Come to Anacostia!

Kirsten Kearney waxes lyrical about DC's 'most notorious district'

Anacostia lies east of the (Anacostia) river in Washington, just a mile away from Capitol Hill, but cut off from the rest of the city by geography, social infrastructure and ethnic background. In many ways it is a forgotten territory. Rich in history, the Anacostia region was originally settled by the Necostan or Anacostan native Americans who gave the area its name, yet now, despite its rich history, it is synonymous with violence, drugs and gang warfare.

Ironically for an area which is now 92% African American, when Anacostia was integrated into the District of Columbia in 1854, you could not buy or rent property if you were black or Irish. Perhaps it is this background that makes the NI artists feel so at home.

Under the community arts banner in the Rediscover NI programme, Anacostia enjoyed a triple whammy of artistic input, working with the ARCH Training Center in Washington.

Tracey Gallogly was tasked with transforming a wall into an artwork under the watchful eye of Cheryl Foster, a DC-based artist, while I collaborated with Mervyn Smyth to create an exhibition of photography and poetry with the aim of capturing something of the atmosphere of the area and telling our stories of our experiences.

Smyth is desperate to go back. He lived, breathed and slept Anacostia for two weeks, meeting many of the area's characters, hearing the stories, good and bad, tragic and comical and falling in love with the area.

'I certainly found the people very interesting and they actually found me very interesting.  They just couldn’t basically understand, for want of a better word, why this big white fellow was walking about their area. So they got to know me.'

The link and similarities between Belfast and Anacostia was something which struck each of us involved. As Smyth experienced: 

'I said from day one that I had been lifted from my job in Belfast and set into Anacostia. The exact same job with exact same people and exact same problems. Just people getting on with their own lives.'

His work is intriguing and insightful. Unusually among photographers, Smyth's subjects asked him to take their photos because they were so interested in the project.

The Belfast Exposed Photography of Anacostia exhibition is evolving into a physical and emotional journey of the area and its people. It will be exhibited in June in The Honfleur Gallery, Anacostia's very impressive visual arts gallery. Plans are also afoot to bring the exhibition back to Belfast.

The exhibition will also include work from many of the kids involved in the ARCH's programmes. Young people who worked with Mervyn during his residency will take over the top floor of the gallery and show Anacostia through their own eyes.

There will be a feast for the ears as well. The poetry element of the project, ably managed on the ground by Anacostia-based performance poet Fred Joiner, will appear in audio aural format as well as with poems turned into artworks, from local poets and that I produced, during my stay.

Anacostia is not, as some would tell you, a one way trip to hell. It is, rather, a secluded village-like community, cut off from the city by the river and left to disintegrate and decay by poor financial investment.
It is also friendly, colourful, full of street life and real characters like Mama Cole, who serves the best fried chicken in town.

While pens were scribbling and shutters snapping elsewhere, Gallogly and Foster were up to their eyes in paint, cement boards and a team of young boys who were all set to transform a gable end wall on Martin Luther King Jnr Ave into a collage of afros, ice creams, cats, dogs and families, all trotting happily along a red brick road.

The young people were asked to think about what made them happy, what created home for them. With the nuclear family an exception in Anacostia, grandparents featured strongly, as did mothers and household pets.  

Armed with the children's drawings, Gallogly and Foster magicked them into impressively tall figures with stretched-out legs and bright clothes. The process was as important as the end result, with the on-street location of the project meaning that many people stopped to stare, question or occasionally, to lend a hand. 

Each of the artists worked with ARCH (not to be confused with The ARC, The Anacostia River Community Playbuilding Project which is housed nearby). ARCH is a 19 year-old not-for-profit, community-based organisation located in the heart of Anacostia.

Anacostia is also a place where art and the arts are staging a wide ranging revolution. The ARCH crew are one of the most committed, inspiring, creative groups of people you will ever come across. They work with kids, young teens, young adults, young mothers and fathers using the visual arts, writing, photography and the performing arts to help people expand their skills, raise their expectations and work through their issues. ARCH contribute in a meaningful way to the real lives, needs and dilemmas of those in their community.

For a while, each of us belonged to that community.

They will tell you not to go to Anacostia. Ignore them. All of us involved in this project felt privileged to be allowed into a community where white people are in the minority, and where the power of art in transformation is being so clearly acted out.

Mervyn Smyth, Belfast Exposed’s larger-than-life photographer has been shot at, held at gunpoint, chased and attacked during his colourful career. Quite the man you would chose then, if you needed a community photographer to go to Anacostia. Until you hear that he is scared of flying.

Tracey Gallogly’s CV would give you bedtime reading for a week. The Co Armagh artist has worked on visual arts and mural projects from Upper Springfield to Durban, Costa Rica to Greystones. She is similarly unphased by the prospect of Anacostia.

Kirsten Kearney, writer in residence, has been tracking the whole Rediscover NI project through her work with CultureNorthernIreland and was booked to attend the launch of her poem on the Washington metro when she was invited to contribute to the poetry angle of the Anacostia project.