Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Marvin Gaye Mural and U Street’s Cultural Heritage Hit a Wall: Crass Development Plans Threaten Local History

What’s Going On?
Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Yeah

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

-Marvin Gaye

On Monday, April 8th, the DC Zoning Commission will render a decision concerning a change in the zoning designation that will allow a local developer to erect an eight-story apartment and retail building at Historic 13th and U Streets. The proposed project will fully eclipse one of the earliest murals in the neighborhood.

"Movin’ Down the Line," painted by local artist Rik Freeman, is a 40 x 25-foot mural that depicts the diversity of the community and celebrates native sons Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, who indelibly impacted the local, national and international music scenes. The mural was commissioned by Woolley Mammoth Theater and Mr. William Thomas, a respected elder and one of the few remaining African American property owners on U Street. The mural graces the east side of Thomas’ historically-designated building, The Oswego.

“I just wanted to dress up the place after the riots and give people something hopeful to look at,” says Thomas. The mural was covered up partially in the 1990s when a similar wave of development covered the lower half of the mural, despite public outcry.

Julienne Johnson and her husband and business partner Stanley Johnson are leading a grassroots, community-based effort to stave off the proposed high-rise construction in the interest of preserving and respecting the heritage of the U Street corridor.

The Johnsons live in the Shaw neighborhood and operate their business, Front of the Bus Productions, out of The Oswego Building.

“New urban development doesn’t have to be a wrecking ball obliterating history. New and old can coexist. But it takes effort on the part of city planners and developers to engage the community in envisioning a landscape that reflects the best of both worlds” states Julienne Johnson.

This week marks what would have been Marvin Gaye's 74th birthday. “In addition to the celebratory events at the Howard Theatre and throughout the city, what else can we do as residents to honor and commemorate not only Gaye’s achievements, but those of the many other pioneers and artists, who lived and worked in the community” asks Stanley Johnson.

 “The neighborhood is currently zoned as an Arts district with a requirement of ‘using art to express neighborhood identity,’ according to DC Municipal Regulations, Chapter 10-A, Section 1407 AC-2.2,” states Johnson.

DC Code goes on to declare, “Art and cultural events can help preserve the distinct history and identity of local neighborhoods.”

The new development proposes high-end apartments and retail spaces with limited contribution to the Arts, such as a bike share program; placards commemorating Civil War history and other Cultural Tourism; upgrades to local community centers; and a donation to DC Public Schools.

The high rise will abut The Oswego fully. James Nozar, vice president of development for JBG Companies, confirmed at a recent meeting with the owner of The Oswego Building and the Johnsons, that JBG was not interested in accommodating exposure of the mural as part of its design.

“While few will object to development that enhances property values, promotes consumer choice, and brings new residents to local communities, at whose expense?” asks Johnson. “We seek a project that contributes to the rhythms of smaller scale architecture on the block and contributes to the Arts in a more meaningful expression of the zoning requirements.”

Julienne and Stanley Johnson are encouraging friends of respectful development to take the following action steps:
  • Look at the cranes, at the fading mural on U Street between 13th and 14th streets as you travel westward. Note the rapid loss of history. Ask: How can the new and historic come together respectfully?  Follow this story and Tweet us at:
  • Attend the Zoning Commission’s proposed decision making, Monday, April 8, 2013, at 6:30 pm, One Judiciary Square,
441 4th Street, NW
 Washington, DC 20001. While no public testimony will be accepted, a unified show of supporters of the mural and respectful development will send a strong message to the Commissioners.  
  • Again, while no public testimony will be accepted, we believe that a surge of requests will matter. Fax a letter (202-727-6072) or call the Zoning Commission (202-727-6311). Request the vote against the PUD amendment for Case Number 12-20 (13th and U Lessee, LLC) and a more culturally relevant development that resurrects the mural, enhances the neighborhood, and contributes to the Arts more meaningfully.
  • Share this information with others and encourage them to do the same.

Where is the acknowledgement of the living legacies whose heart and soul as well as commitment to the community contributed (and continue to do so) to the fabric of Historic U Street/Shaw? How are these contributions and Arts history being preserved and bridged to new ideas and expressions rather than eclipsed by them?  And while people of all backgrounds are welcome to the neighborhood, it would be a great injustice not to preserve what little remaining history is evident. Remember the Duke Ellington mural on the True Reformer Building?  Gone. Very quickly if we are not vigilant, there will be little remnant of the rich culture that African Americans lived and in many instances, died for. U Street was our "Broadway," more importantly it represented a level of self-reliance and pride that was experienced in only a few other neighborhoods in segregated Washington.

Thursday, April 4, 2013 marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King and the rioting that ensued on U Street. Surprisingly very few people know that the epicenter of those riots was Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters, located where the Reeves Center stands today; there is not one marker or plaque that talks about what took place there. You would never walk through Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and see a mixed-use development or stand on the hallowed Gettysburg Battlefield and envision putting a Starbucks inside the watchtower of the Union Army. It would be disrespectful; it would eclipse the past. Does the level of development in the area, all over the city for that matter, represent the same lack of respect for history as contributions are lost and stories untold?  The pioneers and the remaining living legacies of African Americans and others who weathered many similar battles deserve no less. 
Want to learn more about:
The artist, Rik Freeman?

The proposed development project? Visit, Zoning Case Search, and enter 12-20 for the public record.

About Front of the Bus
Established in 1998, Front of the Bus exists to inspire leaders and renew organizations seeking to lead change—in the workplace, in communities, and beyond!

We believe in the power of individuals and organizations to define success, translate vision into action, and impact lives. Our work is accomplished through strategic engagement, systems planning, and customized client solutions.

Our offices are located in The Oswego.