Why long term, DC's Anacostia's commercial district isn't likely to become an "arts district"
The Washington City Paper has a nice collection of articles in the current issue on Anacostia and its future as an arts district ("How to Build an Arts District: Will Anacostia become D.C.'s next great arts corridor? It’s complicated").
Arts as a revitalization augur is something I've spent quite a bit of time studying and was involved in some as it related to the revitalization program on H Street NE in DC. (H Street has a handful of arts oriented venues, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and a couple of galleries, some on Florida Avenue. Mostly what attracts people to the corridor are the taverns and restaurants.)
I've written a lot about this issue, but the tour de force piece is this one, "Arts, culture districts and revitalization," which was the basis of a presentation I made at the national conference of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas in 2009.
The main point is that artistic disciplines need to take the lead on their own planning, that they can't expect real estate developers to represent their interests.
The paper also discusses space access, cost of space, anchoring institutions, and the difference between "arts as production" versus "arts as consumption."
A good example of anchoring institutions and space supporting artists is the A. Salon on Willow Street in Takoma DC. It's a big space, with not much opportunity for office use, so it's used as relatively low rent studio space for artists. But while the rent is cheaper than office space, it's not super-cheap either. Many of the artists probably have other jobs. Plus many of the studios are shared, which cuts the cost, but means the rents are higher.
And as far as "arts as production" vs. "arts as consumption" is concerned, DC's arts are mostly about consumption--going to museums, concerts, and plays--and are not too focused on the development and support of artists, especially in the visual arts.
There are 4-5 key components that support the development of arts districts and especially artistic production, and because from a long term standpoint, these components won't likely remain present in Anacostia--even as some cool capacity building organizations are being created from a radio station to the Anacostia Arts Center--means it won't really be able to develop into a full-fledged "arts district" even if it has some arts institutions (note that the Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County, despite their recent winning of a $250,000 ArtsPlace grant, has the same problem).
The paper has some good citations of key works in the field, which are worth your reading if you care to learn more about the topic.
Arts districts need:
1. Cheap space that's going to remain cheap for a long long long time (preferably a couple decades and ideally longer).
2. And lots of it.
These are probably the two most important characteristics that support "naturally occurring arts districts" and Anacostia has neither.
Sure its commercial spaces are cheaper, comparatively speaking, than other space elsewhere in DC, but compared to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, the space is pretty expensive, and there isn't very much of it. One big old factory in Baltimore probably has more space for artists than a combination of half of DC's equivalent facilities.
3. Anchoring institutions that support artists and capacity building -- Anacostia does have the arts efforts of the community development organization ARCH, but while there are a couple of cool spaces, there aren't many
4. Anchoring presenting institutions that attract audiences -- Anacostia is getting the Anacostia Playhouse, which is the rebranding of the H Street Playhouse which has moved because of higher rents, but one or two institutions doesn't build a cluster either. For example, compare the Station North Arts District in Baltimore or the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative in Pittsburgh. There are dozens of presenting institutions, stores, artist spaces, etc. (And for what it's worth, one of the best tours at a conference I ever went on was of the Penn Ave Arts district, led by the coordinating organization.)
5. And for arts consumption, location helps a lot too. This case study of the Station North and Highlandtown arts districts in Baltimore (from 'Natural Cultural Districts': A Three-City Study) demonstrates the value of location and the presence of strong anchoring institutions.
Station North is better located and has many more arts organizations including two universities and continues to develop and expand, while Highlandtown, cool and all, hasn't seen near the same level of success, as it is on the edge of the city and only has a couple of anchoring institutions, but ones very good for supporting artists (see "Former Crown Cork Complex still bustling" from the Baltimore Sun and the Creative Alliance website), if not consumption.
Labels: arts-based revitalization, arts-culture, civic engagement, commercial district revitalization, cultural heritage/tourism, cultural planning, music-entertainment, nonprofit management, urban design/placemaking