On a recent open mic night at BloomBars, comedian Tommy Taylor Jr. joked about the District turning into Butter Pecan City and his excessively cheerful neighbor’s overuse of the word “toodle-oo.” That was before singer-songwriter Courtney Dowe sang about vampire love and a spiky-haired poet yelled into the mic. Others took turns reading poetry, rapping, testing out new comic material and singing a cappella.
“BloomBars is such a great find,” Steve Epting, a 23-year-old, bushy-bearded musician, said before playing for the assembled crowd of about 35. Afterward, he added, “I’ve been in D.C. for a year, and I’ve written so much material. I attribute that in part to coming here.”
It was all classic BloomBars, a tiny, hard-to-categorize, strange brew of a venue that opened its doors in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood in 2008. The space — a two-story former print shop — hosts film screenings, art exhibitions, improv theater, freestyle hip-hop sessions, singer-songwriter showcases and sundry other performances as well as classes such as belly dancing, poetry, African drumming and meditation. The extreme range tends to draw a racially mixed, hipster, hip-hop, old-timer, you-name-it crowd from both around the corner and across the District.
It gets even more unconventional: BloomBars doesn’t serve alcohol, doesn’t charge a cover fee (though donations are welcome) and is largely run by a band of volunteers. Before performances, audience members are sometimes encouraged to hug strangers. There is no sign outside, just the painted message, “You Bloom We Bloom.”
The venture is the brainchild of John Chambers, 37, a charismatic, hug-positive do-gooder who dubbed himself chief executive gardener and somehow manages to be both earnest and cool. Chambers left a lucrative public relations career, mortgaged his life — as he put it — and has spent untold (and unpaid) hours realizing his vision: “To let art be a transformative thing that connects people and inspires them to participate in their communities and to have important conversations.”
He wanted a space open to everyone regardless of age, race or income. (Hence no alcohol, a policy that some friends say is financially ill-advised but that he’s stuck to because he thinks booze turns off some people and takes focus off the art.) He wanted to build bridges in his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. He wanted to nurture artists.
“It’s not a theater, art gallery, studio, music venue. It’s all of those things, but more than that, it’s an environment created to support people’s growth,” he said.
The child of civil rights activists, Chambers always wanted to follow his parents’ path, he said one evening at BloomBars, while a documentary about a Kenyan village screened downstairs. “But I didn’t want to be poor all my life. I didn’t want to just be marching and banging my fist.” After graduating from Howard University, he went into communications, mostly working at firms that represented nonprofit groups, political candidates and progressive causes.
At some point, though, he began imagining a different trajectory. At first he had visions of big national fundraising arts events, but after a few test runs, he reconsidered. “Wait a sec,” he recounted thinking. “All we need is space.”
For ages, he’d been eyeing a 100-year-old building on 11th Street NW, around the corner from the rowhouse he’d owned since 1999. The block was the quintessential expression of neighborhood gentrification. New, foodie-drawing restaurants such as RedRocks and Room 11 were opening next to old-style bodegas and a wholesale bakery. Relations between white newcomers and longtime black residents were sometimes uneasy. But Chambers, who is gregarious to the extreme, had come to know people across the neighborhood over many years and saw the delicate politics as a surmountable challenge.
“My background has a lot to do with that,” he said. “Coming from an interracial marriage and being biracial, I’ve been able to straddle both worlds.”
In 2008, he purchased the building for $340,000.
At first, events were sporadic. Chambers was reluctant to commit, so he kept working and fitted BloomBars in around the edges. “There was always an element of doubt, wondering if the idea is too far out,” he said. Then in summer 2009, he left his job to make BloomBars his full-time work.
Now BloomBars holds classes and performances almost every day. With assistance, Chambers built bathrooms, exposed unexposed brick and installed new lights. The building’s south side sports a colorful mural depicting life in a Brazilian favela, or slum, and a red velvet curtain frames the stage. On warm evenings, volunteers throw open the front doors, and sometimes people pull up their own chairs to watch from the sidewalk.
A signature Chambers Big Idea is the artist-in-residence program he founded to support gifted, under-the-radar performers. He can’t pay artists, but he gives them space to perform plus administrative assistance, and in return, they participate in the BloomBars program. The artists are mostly local, but Chambers managed to persuade Jabulani Tsambo, a South African hip-hop star also known as HHP or Jabba, to accept a two-week residency. He bought the plane ticket and put Jabba up in his home. After a symposium on HIV/AIDS, a workshop with teenagers and various performances and jam sessions, Jabba was so inspired, he paid for six artists he met — including four BloomBars residents — to travel to South Africa. Later, several of the D.C. musicians returned to Africa to form the house band on Jabba’s popular late-night-style television show.
“That was a trip, to become superstars overnight,” said Jabari Exum, a hip-hop artist and West African percussionist.
Such unpredictable happenings, coupled with Chambers’s contagious energy, have attracted an intensely devoted corps of volunteers. “Knowing that he’s doing so much for the community, he’s one of those guys you just can’t say no to,” said Richmond Sparks, a neighbor who is the University of Maryland’s director of bands. Sparks got roped into working on the sound booth, a miniature balcony ensconced in half a boat. Other volunteers do everything from writing the weekly newsletter to procuring popcorn makers for movie nights.
Brenda Estrella has a prototypical BloomBars story. Drained from her uninspiring corporate job, she was thinking about leaving the District for good when went to BloomBars one night during a Haiti fundraiser. “It was love at first sight,” she said. “I don’t want to be dramatic, but finding BloomBars made me think maybe this is a place where I can establish some roots.”
She started going regularly, quit her job and soul-searched her way to a position as BloomBars administration and operations director. She’s happily getting by for now on savings and a deal with Chambers — in exchange for her labor, she’s living in his house for free.
Not everything has fallen into place so easily. BloomBars almost met an untimely death this fall, when a $20,000 bill — largely for real estate taxes Chambers has been disputing — came due. The city threatened to seize the place. Chambers held fundraisers and otherwise begged and borrowed and, in a last-minute scramble, secured the money.
Chambers said he doesn’t expect another such scare, but the money part of the enterprise is still a bit sketchy. Audience donations can be paltry, and Chambers is still living off savings and rent from tenants who share his roomy rowhouse. But, ever the optimist, he has funding plans that include adding a tea bar and retail space, selling compilation albums and developing BloomTV. He is working on a deal with a cable channel to air videos of performances and other content — think “ ‘Real World’ meets a grass-roots conscience,” he said. He also imagines that the artists BloomBars cultivates will make it big and give back down the road.
It’s not that crazy: Carolyn Malachi, a former resident, enthusiastically saluted BloomBars at a performance she gave there shortly after her song “Orion” was nominated for a Grammy.
“BloomBars gave me the opportunity to do a lot. Made me believe in my own creativity,” she said in a mini-speech captured in a YouTube clip. “This is what is happening in your community,” she goes on, pointing to the little stage she’s on. “I definitely have the BloomBars family to thank for this song. . . . Spread the word.”
Marech is a freelance writer.