The Wash

NoMa’s underpass artwork, a scenic route to gentrification?

A cleanup notice scheduled for Nov. 27 hangs under the L Street underpass in preparation for the construction of the second of four planned art installations in Washington, D.C’s NoMa neighborhood.

The multi-million-dollar series of underpass art installations is stirring mixed feelings as locals consider its impact on campers who call the underpasses home.

Wired fences line the inner walls, blocking off the former encampment. On the edge of the fence, a resident could be heard from the only tent that remains, right under a banner that reads “Lightweave” and “Opening Spring 2018.”

“It’s displacing a lot of poor and homeless people,” said Hanad Ali, a local photographer capturing images of the underpass. “I can see an installation like this being cool for everyone else, but for a homeless person trying to get some sleep, lights coming on and off… it may affect them negatively.”

“Rain,” the first installation, made its M Street debut in October after a District cleanup earlier this year displaced underpass occupants to make room for its construction. The construction features 4,000 pulsing tubes that mimic a rain shower. The project is a part of NoMa’s Public Realm Design Plan to “enliven and beautify these public spaces,” according to the NoMa Parks Foundation (NPF).

The nearly $2 million dollar project is partly funded by a $50 million grant from the District, according to a Washington Post report.

“It was first conceived in 2012, long before the current encampments existed,” said NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper, who works with the NPF. “These installations were conceived as a means to ‘connect’ the neighborhood which is physically divided by the muscular presence of 20 train tracks going through the middle of it.”

According to Jasper, NPF has been working with the local government and private agencies for years on outreach to NoMa’s homeless community about available resources, like preventing hypothermia.

Yohniveve Steenkamp, a resident taking a walk through the underpass, said she doesn’t think the art will push homeless people out of the neighborhood.

“It’s really pretty and livens up the area,” Steenhamp said.  “While they’re here, they might as well enjoy the beautiful sight of it.”

Some locals find the art both attractive and problematic.

“It’s good the passage is more illuminated and shows some art, but at the same time, the people that used to live under this bridge are now moving to other bridges,” Vania Pizano, a local resident, said. “Yes, you are beautifying one part of the city, but it’s just pushing people to the other parts instead of a real solution.”

Simone Sasso, admiring the lights along with Pizano, said he believes every piece of art should be matched with social innovation.

“Art is beautiful, yes, but there’s a part of the puzzle that’s missing,” he said.

Additional installations are planned for the underpasses on K Street and Florida Avenue in 2019.

Despite mixed local opinions, “NPF’s direct feedback from community members has been exclusively positive,” said Jasper, NoMa BID’s top official.

Crystal Garner

Crystal Garner

I’m a public affairs and journalism graduate student at American University, specializing in investigative journalism. I’m interested in topics related to science, technology and minority communities.

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