A Washington, D.C. Arts & Innovation District: "Sonya's Neighborhood"

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A recent widely-read piece in the Washington Post, “The Height of Power,” noted the great prospects of Washington's rise to the top, not only in politics but in publishing, media, business and the arts. In this way, it said, Washington's evolution will follow the pattern of other great capitals like London, New York, Paris or Tokyo.

As a seventh-generation Washingtonian, born here and baptized in the National Cathedral, this is a prediction I am delighted to hear. I spent almost ten years producing avant garde experimental theater in the US and on tour in Europe, but I was based in San Francisco, not in Washington; my Washington artistic presence consisted of my last production, Actual Shō, playing the Kennedy Center Opera House in 1988. As an MIT bachelor of science graduate (in architecture), I know and greatly appreciate the spirit of innovation and experimentation that is at the core of America’s entrepreneurial, adventurous approach to life.

There are many reasons why America needs Washington to enter the first rank of innovative cultural centers. Dearest to me is that playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and all the artists who take on the portrayals of politicians, politics, and power will become part of the same milieu as the political leaders. The result will be that members of each group develop a more sophisticated understanding of the other.

The key to transforming Washington into a center of cultural and scientific innovation is to establish a stimulating neighborhood, such as New York city’s SoHo/Tribeca, that attracts creative people who cross-fertilize each other, and who become part of the everyday social circle both of the political leadership and of the city’s African-American core community.

Where should Washington build the creative, innovative neighborhood it needs to accomplish this? I know just the place: A parcel of some 100 acres, now occupied by wholesale grocery and souvenir warehouses, light industry, a federal Park Service truck maintenance yard, and little-used, dilapidated municipal facilities. Its bare, windswept hilltop is the last unoccupied “commanding height” in the city. It doesn’t have any residences (and thus no residents to oppose the project), yet it’s within just a mile of the Capitol Dome.

I’m a member of a family that has been present in Washington for more than 200 years. Our family lands included this property, which was a large woodland estate, started in about 1800. It included all the land west of today’s Gallaudet University to the railroad tracks (plus some land on the other side of the tracks), north of Florida Avenue, and, on the north, included not only the ground on which today New York Avenue lies, but also the railroad yards north of New York Avenue.

Just south of New York Avenue, the land rises steeply to a hilltop, and then falls away gently. This hilltop is now home to a National Park Service maintenance yard and the Brentwood Reservoir, but from about 1811 to 1915 it was the site of a mansion built by Congressman Joseph Pearson (Federalist – NC) for his second wife, Eleanor, daughter of the first mayor of Washington, Robert Brent. From the 1820s through the 1880s the Brentwood Mansion was a social center of Washington, scene of many a dinner and ball as horse-drawn carriages conveyed the wealthy and powerful up the hill, through the well-kept forest to the mansion. For aficionados of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it was the closest thing Washington ever had to the fictional Pemberly of Mr. Darcy – and it was built in precisely the era of Jane Austen. Now the site is strewn with rusting machine parts and Park Service dumpsters. Sic transit gloria mundi (“so passes worldly glory”).

As the city grew it surrounded the estate, but the estate itself was never developed. The city took pieces of it, built New York Avenue over part of it, and put railroad tracks on one side. As the city developed, the isolated, aging mansion never gained access to modern utilities, and the family moved away and neglected it. Eventually, in the early 1920s, my grandfather developed a wholesale food market and managed the land until his death in 1948. One of his brothers died in 1951; a third lived far away; the fourth tried to manage the property from his home in Connecticut but gave up and sold it all.

This large parcel that once was our family land is now again in disrepair. The city government and owners of various pieces of it are hoping to develop it: the usual mix of office-buildings and townhouses, with no particular theme or vision of a unique, exciting neighborhood.

What I propose is to develop this entire large area – not just the parts subject to the present plans, but almost all of the former family property, including the mix of federal and DC-government land – as a neighborhood specifically dedicated to be stimulating and exciting for creative people. The property offers an ideal place to create an “arts and innovation district,” a kind of SoHo or San Francisco in DC. It’s large, contiguous, and self-contained. It already has an institution of higher learning, Gallaudet, along one side, and a Metro stop at one corner.

Since the property is south of New York Avenue, I think of it as SoNYA = Sonya = “Sonya’s Neighborhood,” which sets the tone for the concept as personal and human, rather than the bureaucratic feel of calling it a “district” or “zone.” This large-scale project would be a major job-generator, exactly in-line with the new Stimulus Bill, and the existing federal and DC-government ownership means that it is an ideal public-works project for President Obama and Mayor Adrian Fenty to promote.

The fact that the site includes a prominent hilltop gives the project a glittering opportunity to achieve instant national and international status. If you fly into Washington, you will see a prominent hilltop gothic cathedral, the National Cathedral. It symbolizes the importance of religion in American life. And, of course, anyone coming to Washington sees the Capitol Dome, which symbolizes democratic government, and sees the monuments to the Presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson – that symbolize the importance of history.

The hilltop where the family mansion stood is a place where Presidents, Senators, Cabinet Members, Justices, and Representatives dined, drank, and danced long ago. It should now be the site of a highly-visible, signature building of innovative design to serve as an Arts & Innovation Center. The ground is at an elevation of 175 feet above sea level. Any tall building placed on this “commanding height” not only will have commanding views down across the city, it will also “be seen” from many places around the city, as are the National Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. This prominent building will symbolize the importance to America of innovation and creativity. As core tenants, I propose the federal agencies the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, who would move their headquarters from the Old Post Office. The building could also house a Washington branch of the new Singularity University based in Silicon Valley (see http://singularityu.org/.)

This building would serve as the keynote for the entire development, which would spread-out to the south on the slope below it, down towards Florida Ave. “Sonya’s Neighborhood” should be mixed-use, residential and office, with the ambience of New York’s SoHo or of San Francisco’s denser neighborhoods, and a feel similar to Venice, Italy – lots of narrow pedestrian-only streets, with bistros, art galleries, clubs, etc. – a place where creative people like to hang out.

A local surface transit system can connect from the Metro stop through all of the development up to the hilltop Arts & Innovation Center building. It could extend into the Gallaudet campus, and to the nearby Ivy City neighborhood as it is redeveloped.

There is much more to the proposal, including relocation of the grocery and souvenir wholesalers, and the Park Service maintenance facilities, to a new facility built overtop of the railroad yard north of New York Avenue (as in Manhattan, where Park Avenue is built overtop of railroad lines running to Grand Central Terminal). I encourage anyone who is interested to contact me via e-mail at sissoed@hotmail.com (no “n” in “sissoed”) to learn more.

Edward Sisson is a Washington D.C.-based attorney. If there is sufficient interest in developing the Arts & Innovation Building and Sonya's Neighborhood, he expects to take a leading role as "producer" of that exciting project, utilizing his unique background in Washington, in architecture, in the arts and the sciences, and in law to solve the many hurdles and obstacles that will confront the project.

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Hello Mr. Edward,

I came across your post while searching for projects, similar to 22 in Barcelona, in the U.S. Your vision is commendable, and I support it. DC's political, technical and health oriented atmosphere is in bad need of something more nourishing to the soul - arts.

I see your effort to rally support began last year. I am interested in your venture and would like to help in rallying support for it. How has it been so far? Have you been able to get the attention of the local gov? Please let me know.


No way, Joel

A Washingtonian here. My third time living here. Over the last 25 years, I've also lived in NY, Chi and LA.

Yes, DC is a lot better than when I first lived here. Greater DC now rivals Chi as America's #3 food/dining city. (The best food's in NoVa.) NIH dollars have really spurred biotech and pharma in Montgomery County. Pentagon dollars have done likewise for hi tech out along the Dulles corridor.

It is finally possible to meet someone at a dinner who isn't in journalism, politics or on the federal payroll. (Although it seems they are all, sooner or later, living off the federal tit.)

Museums are world-class and because they don't charge admissions, you can pop into the National Gallery for 10 minutes during lunch to look at three paintings. You don't do that at the Met or the Art Institute.

That said, the rest of the DC art scene is moribund/non-existent. The money here, public and private, allows DC to attract big names from elsewhere. But big names alone are not enough for DC to play in the same league as NY, Chi, LA.

No one moves to DC hoping to make it big in the arts. Unless you're working on your (political) novel while employed by the WaPo. DC offers nothing to lure struggling painters and actors. Until that happens, which I predict it won't, DC will never be the world-class city its boosters insist it is becoming.

DC's not Berlin. There's a city that was a museum (both halves) when the wall came down. Now it's sucking talent from all over Germany, if not Europe. Berlin's the great example for how government largesse can instantly make a city cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

Did anyone see the piece in the TNR the other day by Norman Ornstein making similar claims on behalf of DC as Joel's piece? Ornstein went so far as to proclaim DC as a center of fashion and style. (Only someone employed by a think-tank could be so brain-dead preposterous.)

Reading Ornstein's piece coincided with my NY-based literary agent calling to ask if the mid-February warm spell here was inducing all the boys and girls on Capitol Hill to break out their pink- and peach-colored clothes. Clothes, she says, that are not sold in NY. Because it's against the law in NY to dress the way people dress in DC. (My agent wears nothing but black.) She considers DC to be a jumped up Hooterville.

I think she under-estimates DC. It is a (much) better place than two decades ago. But so are NY, Chi and LA. DC has not improved its relative position against its rivals.

Yes way

Your point about the German artists flocking to Berlin when Berlin became the home of the government of the reunited nation kind of makes my point -- the most perceptive artists, those who want as intimate an understanding as possible about how politics works and what political people are like, go to the national capital.

I was a producer of avant garde, experimental theater for almost ten years, based in San Francisco, and my shows played NYC -- at BAM Next Wave (George Coates' Performance Works "The Way of How" 1981) and at the Performing Garage on Wooster St. (Antenna Theatre's "Vacuum" 1982). Both shows got raves from Mel Gussow, NYT, and other media. I know this world. Artistic fertility requires a certain size population pool of talented people in diverse but allied fields, an underlying cost-of-living dynamic low enough to make it possible to produce the works, a community of foundations led by visionary rich people to seed the works, federal and state arts agencies that fund new works (here's hoping the NEA gets back into that), and a critical community attuned to and appreciative of new work.

But to be truly an insightful artistic community, its leading participants must, must, must have a sophisticated understanding of the nation, its politics, its economic dynamics. You can only get that in the capital. You cannot now, and never will, get that in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It makes the difference between lasting, meaningful art, and transitory propaganda.

That's why "Sonya's Neighborhood" will work: because visionaries of the 2000s will see the benefit it brings to their work to be in DC, and via the neighborhood, there will be a talent pool to work with and, hopefully, a critical and funding community as well.

Sorry, I was responding more

Sorry, I was responding more to Joel's piece than Edward's.

But having now re-read Edward's first post and his comment, I should say that I totally disagree with everything Edward writes.

You think DC's going to give artists a much-needed understanding of politics and economics? I know numerous artists, with a couple being good enough to be collected by every important museum in the country. Their interest in politics and economics is negligible.

Berlin attracts artists, one, because it offered cheap space, and two, because the German govt lavished subsidies on the city on a scale the fed govt will never do for DC. And Berlin is traditionally Germany's cultural capital was well as a political capital.