Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A creative placemaking project in Washington, D.C., puts residents’ faces front and center.
Illuminated faces loom large in storefronts and street corners along lower Georgia Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. Some are backgrounded by humming cars, others by chain link fences, or patterned wallpaper. They blink, smile, or turn slightly as wind musses their hair.
Through November 20, close-up videos of local residents are being projected into the windows as part of the SEE/CHANGE project, part of the “Crossing the Street” creative placemaking initiative, backed by the D.C. office of planning with support from the Kresge Foundation. (More in-depth profiles of residents are also rolling out online.)
The continuous, zoomed-in loop is an effort to kindle a sense of empathy between folks who live and work along the rapidly changing corridor, says Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, who conceptualized the installation.
After responding to a curatorial call from the D.C. planning department, Hughes was assigned a neighborhood, and spent a few months canvassing long-time and newer residents of the surrounding neighborhoods in flux. Some long-term residents of Park View and Pleasant Plains recalled a time when the community was tightly knitted together, Hughes says. She remembers one resident, who arrived in 1942, ticking off the names of businesses that thrived along the thoroughfare, and rattling off names of storeowners who’d ship sticky-fingered kids right back to their parents.
“We didn’t talk at each other, we talked to each other,” a longtime resident named Harold Valentine says in one of the videos Hughes produced for the installation, in concert with the creative studio Composite Co. Valentine recalls the promise of a commercial strip in the ‘80s, and the splintering that accompanied the crack cocaine epidemic. He remembers urban planning efforts in the area drying up, and some residents drifting away. “They weren’t as interested in their neighbors as they once upon a time was,” he says.
The area is served by a dense artery of bus networks, but the linkage to nearby metro stations, in 1999, was a catalyst for more development, says Kent C. Boese, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A. Ten years ago, “if you wanted to have lunch on a Saturday, there’s almost nothing open,” he says. Now, he adds, there’s a brunch spot. But Boese notes that “as neighborhoods start to thrive, that impacts the tax base,” inching up rents for existing tenants. Finding a middle ground, he says, is a tough balance, and projects like SEE/CHANGE offer one way to activate disused space without throttling other businesses that are flourishing nearby.
The project leans toward the warm and fuzzy, but it doesn’t stop at velvety feelings, Hughes says: It’s about giving things a human shape and weight. At community meetings or planning sessions, conversations about large-scale plans can feel out of step with the people the projects would affect, Hughes says. Those “people behind the scenes, who live quietly in their homes” can fade to the periphery, so plans feel abstract—potentially affecting someone, somewhere, but not specifically rooted in place. “This isn’t going to solve all the problems, make everyone sit down and love each other, but it’s a visual representation of the people who live here,” she says. “The stuff that we talk about, these are the people it has an effect on.”
Hughes says she aimed to take a neutral stance on the question of what revitalization should look like. SEE/CHANGE doesn’t aim to arrive at some conclusion about gentrification, but to encourage neighbors to talk frankly with each other about the process. A workshop offered in conjunction with the installation by the local artist and activist Holly Bass asks participants to consider the question: What does it mean to be a good neighbor in a rapidly changing community? “When people talk about cultural preservation, they usually mean protecting a building or monument, but I’m more interested in the human side of culture—the vibe of the city, the social values of the people who live here,” Bass said in a statement. Valentine, who’s involved in the local senior center, organizes stroll-and-chat outings to bring folks from different ethnic groups together. “I have an old saying that I wouldn’t go across the street for a program, but I’d go around the world for a relationship,” he says in the video.
Though the installation wraps up this weekend, Boese hopes some iteration of it can find a permanent home in the community. That jibes with Hughes’s hope of sidestepping what she views as a strike against some placemaking projects—fleeting installations or events. “I see this as a starting point, not a thing where we pop in and pop out again,” she says. Instead of outsiders swooping in and dropping off a one-sized-fits-all placemaking solution, she adds, community trust and ongoing engagement is key.
On the heels of an election season that chafed, strained, and scalded relationships, empathy-building projects are especially important, Hughes says. Broadly speaking, “we need to find some way to actually talk to our neighbors, and not just yell at them on social media,” she adds. Extreme close-ups of people’s faces make the human aspect of conflict and change inescapable—but approachable, too.