The Future of Congress Heights

Art by the people: Southeast residents stake claim to neighborhood

Photos from Nuit Blanche: Art All Night in Congress Heights. Courtesy of the Ward 8 Arts & Culture Council.

“Art is something that brings people together,” says Luis Peralta, visual artist and winner of the 2013 East of the River Distinguished Artist award. 

“We may have a lot of differences in our political views, we may have a lot of differences in the way we think about certain neighborhoods,” he continues, “but art is something that everybody can enjoy.” 

Peralta recently witnessed the power of art to bring people together as one of five curators of the inaugural Nuit Blanche: Art All Night in Congress Heights. This was the first time the southeast neighborhood, along with several other communities throughout the District, participated in the annual festivities modeled after the original “Nuit Blanche” first held in Paris. 

The event drew over 17,000 people who enjoyed a rooftop fashion show, Caribbean carnival, karaoke, multimedia maze, art exhibitions, live music and drumming, open mic performances, capoeira martial arts, yoga, food demonstrations and more along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. 

“It was a good experience,” says Peralta, “Hopefully we get a chance to do it next year and every year, it’s going to get better.”  

While the efforts of over 30 organizations collaborating to ignite Congress Heights during Art All Night was successful, skepticism of the neighborhood becoming a true arts destination remains negatively rooted in history. 

In past decades, the Ward 8 neighborhood has been characterized by high poverty, crime, violence and unemployment. It was likely that the only foot traffic throughout the neighborhood was from those who lived there.  

“Sometimes people are scared to come over the bridge because they think they're going to get robbed or all they're going to see is drugs,” says Peralta, who has lived in historic Anacostia since 2008. “But the face of east of the river is changing and I believe that art is what the face is going to be. We’re in the process of revitalizing this area and its going to take some people to take risks to invest in the properties and arts--I think that’s what is going to bring more people here.” 

In 2013, the launch of East Gateway Pavilion promoted the former St. Elizabeth Hospital campus as a hub for art, creativity, health and culture in Congress Heights. The entire St. Elizabeth East campus, at 183 acres, is the largest remaining undeveloped parcel in the country’s top real estate market and could bring approximately five million square feet of urban development just minutes away from the Congress Heights metro station. 

“The St. Elizabeth development is very key to activating our infrastructure and our creative industries,” says Tendani Mpulubusi El, chair of the Ward 8 Arts & Culture Council. 

The Ward 8 Arts & Culture Council has contributed to the proposal of Four Points, LLC to become the Master Developer of St. Elizabeth East’s Phase 1, which comprises 1.6 million square feet of the property. 

If the Four Points proposal wins, residents can expect an arts hub that will grow to be relevant not only throughout the metropolitan region, but the entire east coast, says Mpulubusi El. Regardless of public or private resources, which have long been unequally distributed to east-of-the-river neighborhoods, Ward 8 residents are ready to stake their claim. 

“The Ward 8 Arts & Culture Council and a new generation of leadership is stepping up to the plate and we demand the best,” says Mpulubusi El. “We are competent, confident and well qualified to make things happen and we don’t believe that the problems that have been projected upon Ward 8 really represent the whole Ward 8 and Congress Heights. We understand the beauty that's here and we're making sure that we flip the script--we're shining the light on what's working and this is bringing different results.” 

The future of Congress Heights will be reflective of its majority African American residents, says Mpulubusi El--the artists, poets, writers, designers and creators who live in the community. “Because we live here, we're not depending on grant funding or any outside factors, we're going to continue to provide this and engage people because it’s naturally what we do.”

If nothing else, the resurgence of arts and cultural outlets in Congress Heights will penetrate the harshness associated with poverty-stricken communities. 

“Without arts and culture in the community, it’s naturally going to become destructive because all of the creative energy is being funneled through something that is not building you up,” says Mpulubusi El. “In order to build, you need tools; in order to grow, you need food, and arts and culture is the seed that helps people grow into [individuals who are] making healthy contributions to the environment and society.”  

For more information on the Ward 8 Art and Culture Council, go to https://www.facebook.com/W8ACC.