intends to maintain the building as it is, at least in the short term.

Back Alley Theater
Union Arts isn’t the only large D.C. DIY space that doesn’t double as a living room. Back Alley Theater occupies a wide basement of a resident-owned apartment building on Kennedy Street NW in Brightwood. It’s operated by Amanda Huron and Layne Garrett, longtime D.C. musicians and members of the experimental band Weed Tree.

Back Alley Theater goes back decades, according to a history on its website. First a theater company, it started out of a house in Mt. Pleasant in 1967 and later bounced around: to St. Stephen’s Church on Newton Street NW, then Capitol Hill, then finally to Kennedy Street in 1969. Over 20 years there, it staged politically charged plays by Amiri Baraka and others, but quieted down for nearly two decades. Members of the building’s Madison Terrace Cooperative revived the space as an events center a few years ago.

Huron says residents have been excited to have arts events in the building again, and they haven’t complained about noise from concerts and other happenings in the space. She ensured that the space could operate legitimately, obtaining a certificate of occupancy and a capacity placard from the District.

“People are obsessive about wanting a space,” Huron says. “But when you get that space, there’s a [lot] of work that goes into maintaining it.”

The night after the arts panel at MLK Library, Back Alley Theater is getting ready to host a lineup of avant-garde and jazz artists. Garrett and Huron are prepping. Residents come down to greet Huron while Garrett arranges chairs and offers to set up the P.A. The equipment and furniture were purchased with money from the D.C. Diversity Fund.

Huron hangs up a modest sign outside the door with the venue’s name. It’s not glamorous, but that’s never been the point of putting on these shows.

Her and Garrett’s longtime involvement in D.C.’s experimental-music scene might afford them a more optimistic outlook on DIY spaces. Artists who stick around here long enough would begin to see a pattern: when spaces close, there’s a good chance another one is right around the corner.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the old days, which can get fetishized,” says Huron. “Some spaces have to die for other spaces to live.”

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  • richardlayman

    This doesn’t really add much to the discussion. Union Arts’ building has been owned by a family for many decades that used the building originally for their business (which is still located there). So it’s “permanently” allocated space. And the other space is interstitial, and usable, by people with an affiliation in the building. In both cases the properties are disconnected from real estate market pressure to be used for other purposes with a higher rate of economic return. (Plus, I don’t know Amanda Huron, but she is an academic too, and presumably has additional knowledge about these kinds of issues, in particular the use of “public” space:

    FWIW, I wrote a piece about this broad issue 5 years ago (it was originally part of a presentation at a national theater conference annual meeting) wrt DC and it is still completely relevant today.

    This more recent entry on the same broad topic includes links to that and other pieces:

    • wamu885

      Richard, the story doesn’t make the case that these spaces have found ways of beating gentrification; they’re uniquely positioned, and that’s how they’re able to stay open amid rising costs.

      Also, 411 New York Ave. NE is for sale, as Maxwell mentions in the story. Though the owner says the potential new buyer plans to maintain the building as-is. -Ally

      • lgarrett

        Right. One of the things we tried to emphasize when we spoke with Maxwell is that these are marginal spaces that are happy to remain in the margins. We are presenting music/art that is never going to be wildly popular or
        attract the interest of enough people to pay the rent on a space in a city half as expensive as DC. As someone who is passionate about weird music and the amazing creativity of some of the people who make it, I cannot imagine making the kind of sacrifices that would have to be made in order to run a “commercially viable” enterprise. Recently there was a noise festival in Brooklyn featuring some great bigger-name acts and sponsored by Red Bull; by all accounts I have heard the wild sounds were not worth the awful vibe.

        Anyway, one way to carry on and present interesting art in the face of ridiculous rents is precisely to find space in buildings “disconnected from real estate market pressure….” They are out there. And otherwise, yes, to understand that the reality of presenting interesting culture within a hyper-active capitalist system is that most plausible venues are going to be precarious underground situations with limited lifespans. -Layne Garrett

        • mike abrams

          the thing is the building at 411 has financial pressures and the artists pay a high price to keep their space it is only by risk and ruin that arts spaces are made and sometimes survive .

  • richardlayman

    Hmm. Yes, I see your point. WRT 411 NY Ave. NE, in Helsinki (but in other cities as well) similar spaces that were old manufacturing plants (General Typographers sort of fits the bill) were rented by their owners to make some $ while the buildings were otherwise mothballed. That ended up leading to the building being acquired by the city to stay as a permanent arts center (Cable Factory). DC could step in here, but as I have written in a variety of posts over the years, DC doesn’t have a cultural plan and definitely not a facilities plan as it relates to supporting space provision and access for artists, so something like that happening is very remote.

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