Over the summer, the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development surveyed nearly 200 people in Ward 8 to gauge their interest in a piece of public art in this scraggly place. Among the choices: murals, elaborately lit designs, landscapes.
But the people wanted a totem pole. The behemoth sculptures, typically carved from trees by native peoples to illustrate ancient legends, watch over lands in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. There are also some near Union Station, part of another installation.
“The things with the eagles?” asked Ralph Phillips, 29, as he walked along Good Hope Road. “That makes sense to me. The Indians, the Native Americans were the first ones here. It could be a nice tribute to them and help show off our neighborhood.”
One evening this month, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities invited five local artists to share their ideas for a piece to symbolize the neighborhood’s past, present and future. The artists sat before fewer than a dozen neighbors, all interested in seeing the area move away from being the city’s portrait of poverty.
Washington boasts 120 public art installations, according to Mary Beth Brown, a public art coordinator for the commission. Few, if any, have as much significance as the one at Good Hope and MLK Avenue will, she said, because “the community is passionate about this corner.”
While revitalization marches across much of the city, Anacostia still aches for it. There have been bright spots, such as the slow uptick of black professionals returning to the neighborhood.
But on the same streets as the future art piece, empty storefronts with a new coat of paint show a neighborhood still thirsty for business.
“I would envision that the totem pole would be our very own landmark,’’ said Michael Spencer, 32, a lawyer who grew up in Anacostia and lives in nearby Hillcrest. “A big opportunity. Something that has the potential to define and change the way the neighborhood feels about itself.”
One frigid night, a group of middle-aged men and women, all friends, stood along Good Hope Road, swapping stories of the corner’s tragic folklore.
“Two words: Slave trade,’’ said Darrell Gray, who grew up in Ward 8. “My mother told me that’s where they used to sell us.”
Plantation owners sold slaves in the area, but historians at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum couldn’t confirm whether auctions took place at that corner.
Rhonda Gunn, one of the friends, had another story.
“There used to be a bank around there,” Gunn said. But in the 1990s, “a bus came down the [11th Street] bridge and . . . it ran into the bank. Never built anything there since. They just had a wall up there.”
To James Pinkett, the wall signifies a devastating loss. “My nephew’s picture used to be up on that wall,” he said. “They’d put the pictures up there if the kids got shot. Jason Pinkett was his name.” He died in a drive-by shooting in 2003.
Those images of the slain worried residents and city planners, said Tim Conlon, a city artist. They were too depressing.
In the summer of 2010, Colon and his partner, Billy Colbert, were commissioned to hire local youths to affix varying shades of wood to the wall to create an artistic image, called “The Gateway to Anacostia.”
A year later, the wood had to be taken down. The wall was collapsing. And now comes the totem pole.
The residents at the town hall meeting described their ideas for the art to honor their community: Something bright and colorful, but classy and reverent. Something that honors those who lived there, but also attracts new residents. Something a bit more complex than an oversized chair, a relic left over by a now-closed furniture store on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that has become the neighborhood’s default landmark.
Artist Luis Peralta already has a sketch. He sees colorful stained-glass panels, stacked on each other like Jenga pieces. At the base: two children reading books. A native Necostan (also known as Anacostan), a tribe that settled along the banks of the Anacostia River, is in the center. Martin Luther King Jr. is at the top.
“What if someone throws a rock at it?” someone asked at the meeting.
Peralta, who has lived in Anacostia for two years, rejected that possibility. He said he believed his community “would respect something beautiful.”
Another resident suggested that Peralta’s idea didn’t count as a totem pole. Maybe not, the artist conceded. But maybe it was time to rethink the totem pole, just as people might rethink Anacostia.
Another artist, Lewis Carroll, is a traditionalist. Carroll, a wood carver, considers the traditional totem pole to be a form of high art. He sketched multiple totem poles sprouting out of the forlorn lot like dandelions.
“If we are talking about totem poles and we’re not wood, then we don’t understand what a totem pole is,” said Carroll. “And I deal with wood,” he said as he dropped one of his carvings on his desk, making a sonorous thud.
Another artist, Craig Kraft, works with neon lights, including the illuminated rods at the Shaw Metro station. Wilfredo Valladares, who constructed the totem poles near Union Station, planned on boating up the Anacostia for inspiration. Allen Uzikee Nelson specializes in steel and built the sculptures in Meridian Hill Park, along 16th Street in Northwest Washington. All are still awaiting visits from their muse.
The artists have until Dec. 9 to submit their proposals, with the intent of starting the installation in January. The piece might include one totem pole, or many — so long as the piece doesn’t cost more than $50,000. The artists must also design a fence for protection.
“Just watch,” Kraft said. “It’s going to be special.”