The work table in Cedric Baker’s studio in Brookland is strewn with paint bottles and sketches and blank canvases he will eventually fill with pigment and slash with bold lines.
On this Thursday evening, however, painting is on hold as Baker greets visitors to the studio. The guests are more than potential customers for his paintings; they’re the target market for a developer hoping they might someday want to rent a luxury apartment nearby.
The Arts Walk, as the string of artists studios where Baker works is known, is a crucial element of the $200 million Monroe Street Market project still rising on the southern tip of Catholic University’s sprawling campus. Anchored by handsomely appointed apartments — a one-bedroom in the faux industrial Brookland Works start at $1,790 — the development is a sea of master-planned newness where once there was little more than aging dormitories and craggy grass.
At one end of Monroe Street, just off Michigan Avenue NE, the sign is up at the promised Barnes & Noble, and on the other, Brookland Pint, a craft-beer bar and restaurant with vegetarian food, is weeks away from opening. Still to come is a bike shop and cafe combo.
For now, however, the development’s surprising selling point is Baker and other artists. Opened in the footpath around the Brookland-CUA Metro station last fall, Monroe Street Market’s Arts Walk is 27 artist studios that are also, effectively, high-ceilinged shops representing a curious experiment in urban growth.
The arrival of galleries and theater companies in low-rent neighborhoods has long been a signal of a neighborhood on the brink of change. (Or, more cynically, they’re the harbinger of the Chipotles and cycling studios to come.) But in the context of transforming Brookland, Monroe Street Market’s Arts Walk is something else entirely: It is developers who have brought in artists to help move things along.
The presence of artists was part of the Monroe Street Market project from the initial pitch by developer Abdo nearly a decade ago. Stores and restaurants have been hesitant to move into Brookland, which they see as “an unproven market for retail,” says Mike Henehan, vice president of Bozzuto, the developer that is building Monroe Street Market and operating the Arts Walk. Moving in the artists last fall, he says, “has been incredible for the project. They’ve opened it up.”
In practice, Henehan concedes, “It’s easy to come up with that concept. But it’s definitely very tricky to deliver and make work and stay activated and operating successfully.”
Being the first occupants of lucrative real estate, then, requires the Arts Walk’s motley crew of painters, sculptors, poets, printers and vintage-clothing purveyors to be de facto ambassadors for what might have been another groan-worthy “mixed-use” faux urban setting. In some cases, they are their own gallerists and shopkeepers, mounting exhibitions and selling their own wares.
To suss out the artists who’d be able to turn their spaces into visitor-friendly retail environments, Bozzuto enlisted the arts nonprofit CulturalDC. Applicants had to have good credit and submit work samples, but they were also interviewed, Henehan says, to see how they would design their space and whether this type of studio, with regular access to the public, was right for them.
“They were looking for diversity, diversity of media, diversity in the people,” says Leda Black, a photographer who moved into No. 16 and launched her space, dubbed Black Lab, in April. “They were looking for people who wanted to interact with the public. It’s an excellent deal, if you don’t mind having such public exposure — if you don’t mind being in this sterile, concrete setting.”
Compared to the alternatives, the artists say, the rent is low; their contracts with Bozzuto bar them from revealing specifics about their lease terms, but CulturalDC lists the rates as $390 to $850 a month for spaces ranging from 300 to 600 square feet. (The artists are prohibited from living in the studios.)
In his 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” professor Richard Florida introduced the theory that cities’ economic futures would hinge on their ability to lure the bike-lane-loving, coffee-swilling, graphic-designer set.
In Washington, the idea that money follows the hip has been taken to something of an extreme, applied to everything from underused waterfront to office buildings with a few empty floors. Developers regularly offer a blank canvas of square footage to events such as art fair Artomatic or parties such as Art All Night; they turn over facades to muralists. The phenomenon even has a name: To bring in the arts is to “activate” your space. (The forthcoming Atlantic Plumbing project, which is slated to rise near the 9:30 Club in Shaw, will also include two buildings featuring “ultra-luxury” apartments and condos, activated by more even more artists studios.)
Activating Monroe Street is a work still in progress.
“It was new for me to have to perform in front of the public, in a way,” Baker, once a cabbie in New York, says during the recent open house. So he installed heavy drapes. Sometimes, he shutters them to protect his paintings from the sun. Sometimes he does so just so he might work without distraction. Still, it is far better than the basement where he used to work. It has heat, and it has air conditioning — a useful luxury when the tall glass seems to beam in the sun.
Across the way, in No. 4, a couple from the neighborhood pop in with their dog to flip through photographs by Avner Ofer, whose neon-bright images of orchids, zinnias and jasmine also hang from every wall. For Ofer’s wife, Katie Krezel, the Arts Walk also offers a home for her young leather-goods business, as well as a high-profile amenity for Brookland, a neighborhood she’s lived in for a decade. “This is instant inspiration,” Krezel says. There are collaborations in the works. Some artists have come to rely on each other for feedback and, it seems, for company when the workdays stretch into the evenings. But like some other residents of the Arts Walk, who hope that sales of their leather bags, 1960s polyester dresses and quirky greeting cards will help offset the rent, she worries. “The traffic isn’t here yet,” she frets, her eyes wandering to her two customers, who leave without buying anything.
In No. 8, Wild Hand Workspace, Morgan Hungerford West is less concerned. She spends hours each day in what’s become a rustically decorated, living laboratory for her lifestyle blog, Panda Head, also hosting weekend-long exhibitions and workshops on such creative pursuits as jewelry-making and bleaching your own denim. She fills her studio using regular e-mail blasts. “I went into this with no expectation of anyone else promoting my space or my work,” she says. “Once you get them out here for the first time, they understand that it’s not far, that it’s very accessible,” not more than a 10-minute drive from Columbia Heights.
Nevertheless, Carla Perlo, who planted her contemporary dance venue, Dance Place, in Brookland nearly 30 years ago, is committed to promoting the walk, and by extension, her own venue, which is two blocks away. She took up space in No. 21 to paint and as a home base for two nights of community dance and music events she programs on the walk each week. There is one more reason: As the arts community moves in around the Metro station via the Arts Walk, Perlo says, she is determined to have a presence there, too.
Fighting for visibility, it seems, is part of the day-to-day in the neighborhood still on the upswing.
“We’re all learning it together, with the artists,” says Sarah Hyde, a development associate with CulturalDC, which also created the retail-meets-studio concept for the Arts Walk. “No one really knew what to expect, or what it would feel like as a community. We’re all trying to make sure it’s a destination.”
And getting anything on a map is a challenge, Perlo says. “You’re trying to create an environment where people congregate, and linger, and shop and eat and talk and drink, but there’s no restaurants,” she says — not yet, anyway. “It’s corporate. Oftentimes corporations have very different wants, needs and desires than artists.
“Everyone,” she says, “has worked very hard to meet in the middle.”