Alan Binstock, architect and sculptor, speaks about how his neighborhood in Mount Rainier, and the Gateway Arts District, has grown since its beginnings in the 1990s to today. An artist-member of the Gateway Arts District Management Team, we asked him to reflect, given the Summer 2012 re-launch of MyGatewayArts.org.
What was the impetus for the Arts District? The vision?
A colleague approached me and said “Listen, I want to do a study: I need your help….there are empty commercial buildings....I think we can find affordable studio spaces. I need you to help me.” She said she’ll do the analysis of the population to see how many artists were out there and what they could afford. I picked 3 subject buildings. With a grant from the Mount Rainier Business Association, we’d come up with a study…and hopefully create a collaborative studio building. And we found it…not only could we break that building into rentable rooms but have enough money to pay for its rent and have enough room downstairs to have a gallery. …If we could do the study and get start-up money, we believed there were enough artists promising to rent.
The study report was a success but the start-up money nevr appeared. It seemed to die. The Report floated around and the next thing I know, Joe’s Movement Emporium showed up on the hill on 34th street.
I didn’t know until later that Steve Shaff said ‘By the way, [you’re one of the] instigators of all this.’ I said ‘What? I didn’t know all this.’ He replied, ‘I saw the study and made the connection.’ He was convinced there was arts activity happening. He got Joe’s in there. Then along comes Peter Shapiro, who had run for council, and loved [the work happening in our community.]
Peter Shapiro was then looking for an economic engine for the area, and so were others. That engine, they said, were artists. I asked ‘How do artists bring prosperity to an area?’ “Well look at an area, where artists and [the LGBT population] move in…and prosperity follows. Neighborhoods get better. Which has come true to a degree. That, somewhere in there, attracted [the Mount Rainier Artists’ Lofts by Artspace]. They brought life to the neighborhood. Being a swollen-headed architect, I created the design review board. We were sensitive, we didn’t want to be overbearing. Working with my old thesis professors, Ralph Bennett, we were able to create the [Mount Rainier] Circle.
So now we have Joe’s, and we have the Mount Rainier Artists’ Lofts…but what was Mount Rainier like before you moved in?
My neighbors were all in their ‘80s and ‘90s. Some lived in their houses all their lives, a few were born in their house. Walter, next door, was 96. He looked like a very tall, tired Gregory Peck. We would talk a bit, he had a thick voice with an overlay of a Southern accent. We would talk about the little things. He enjoyed company. One day, I asked him, ‘tell me about your family?’ ‘Well uh, you know my father he fought in the war.’ I replied, ‘I’m at a loss Walter, the Spanish-American war?’ ‘Nah nah, the big one, the one between the states.’ It blew my mind, his father fought in the Civil War.
The town has changed, dramatically. The place had a rawness to it. What happened to the Arts District was that there was a feeling that ‘we could do it.’
One of my neighbors sang opera scales in the morning. Down the street, Bruce played bag pipes. Mary writes plays. You can stay on one block and bump into all of these creative people. We moved here because I had friends from graduate school here. I had no knowledge of other artists at the time. The housing was classic for a romantic; the 1920s bungalows, the big mature trees, the low cost. It was perfect.
Sadly the [Artspace] building didn’t make any apparent economic impact. To be in the building, you only had to prove you had some artistic inclination and that you [needed residential assistance]. But witness the stores below, and you’ll see empty stores.
So from problems to solutions, where are we now? And what about the failed starts and the big successes?
I saw a petition to attract [a prominent arts supplier] to the area. It didn’t happen. You can’t force gentrification. We’ve taken the first vital step. We’ve brought…we’ve created a presence saying ‘I live here because I want to live in the Arts District.’ When we moved here there were already a number of artists, there was already an arts presence. There were artists in the area. [Sculptors,] writers, and poets…and they stayed and told their friends.
The Arts District became a legal entity. In the Arts District, the energy is there. You can feel it. You go to the 39th Street Gallery show, it’s local. You know many of the people. There is something here, it’s very tangible. We need a critical mass to really create that presence. The challenge will be to attract others, to be a destination for art as well as artists. The shows have to come up in quality.
The challenge we have for the Arts District is to grow physically to attract developers. The trouble with downtown is there’s no daytime population. In 1988 there was one fax in town, which is where the original Joe’s was, a photography studio (A traditional studio where you’d go with you and your dog to get photographed). I’d look at Route One and it was always empty. There was more of that then then there is now. There was a bank. Abdula’s was a thriving grocery store, a hardware store and other places. They all went away. The first Arts District enterprise was a bookstore. Bonnie Bray, had new and used books, places for kids to play with crayons, a coffee nook. But it stood alone. Eventually she moved. The challenge is to attract the stores to arrive and then stay.
You can’t will a store; people are going to invest where they can see a return. I’ve always imagined an office building, with folks buying lunches, cards, a sweater for a birthday party. Then the retail will come.
As Hyattsville grows as an economic center, in what ways can Mount Rainier, North Brentwood, and Brentwood grow?
Hyattsville has the formula, but it’s very ambitious. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be an instant urban district. It’s similar to a Bethesda model. If both for people living there and for those who want to go [elsewhere], it’ll work.
[Mount Rainier’s] challenge is [that it] has parcels of land that are too small to be as profitable at this time to developers. You have start-up costs and close-out costs. They can be the same for a half-acre development or a twelve-acre development. Getting all the legal stuff together and then closing stuff. When you have a backhoe or a frontend loader, it’s much more profitable to use it on 5-10 acres than on 2 acres.
So think of our city lots. They’re tiny. Now look behind Busboys and beyond, there’s a lot of land there. How do we ever get developed? I think it’ll happen with the successes out that will move towards us. We have what new towns tout. They tout walkable neighborhoods, with small scale mixed use commercial districts. We’re walkable. We need mixed use and a thriving downtown. Our fair city is made for pedestrians, It’s really about that. It’s human scale. We have 50 foot lot lines, it’s wonderful. What we don’t have is the commercial economy.
[In contrast,] Hyattsville has core historic districts with economic districts. [Mount Rainier] is a working class neighborhood. At the upper end of our economy, even now, are essentially government workers. Maybe a few lawyers. Even poorer are the ancillary towns, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Colmar Manor. I think there’ll be a moment of serendipity. I think it’ll all work out when the economy picks up.
With proven optimism and development such as the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center’s overwhelmingly successful Unwind Wednesdays, Busboys and Poets’ First Fridays, the Brentwood Arts Exchange at Gateway Arts Center’s various classes every season for both adult artists and children, and Joe’s Movement Emporium’s upcoming Art Lives Here 18-month campaign, we are thrilled to see these events serving the Gateway Arts District community. These events and more can be found on MyGatewayArts.org by visiting its Events Calendar, which joins its other services such as its frequently updated Art & Education Resources; a Business, Artist, and Studio Directory/Locator; as well as outreach services like its Community Photo Gallery, Gateway on Foot series, Public Art Locator, Mailing List and Reading Room.
This interview was conducted by Justin Fair, Economic Development Coordinator of the Hyattsville CDC, who at the time of the interview’s recording (July 2012), was finishing his term as Content Manager for the Gateway Arts District Management Team.