By Elahe Izadi
Trapeze artists hovered above a crowd. A band played electronic music as green lasers flashed through the room. Nearby, people created silk-screened T-shirts, a video installation played against the wall and the crowd tossed a large, clear plastic bubble filled with pink balloons in the air.
The annual Cherry Blast event on Saturday night was in many ways a creative, warehouse party. It pulled together all sorts of artistic and musical spectacles that attracted a racially diverse crowd of 1,200 willing to pay $10 a ticket to enter.
But this party didn’t happen in Northwest or near gentrifying H Street NE. Cherry Blast, produced by The Pink Line Project, took place in a vacant police evidence warehouse in Anacostia, and drew attendees largely from other parts of town, many of whom were young and white.
Anacostia has a rich history, but in recent years the neighborhood has developed a reputation as dangerous and poor, a perception that local activists have been battling. It’s a mostly black neighborhood that doesn’t typically attract many white people.
Cherry Blast comes on the heels of Lumen8Anacostia, a weekend of art events and pop-ups held throughout the neighborhood. These events have given people, who normally don’t trek east of the Anacostia River, a reason to visit the neighborhood. But in doing so, they’ve raised questions about race and class.
Pink Line founder Phillipa Hughes and her team organized the Cherry Blast event, the fourth in a series that’s taken place in various parts of the city, including its first year in Anacostia.
“I’ve really been interested in Anacostia in the sense that I feel like it’s on the cusp of becoming something, a place where people want to go,” Hughes said. “I like being in places that are changing, and becoming better.”
Cherry Blast differed from Lumen8Anacostia, which Pink Line was also a part of. Lumen8 was “very diverse and a more community-oriented event,” Hughes said, while Cherry Blast gets widely promoted, drawing people “who don’t have any idea of what Anacostia is about.”
But Hughes didn’t throw Cherry Blast in order to put Anacostia on the map. ”That’s one thing, and an important thing,” she said. “But what it’s about for me is showing that D.C. is more than politicians and lawyers. It also has a thriving arts and culture scene. Some of it is happening in Anacostia, and some of it [in other parts] of the city.”
There’s also a practical aspect to hold the event in Anacostia — D.C. has few, large spaces that can be converted for such uses.
Holding such an event in Anacostia can entail challenges. Most cities have lines, places where people are told not to go unless they’re from the area. As development and demographics shift in D.C., so do those lines. And perhaps art events and parties like Cherry Blast can help change those lines, too.
To make it easier to get across the river, Pink Line charted yellow school buses running from Dupont Circle and the H Street corridor. Taking a bus that drops you off directly in front of a party in a warehouse doesn’t provide many opportunities for interaction with the people and businesses in the neighborhood. But some who attended Cherry Blast forsook the charted buses in favor of the Metro, including first-timers to the area, who walked approximately half a mile from the Anacostia Metro station to the warehouse.
Iris Ho, Lan Nguyen and Michelle Wang rode Metro to Cherry Blast. On their walk to the warehouse, someone in a car rolled down his window and said to them, “Aren’t you guys scared? You’re in the hood.” Nguyen, of Columbia Heights, laughed, saying, “Well, I wasn’t.”
The trio said they recognized that they may seem out of place in the neighborhood.
Abigail Williams of Adams Morgan admitted that she “was a little nervous” coming to Anacostia at night.
“But once you’ve been somewhere, then you feel a lot better,” she said. Now she’s planning to return to the neighborhood during the day so she can check out the remodeled Anacostia Library.
People really only go places because they have a reason, whether it’s work, friends or attractions. Nikki Palmer of Bloomingdale made her first visit to Anacostia to attend Cherry Blast. She said that she and others she knows don’t typically come east of the river because nothing has drawn them there yet. She’s heard for years to avoid Anacostia, but it’s “a stigma that I’m losing now.”
Such perceptions are something that Michael Shank of Anacostia tries to tackle. A towering white man, he moved to the neighborhood 2 years ago, partially “to challenge myself both with the race and class issues that D.C. has not resolved,” he said. He’s found an incredible sense of community in the process. Shank now tries to get his friends to visit, but it’s not easy.
“There is such a psychological barrier,” Shank said over a DJ playing blaring music at Cherry Blast. “That barrier is broken for a brief bit with these events.”
Getting that barrier to come down more permanently is another, and more complicated, undertaking, he added.
Sense of place?
Rishi Chakrabarty of Mount Pleasant comes to Anacostia regularly for soccer practice. “You can’t get a sense of Anacostia by being here,” he said of Cherry Blast. Nearby, a singer performed from inside of a massive art installation.
“I feel ambivalent about it being in Anacostia,” Nguyen said. “It’s not that people from around here are all coming to this event.”
“It’s the yuppies in D.C.,” added Wang.
There were some Anacostia locals were in the crowd. Anacostia resident Willy Hamlett, who assisted with the event, said that such happenings are ways to “open the neighborhood up to different types of people.”
Although it’s good that Cherry Blast brought newcomers to the neighborhood, more importantly for resident (and Congress Heights on the Rise blogger) Nikki Peele is what the event offered Anacostia residents.
“The real win is it brings people who are from the neighborhood and gives them something to do,” she said. “… It makes no sense and it concerns me when myself and my neighbors have to get in a car or take the Metro to go across town in order to do the things we want to do.”
In the beginning of the night, all-female Brazilian drumming group Batalá Washington performed. Shank said a number of kids he recognized from the neighborhood showed up and danced along to the music.
“Here’s an opportunity for engagement, for interacting with the community. Let’s build on that,” he said. “It’s a starter.”