What impact can the installation of new artwork have in an emerging business district? Can it signal the beginning of critical mass in the realization of a new neighborhood?
The NoMa (North Of Massachusetts Avenue) BID (Business Improvement District), north of Capitol Hill and just off the H Street corridor, has been undergoing a major facelift these past few years. Originally settled by Irish Immigrants in the 1850’s, the area was known as “Swampoodle”. It is believed that Swampoodle is a concatenation of the words “swamp” and “puddle” referring to the Tiber creek that once flowed freely in the area and often flooded, forming large puddles after heavy rains. Swampoodle eventually grew into one of Washington’s industrial neighborhoods thanks to its strategic location along the marshaling yards north of Union Station. Until recently, many of the building and lots lay derelict and abandoned in this part of northeast Washington.
Since the opening of the in-fill New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Galludet University Metro on the Red Line in 2004, many federal agencies and other organizations have begun relocating to the area. Cranes and construction pits have dominated the landscape from 2005 to the present but the construction dust appears to be settling at a few intersections and a distinct district is taking shape.
At one such intersection on the corner of First and M streets NE, we visited a sculpture installation by Tom Ashcraft in the building lobby of 1200 First Street NE. The project was coordinated by Hemphill Fine Arts who represents Ashcraft. Ashcraft, an Associate Professor at George Mason University, has participated many large-scale public art installations. Of note to East City Art readers, Ashcraft collaborated with David Chung to help design and produce a number of street improvements and sculptures in Mount Rainier known as the “Mount Rainer Public Artwork and Roundabout Streetscape Design”. While the display at 1200 First Street NE is neither public nor anywhere near as large-scale as the Mount Rainer project, interestingly enough, the installation of Ashcraft’s work coincides with a pivotal moment for a neighborhood in transition.
Installations of this type are quite common in many office buildings downtown like Washington Square, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, which offers rotating displays of sculpture installations. However, Ashcraft’s installation is among the first in NOMA. While Hemphill Fine Arts and Ashcraft installed the wheel sculptures, across First Street, new shops opened or were getting ready to open. On the East Side of the 1200 block of First Street NE, newly xeriscaped sidewalks feature generously sized rain gardens created by storm water runoff ironically reminiscent of the Tiber Creek floods that named Swampoodle.