His home is where the art is


Willie Shubert dips a soldering iron in dry ice to flash-freeze maple syrup at a Knowledge Commons DC winter cooking class in Micah Greenberg’s apartment. (Knowledge Commons DC)
February 20, 2013

If the walls of Micah Greenberg’s apartment could talk, you might hear about cyanotype printing, fermenting food or hangover cures from around the world. About cooking with snow, lock-picking or how to manage a food swap in which participants barter homemade or foraged goods.

By offering his Adams Morgan home as a haven for emerging artists and innovators, Greenberg has created a hub for the creative and the curious.

“I had no intention originally of taking it this far,” Greenberg said. He even moved out of his home in January to repurpose it as a classroom for the nonprofit Knowledge Commons D.C., which fosters the open exchange of information and expertise by putting on classes anywhere from public parks to Metro cars. And now, Greenberg’s apartment.

His project has taken off, Greenberg said, “partly by design, but largely by momentum.”

Perhaps that’s because Greenberg’s one-room center for arts and culture appeals in this well-educated city to people who are looking for a high-level exchange of ideas in a low-key setting. It has joined a small number of groups, such as the Pink Line Project and No Kings Collective, that promote emerging arts in Washington by making them accessible to people who can’t or don’t want to pay Kennedy Center prices for polished performances.

In some ways, Greenberg’s events are modern-day salons, but without the elitist trappings. But what began as a casual interest in holding house concerts (initially, Greenberg invited artists to perform in an apartment he had on U Street) has taken on a life of its own, as Greenberg has eliminated the barriers to entry that new artists and innovators often face in trying to showcase their work.

When Greenberg moved into his current home, a loft-style apartment, he chose it with aspirations to do more. More concerts, more yoga classes (his then-girlfriend taught yoga). And then more poetry courses, comedy performances, fashion shoots and even a vintage flea market.

It became such a mission for Greenberg that, in September, the day before he turned 35, he quit a lucrative marketing job at NPR and transformed his home into a makeshift cultural center, where he says he has hosted more than two dozen events, of varying degrees of expertise, that about 3,000 people have attended.

“I didn’t really want to leave my job. I almost had to,” Greenberg said. “I felt such a pull into this space that I created, but very much formed around me, in my living room.”

Word is out, even though Greenberg has no Web site or public calendar to advertise his space. He is constantly being approached with ideas about new ways to use it. One woman even inquired about using his apartment for her wedding reception, although that was ruled out after she saw it.

According to Amy Saidman, artistic director of the storytelling group SpeakeasyDC, Greenberg has found a sweet spot between entertainment and socializing.

“The shows are a mix of taking what you love about going to a show and what you love about being at a party, and putting them together,” Saidman said.

From the wacky and the weird to the erudite and the haute, all have been welcome to “Above the Bike Shop,” as the apartment is known to many because of its location above City Bikes on Champlain Street. Not everyone has the ability or aspiration to become a full-time artist, but those involved with Greenberg’s apartment have found an artistic outlet.

“We have been more responsive than proactive, to be frank,” said Ra-Jah Kelly, a close friend of Greenberg’s who has helped to organize a number of events. Kelly is the co-founder of SHAM, a grass-roots marketing and entertainment collective. “We have really been kind of amazed at the need for this type of space.”

Greenberg doesn’t charge anything to the artists who perform in his home. And most events are free or have a very modest price, said Mick Coogan, lead singer of Brett, who performed in Greenberg’s home and refers to Greenberg’s work as “an act of creative altruism.”

Having walked away from a six-figure salary, Greenberg spends most of his time doing unpaid work. He sees what he is achieving as compensation.

“I’m barely making a living,” Greenberg said. “But I’m really living.”

To fund his new life, Greenberg has dipped into his personal savings and also makes some money as the landlord of several group houses he bought in Columbia Heights, with some help from his parents, and a couple of consulting gigs. All told, he has 18 tenants; his consulting clients include Warby Parker, Help Remedies and the American Architectural Foundation.

Moving forward, he is considering fundraising and other financial models to meet his goal, which he describes as “to broadly support creativity and community in Washington.”

He is certainly not the first person to choose alternative methods to foster emerging arts and culture inside the Beltway. Philippa Hughes, the artistic tour-de-force behind the Pink Line Project and a mentor to Greenberg, blazed this trail before him. Through the Pink Line Project, Hughes chronicles the under-the-radar art scene in Washington.

And other groups, such as the No Kings Collective, which have attracted attention for their pop-up art events around the city, are helping to reshape the creative culture in Washington.

But hosting events in his home makes Greenberg unique. That intimacy is “part of the magic,” he says.

It also takes a toll.

Since moving out of his home temporarily in January to accommodate Knowledge Commons, Greenberg admits to fatigue.

“If I were to get an outside space or a more formal space — and I might do that — I think there will be real trade-offs involved,” Greenberg said. “It would almost feel like the end of an era.”

Krigman is a freelance writer.

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