The asphalt along First and L streets NE was wet with rain when Cita Sadeli arrived to add her finishing touches. The artist — known on the graffiti scene as “Chelove ” — slipped out of her sandals and walked barefoot through the small puddle that had formed atop her colorful ground mural, the product of three days’ labor last week in an empty lot in NoMa.
A train roared along a nearby overpass, and Sadeli smiled. When she used to tag buildings illegally, she found many of her canvases along the tracks, and being near the trains again brought back the thrill of illicit art created during the dark early hours, in places concealed from public view.
This time, there is no reason to hide. Sadeli’s new work, along with that of 51 other artists, decorates one of the last large vacant spaces in the formerly run-down industrial corridor behind Union Station.
At over 11,000 square feet, the mural — vibrantly visible from passing Red Line trains — is one of the largest in the District. It was commissioned by the NoMa Business Improvement District in partnership with Words Beats & Life , a nonprofit promoting hip-hop and art education in the city. The effect is that of a vivid patchwork quilt, surrounding a work of “calligraffiti” featuring poems written by young local poets.
But in line with the rapid growth that has transformed NoMa in recent years, its presence will be fleeting: The artwork will be ripped out in a matter of months to make way for a massive office-apartment-retail complex called Storey Park.
So for now, Sadeli would remind everyone of NoMa’s past. Her mural features a greyhound — a sly allusion to the lot’s past life as a bus depot. A snaking green trail represents the bike path that zips downtown commuters home along the main streets. And a water tower pays tribute to the old Woodward & Lothrop warehouse down the road.
When NoMa was “all just a big idea” — before, in fact, anyone was calling it “NoMa,” a SoHo-like play on “North of Massachusetts Avenue” coined in a 1998 economic development report — Uwe Brandes worked in the city’s Office of Planning, examining whether a new community could be built on the other side of the tracks.
The neighborhood is unique among stories of development in the city. Whereas most growth has occurred on or around existing residential units, NoMa emerged from almost nothing at all.
It used to be known for the bus terminal and little else, Brandes says. “There was just no one living there.” Nightclubs such as Ibiza attracted young people in the evenings, but daytime foot traffic was virtually nonexistent.
Dan Silverman, publisher of the PoPville blog, recalls that NoMa was never a destination. “You went there to catch the bus or a cab to where you were actually going,” he says.
It was only in 2004, when the New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U Metro station opened, that developers became interested in the neighborhood. Formerly empty lots became home to luxury apartments with high asking prices that have rapidly filled up. By 2012, the station was renamed NoMa-Gallaudet U.
“It’s an amazing example of what can happen when you introduce transit accessibility to a lot of land in the middle of a city,” says Brandes, who now runs Georgetown’s master’s program in urban and regional planning. “Even with the financial downturn, the explosive growth of the neighborhood has taken everyone by surprise.”
And it shows no signs of letting up. Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa BID, says they will double the number of residential units in the neighborhood within a decade. Well before then, they hope to complete work on several new parks and public areas through a $50 million grant from the city — including an art installation that will illuminate the M Street underpass with LED lights mimicking a pattern of raindrops .
Not everyone is happy with where the neighborhood is going. On the corner of First and K streets NE, a handful of government workers sat outside Sandwiches by Phillip on their lunch hour, gazing halfheartedly at the banners advertising Storey Park leases.
“It’s too expensive,” said Carlina Beverly, 55, who works on K Street. “That’s it in a nutshell.” The movie screenings and other free events planned by the NoMa BID to lure people to the neighborhood after dark don’t appeal to her. “It doesn’t benefit anybody except those who can pay to live here,” Beverly said.
According to a map compiled by the real estate site Trulia in 2014, the average monthly rent in NoMa is $1,950, compared with $1,228 in Brookland and $1,622 in Navy Yard.
Across the street, David Hailes, 67, stood in the shade of a tree. With his eyes hidden behind thick aviators, he reminisced about living in the neighborhood before high-rises started “obstructing people’s view.” Hailes has owned property on Morse Street NE for 23 years — long before “NoMa” was coined. Back then, he would host picnics for the entire community.
Of course, he will be the last to complain about rising property values. Sometimes “making accommodations” is worth it.
Jasper says some tension is natural: “All of a sudden, there’s 30 or 40 percent more residents. Change is hard for people under pretty much all circumstances,” she says, adding that there’s actually been an increase in affordable housing over the past few years.
For newcomers such as Emmanuel Onyeobia, 35, who moved to the District from Georgia a year ago, it’s hard to imagine that many of the apartment buildings and restaurants along First Street NE weren’t there before. Onyeobia says he doesn’t think too much about what the neighborhood used to be because he’s happy with the NoMa he’s found.
More and more, the people who frequent NoMa are like him — they never knew the nameless neighborhood, the wild empty spaces surrounding the bus terminal.
Still, some hang on to a lingering nostalgia. “I’m just hankering for the old NoMa,” says Sadeli, who lived in nearby Shaw for 15 years. Admitting her affinity for “gritty” spaces, she wistfully recounted her memories of that time: shopping at a market that sold chinaware and other trinkets from Asia; coming across spontaneous nighttime concerts on the streets. Now, the colorful characters she used to encounter on the streets have moved on to other places.
“The tapestry was just a little bit richer,” the artist says. She worries that soon people will stop wondering, “What was there before?”
CORRECTION : An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the mural as 1,100 square feet. The story has been corrected.