Hiply dressed patrons clutch plastic cocktail cups of wine. A DJ spins Beyoncé from a turntable embedded in an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Bright spotlights illuminate 22 vividly colored works and glint off the Honfleur Gallery’s sleek wooden floors.
“It’s something that could be in SoHo or Paris,” says founder Duane Gautier of events like the July 11 opening party for Honfleur’s annual “East of the River” showcase. The exhibit features artists from Wards 7 and 8, the District’s poorest and most underserved neighborhoods.
But a glance through the gallery’s huge glass windows serves as a reminder that Honfleur is not in New York or France. It’s in Anacostia, on a stretch of Good Hope Road SE it shares with a payday lending shop and five empty storefronts.
The neighborhood, long synonymous with urban blight, is an unconventional choice for a swanky art gallery. At least that’s what most people thought in 2007, when Honfleur opened on the site of a former pawn shop. At the time, there were no other art showrooms within a mile. Residents wondered why they were getting a gallery and not a school, while artists questioned whether anyone would come to see their work on that side of the river. A Washington Post article on the opening asked, “Does Anacostia need to be saved by art?”
Seven years later, Gautier says that has always been the wrong question.
“I don’t want this to be that art is the saving grace of Anacostia. It’s not,” he says. “But it is a catalyst for redevelopment.”
To prove his point, henames new additions to the neighborhood: There’s Uniontown Bar & Grill, which opened on Martin Luther King Avenue in May 2013, replacing a closed restaurant of the same name. And right down the road is Anacostia Playhouse (formerly the H Street Playhouse), which moved in after getting priced out of its previous home, in an area it had helped revitalize.
“It shows that people aren’t fearful of coming to Anacostia,” Gautier says.
Meanwhile, the payday lender and empty buildings aren’t the gallery’s only neighbors on Good Hope Road. Gautier’s ARCH Development Corp., the nonprofit redevelopment group that runs Honfleur, launched the Anacostia Arts Center around the same time the Uniontown restaurant was opening. Located just down the block from Honfleur, the brightly lit and chicly designed center is home to a black-box theater, a photography gallery, a small-business incubator (shared work spaces, focused on helping local start-ups get off the ground) and a cafe serving what is probably the only $5 coffee in Ward 8.
By the end of the year, the empty building to Honfleur’s left will be filled by another D.C. artist: neon sculptor Craig Kraft. He’ll leave his current studio in Shaw — what he says was an “up-and-coming” neighborhood when he moved in that has since “up-and-come”— in favor of the cheaper, edgier space in Anacostia.
These are small changes, says local real estate agent Darrin Davis, not enough to turn a neighborhood around. But he subscribes to Gautier’s view that they’re a catalyst for more.
“It’s giving us a higher profile, and it’s bringing more people to the area to see that the area is not everything that you read about,” Davis says.
While it’s true — at least anecdotally — that the gallery has brought more visitors to Anacostia, it still struggles to market itself to ﬁpeople living next door.
“Honfleur, that’s that museum, right?” asks resident William Jeffrey. Jeffrey has walked past the gallery plenty of times but has never gone inside; he isn’t sure whether visitors must pay to enter.
“A lot of people don’t really know about it,” adds Mike Wise, another Anacostia resident. Like Jeffrey, Wise has wondered about the gallery, but not enough to do more than peer through the windows.
That seems to be the case for many of Honfleur’s neighbors, whose attitudes toward the gallery range from apathy to mild curiosity.
A few view the gallery with more skepticism, concerned about what its presence means for the neighborhood. Might an art gallery and a playhouse lead to rising rents and shifting demographics?
Dionne Brown, a resident of nearby Bellevue who attended last month’s exhibit opening, says she has many neighbors who feel that way.
“Some people don’t believe this is truly reflective of the community, and I think that’s a demonstration of low expectations,” Brown says. “There’s a fear of anything nice being a sign that they’re being forced out.”
After all, they’ve seen it happen before. Anacostia residents look at the transformation of other once-neglected neighborhoods that were colonized by art galleries — H Street, the 14th Street corridor — and wonder whether the same changes could be coming their way.
“Developers run this city . . . and we don’t have much of a community to push back on that, to stem that,” says Kymone Freeman, co-founder of a progressive radio station around the corner from Honfleur. “This is the last frontier of the gentrification of the city. This is the last pocket of what D.C. was. If we don’t do something different east of the river, a lot of what made D.C. what it was is going to be forgotten.”
Hani Ahmed, who grew up in Anacostia and participated in an ARCH youth program that has since been disbanded, puts it more bluntly:
“I see all these white folks in there, going in every weekend,” he says. “But what are they doing for our community?”
Ahmed says he is skeptical that Honfleur’s mere presence is doing much for the area. He’d like to see more outreach, more youth programs and more opportunities for locals to get involved — especially because the gallery is receiving government funding, from the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Ann Fields, the owner of LAThreadz Couture clothing down the street, shares Ahmed’s concerns.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand it, so they don’t feel welcome,” she says. “You’d think they’d want to pull the community in, give something back.”
Honfleur’s creative director, Beth Ferraro, acknowledges that the gallery has room to improve in terms of outreach: She still gets visitors who, like Jeffrey, confuse it with a museum. And though it’s true that ARCH no longer offers art classes or youth programs, she says that Honfleur is using its limited budget to fill a different niche in the community.
“We can’t do everything,” she says. “But showing artwork, giving exposure to local artists, having in your community a place where you can go and be proud of: That’s a great thing, too.”
And largely, people in the neighborhood who have worked with the Honfleur Gallery view it as a model of development done right. ARCH’s bylaws mandate that it hold four annual community meetings to discuss its programming. The projects the company pursues — art galleries, studio rentals — are much less likely to lead to displacement than, say, a fancy condominium would. Freeman calls Honfleur the “kinder, gentler form of gentrification,” a form he’s happy to see in his neighborhood.
“They have walked the fine line of bringing in, you know, more affluent clientele into this area, and at the same time have not appeared to be a pariah in the community. That’s a difficult walk, and I think they’ve done it well,” Freeman says.
For James Terrell, one of the artists featured in the “East of the River” showcase, the main benefit of the gallery isn’t economic or political. It’s that Honfleur has created a home for local art in an area where no one thought such a thing could succeed.
Standing in the crowded gallery last month, Terrell grins at each visitor who pauses in front of his work: two colorful, richly textured oil paintings, one of a man holding a radio, the other of a young woman hugging herself.
Terrell grew up just down the street from Honfleur, and although he has participated in this exhibit every year since 2008, it’s still hard for him to believe that he’s seeing his art showcased here on Good Hope Road.
“This neighborhood, when I was growing up, was a whole other world,” he says — one where it was radical to even consider art as a career.
Now, though, “there are young people in this area who are artists who are going to see this and think, ‘I could have my art displayed.’ ”