East of the River, in Ward 7’s Fairlawn neighborhood, Nicholson Street SE connects the Anacostia River to Minnesota Avenue. Residential dwellings of all types line the three-block, one way street including single family homes, apartment buildings and duplexes.
In 2014, one of the homes caught developer Stefanie Reiser’s eye. “I wasn’t actually looking for property in that area,” Reiser concedes as she had focused mostly on rehabilitating homes along the H Street corridor in northeast. However, somehow, one dilapidated clapboard home in particular drew her in and she saw tremendous potential to create a community asset.
Thankfully, Reiser had both the vision and the patience for this project. The home had lain vacant for years. The elements had taken a toll on the fragile wood-frame structure causing years of deterioration due to neglect. During that time, raccoons, squirrels and other wildlife had taken refuge in the home further damaging it. Making matters worse, next door, the attached home caught fire leaving additional destruction in its wake.
By right, Reiser could have leveled the clapboard home and built a 28 unit multi-family dwelling in its place and on an adjoining vacant lot which she had also purchased. However, Reiser had a different vision for the space—one which centered on the community—and took over five years to develop. Most importantly, Reiser explains that she did not want to create a “temporary” space; she wanted something permanent and embedded.
While the rehabilitation of the wood-frame home progressed, Reiser spent three years engaging the community to create a sense of what could bring neighbors together and serve as an anchor and cultural hub in the neighborhood.
In collaboration with community stakeholders, three main programs emerged from the engagement period —an artist residency program, a gallery space and a community garden.
Community Urban Farming
Nicholson Project’s community garden provides residents with the opportunity to connect through a shared amenity. To accomplish this feat, Reiser partnered with Love and Carrots, a women owned business that “envisions a future where vegetable gardens are commonplace in urban landscapes.” The urban farming company built a pergola with a vine canopy, five raised beds, ten in-ground beds for herbs and vegetables and continues to provide bi-weekly garden maintenance.
At my first visit in late September 2019, I marveled at the bounty the garden produced—bowls filled with okra, tomatoes and peppers adorned the kitchen counters. Bundles of herbs including basil, sage and rosemary filled vases. The garden, which occupies an entire lot, is surrounded by nearby high-rise apartment buildings but the lush, verdant garden softens the intensity of the towering dwellings that surround the property. Of note, the okra, a member of the hibiscus family, produces beautiful white and purple flowers from which the vegetable develops giving the garden an exotic and almost magical feeling.
Having brought together the neighbors through gardening and food, Reiser hopes to extend the community farming program to nonprofits, schools, foodbanks and other partners.
Inside Nicholson Project, Riser sought to salvage as much of the building’s interior as possible. She managed to rescue the original floors and stairwell banister. Many of the original doors were lovingly restored to their original condition. It is here, inside the restored residential dwelling, that the art programs take place.
To realize Nicolson Project’s arts programming, Reiser turned to Ian Callender who has worked on a number of large visual arts project in the region including Blind Whino, a former church turned art space in southwest DC which is now under new management and called Culture House.
Amber Robles-Gordon, a DC-based artist, was selected as the first artist resident from July through October 2019. She lived on the second floor which includes a bedroom and a bathroom. Adjacent to the living quarters, Robles-Gordon accessed a separate studio which she used as workspace.
Nicholson Project’s artist-in-resident program will accept applications in October and March for one to three month residencies which take place twice a year. Artists are offered living accommodations, work space and a stipend of $2,000 per month. Applications are available through the organization’s website. The residency emphasizes community engagement as its core mission.
The art gallery, which occupies the ground level of the home, will feature rotating art exhibitions. The gallery’s inaugural exhibitions hosted an eclectic group of artists working in a variety of mediums.
Amber Robles-Gordon’s of fertile ground: mind, wombs and the earth occupied the entirety of the main living area on the ground floor. The site-specific installation made of textiles and found materials was created during her residency at Nicholson Project.
Heather Teresa Clarke’s entry is part of Hirshhorn Museum’s ARTLAB+ program which partners artists with local youth who, for this project, included Dantrelle Dean, Bernard Myers, Chris Plummer, Sacred Porter and Sellano Simmons. entry is a large foam sculpture that snakes up the stairwell.
Chicago-based Jefferson Pinder partnered with Anacostia-based light artist Craig Kraft to create a neon installation that spells out the words Take a Stand.
Lastly, Photography exhibition Goosin’ DC featured Larry Cook, Beverly Price and Vincent Rutherford Brown. “Goosin’,” according to the curators, is “the act of looking at someone or something with admiration.” In short, the selected photographs examine communities in Washington DC and the people who dwell in them.
Nicholson Project is located at 2310 Nicholson Street SE, Washington DC, 20020. Gallery hours are by appointment. For more information visit www.thenicholsonproject.org
Errata: the art space in southwest DC was previously described as Art Whino. The text has been updated to correct the name of Blind Whino.