Art Project Examines East of the River Community

Writer/performance artist Holly Bass (left) examines the blueprints for the replica of Rev. Hall's house. (Philippa P.B. Hughes/ifyoulivedhere.com)
Writer/performance artist Holly Bass (left) examines the blueprints for the replica of Rev. Hall's house. (Philippa P.B. Hughes/ifyoulivedhere.com)

On a typically muggy late June evening, a small group of people gathered picnic blankets and tables on the lawn outside of the Anacostia Community Museum, as whirring cicadas complemented the sound of a circular saw and a slim brown woman giving instructions.

​”What defines home for you?” performance artist/writer and D.C. resident Holly Bass asked the diverse group who came out for a “Candlelight Conversation” about what community and the concept of home means.

On the picnic tables, tin platters of crab cakes, fried fish, fried chicken, greens and cole slaw were set out along with bottles of cold ice tea.

​While people volunteered their stories of how they came to D.C. and what made them stay, a woman in a floppy sun hat approached from the road.

​”I just saw a group of people and thought I would see if anyone is interested in gardening. We’re setting up a community garden just over there,” she said, pointing to the back of the area before excusing herself back to the plot down the block.

​In the background, an unfinished wood structure was taking the shape of a small house with installation artist and builder Peter Krsko hard at work. As he laid out wood planks, cutting them to length and hammering them in place, the group completed a communally written poem, recited by Bass inside the open frame. When finished, it will be a replica of the house of Reverend Richard A. Hall’s late 19th century home that once stood on Stanton Road.

​On another late June day in 1867, Hall, pastor of Union Bethel Church (now known as Metropolitan A.M.E.) purchased a plot, Lot #5, Section 2 on the Southeast road, on which to build his home.

​It was the first acre lot to be sold under the newly formed Freedmen’s Community, five years after the abolition of slavery in Washington and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves throughout the country.

​According to historical accounts, Hall made a down payment of $15, entitling him to a wagonload of lumber and instructions for building a “simple but good quality home.” Although the original structure, along with the other homes in the 375-acre, self-sufficient community, has long been torn down, artifacts from dwellings in the area were recently unearthed.

​Over the past four decades, archaeological digs conducted throughout Southeast have revealed much about the lives of the first inhabitants of the area once referred to as Union Town. The community of homes built on land deeded to the Freedmen’s Bureau gave African-Americans their first opportunity to own their own land and build their own houses.

​”If You Lived Here,” a joint effort of The Pink Line Project in partnership with the Historic Preservation Office and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, takes a look back at the history of the surrounding neighborhood, but also takes a look into present-day lives of people who call the city home.

​In a series of programs designed to define what “home” meant and examine how early residents spent their day-to-day lives —worshipping, studying and maintaining their unique community — the project will also address how we live and build communities today.

​On June 28, Anacostia Museum curator and historian Alcione Amos will discuss the history of the Barry Farm neighborhood.

“Historic Barry Farm: A Place of Pride and Achievement” tells the story of the postbellum community settled by newly freed enslaved people who came to the city seeking refuge during the Civil War. Barry Farm ultimately became a successful African-American community well into the 20th century.

Amos is writing a book on the history of Barry Farm from its creation in 1867 to 1980, “The Landscape of Community: The Archaeology of Historic Barry Farm Area.”

​East of the River artist Amber Robles-Gordon will conduct a workshop on June 29, leading participants in an exercise making “talking sticks” using her signature fiber art techniques.

“In many cultures, the talking stick is a symbol of democracy, a sacred object that ensures all voices will be heard,” the literature reads.

The hands-on creative workshop will enable people to make their own talking sticks “that represent a personal memory or pressing issue on the theme of ‘home.'” Afterwards, a post-workshop guided conversation will allow participants to put their talking sticks to use, sharing their own “inspirations and reflections on what it means to call D.C. home in this particular moment, and the transformative act of art making.”

On July 1, with construction complete on the replica of Hall’s small home, a culminating house party will take place in and around the structure with food, poetry, music, portrait photography and, most importantly, the opportunity to create and celebrate community and the city.

“If You Lived Here” was conceptualized by Philippa P.B. Hughes of The Pink Line Project, whose work “designs creative placemaking projects that bring people together who might not normally meet to engage in dialogue and meaningful interaction,” according to a website for the project.

For more information, go to www.ifyoulivedheredc.com.

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