Workers began installing outdoor art displays in two underpasses in the District's NoMa neighborhood last week. But first, officials had to clear out more than a dozen homeless people living in tents on the sidewalks, in what advocates said was a vivid example of the downside of gentrification.
The District is funding "Rain" and "Lightweave," two permanent illuminated displays to be installed in the dark underpasses of M and L streets NE. The artwork is funded as part of a larger $50 million grant from the city to create parks and improve public spaces in NoMa, a once desolate neighborhood transformed by recent development, much of it driven by foreign investment.
The number of residents in NoMa has spiked from 27,000 in 2010 to 44,000 in 2017, while office space during the same period increased from 11.8 million to 13.1 million square feet, according to the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID).
The public art, which is expected to be officially unveiled by late March, is intended to turn areas that might have been "unwelcome or scary for some people into places that are pleasant to walk through," said Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa BID.
When the NoMa Parks Foundation, an affiliate of the NoMa BID, began considering construction plans several years ago, there were fewer people living in tents in the underpasses on L and M streets, Jasper said.
But as housing prices have soared, so have the number of people living without a home. In 2016, the District had the highest per capita rate of homelessness of 32 cities across the country.
Now, NoMa is home to those who don't blink at the hefty price stickers on hiking gear at the newly opened REI, as well as many who cannot afford the District's increasingly expensive real estate market and opt to live on the streets.
On Thursday, as officials put up yellow caution tape blocking off the L Street NE underpass in preparation for work crews, a homeless man burst through it, demanding more time to move out his belongings.
"This hurts — it's messed up," said the man, who identified himself only as Butch. He lugged away his tent and the wooden base on which it had rested.
The tents on M and L streets NE have become "an eyesore" to the people who have moved into the area, said Feriha Hall, a community organizer with Peace House, a nonprofit.
"We are surrounded by a hipster bike store on the corner and big construction projects all around us," said Hall, who helped the homeless pack up their tents before the cleanup Thursday morning. "Nobody really cares about the folks out here."
Directly behind her, construction was underway on the corner of L and 2nd streets NE, where an "upscale apartment community . . . will boast high-quality finishes and resort-style amenities, including a fitness center, a courtyard, a rooftop pool, and more," according to its website.
In front of her, on L Street NE, people were scurrying to move their belongings ahead of the arrival of a city dump truck. Minutes before, city officials had finished clearing encampments in the M Street underpass and contractors from the BID had begun erecting temporary fences that will keep homeless people from returning until the illuminated art is installed.
Another homeless man, who declined to give his name, citing legal concerns, cleared out his tent as he talked about the changes he has seen in the District during his 20 years of living on the streets.
Newcomers have limited the places where homeless people feel comfortable, he said, as he stuffed sneakers, quilts and water bottles in a box.
"It seems like street life is closing in, like the walls are collapsing," said the 38-year-old man, who said he grew up in Prince George's County. "The city is getting smaller and smaller for street people."
Sean Barry, spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, said his offices and nonprofit partner organizations "deployed outreach teams to walk the corridor along K Street, L Street and M Street NE to inform residents of the impending construction project, offer District services of housing and shelter and identify other means of assistance."
He said a van was on site to provide free rides to shelters, but he did not provide information about the number of rides accepted.
The two homeless men interviewed said that they did not know where they would go next but that it would not be to a shelter.
"Everything you own gets stolen when you enter a shelter," said Butch, 41. "It's like entering a prison. They'll even take your shoes — it's not worth it."
Jason Kelly Johnson, the co-founder and design principal of the San Francisco-based Future Cities Lab, which designed Lightweave, said he does not anticipate his installation will stop homeless people from living in the underpass after it is in place.
"We know NoMa is changing, but I don't think this will interrupt what is currently happening there," Johnson said. "It's about making the space safer and more enjoyable for everyone."
The goal is to create a "kind of serpentine urban chandelier," where lights coming from overhead will be triggered by people walking beneath them and the vibrations of trains going past overhead. At night, when fewer people are walking through the underpass, the lights will be dimmer and should not disrupt people trying to sleep, he said.
"A lot of these underpasses are monotonous, and this gives one a breath of fresh air," he said.
The NoMa Parks Foundation plans another two pieces of public art, on K Street and Florida Avenue NE, after the projects on L and M streets are complete. The cost for all four is about $2 million, Jasper said.
"For us, this is about improving NoMa for everyone," she said. "It's nonspecific to new people in NoMa and old people in NoMa."