Creative Life in the Gateway Arts District
Local activists, municipalities, and county officials have long searched for a sustainable business culture along the Route 1 Corridor. During the early 1970s many long-serving mom and pop shops closed inside the Beltway due to a drop in customers and the competitive pressures of newer, exurban sprawl developments. These vacancies presented as opportunities to the arts community. The first articulated vision of the arts district emerged in the early 1990s after the Planning Area 68 Master Plan was updated in an effort to encourage new development. A vision of studios supporting working artists, galleries, coffee shops and creative retail was crafted by writer and costumer, Mary Beth Shea, sculpture Alan Binstock, costumer, Renata Maile-Moskowitz, and former Mount Rainier mayor Fred Sissine, who submitted a proposal to the County Council.
Nonetheless, even without an agency or central entity, artists began to move into the increasingly affordable and readily available area industrial spaces. In the early-to-mid 1990s, artists Tom Ashcraft, Stuart Eisenberg and Martha Jarvis Jackson rented studio spaces in commercial warehouses in Mount Rainier. Joe’s Movement Emporium opened its doors in 1995 bringing classes, rehearsal space and performances to the Mount Rainier town center. Red Dirt Studio, spear-headed by Margaret Boozer, arrived in 1996, renting warehouse space with two artists near several others, in what soon became known as the Artists on the Tracks. They held their first open studios event in November of that year, which would eventually evolve to become the district-wide Open Studio Tour. In 1997, the locally-formed Gateway Community Development Corporation was established and adopted an arts-based development strategy. In parallel, the Hyattsville Community Arts Alliance (HCAA) founded in 1994 as an association of accomplished painters, sculptors, photographers, crafts makers and musicians, primarily from the local area.
In 1999, former Brentwood resident and Prince George’s County Councilmember Peter Shapiro, Barbara Funk, past Division Chief of Arts and Cultural Heritage, Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission, Nick Francis, first Executive Director of Gateway CDC, and Brooke Kidd, founder of Joe’s Movement Emporium, organized an Arts Summit held at Northwestern High School. Key speakers included Chris Velasco of ArtSpace, an artist housing developer in Minneapolis, who reinforced the concept and opportunity that artist-focused development presented to Prince George’s County for resolving its high-vacancy area deficiencies: the ability to lure more artists, knowledge workers, new homeowners, and greater interest from developers. Over 100 people attended to envision a thriving arts community along the Route 1 corridor. The desire that collectively emerged was to include the four towns that shared the same County council district, school system and transportation network: to better connect and coordinate housing and commercial revitalization. Four anchor projects were envisioned; one for each town that would then attract in-fill projects comprised of studios, mixed-use developments and new businesses. The Redevelopment Authority would later partner with Art Space and Gateway CDC to build the first of the arts district’s anchor projects: a $14 million public-private collaboration featuring 44 units of affordable apartments nestled above a small retail footprint. Soon after, Housing Initiatives Partnership (HIP Homes) would renovate a vacant apartment building for an additional 12 units of artist housing in Mount Rainier and, after its success, created an additional 44 units in Hyattsville.
In 2000, the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation was formed to promote a community-driven approach for realizing the envisioned new developments. Their first funded work was a modest, but highly visible heritage-based mural project on Route 1, but their community planning strategy and initiatives would set an ambitious tone for new area developments for years to come. Already home to accomplished producers such as Ray Kaskey and Gianetti Studios, in 2002, Maryland’s newly minted arts-driven community revitalization program recognized the Gateway Arts & Entertainment District as the first of its four initial A&E District designees. During the next decade, the resident artists and homegrown arts & cultural organizations would continue to lure their creative producing peers to a friendly and affordable community. This influx broadened and further cemented an already authentic arts-producing base for the revitalization to come. For instance, Margaret Boozer recruited Tim Tate and the Washington Glass School in 2006 as they were losing their space in DC to make way for the National’s new baseball stadium. The County invested heavily into the Arts District’s initial anchor projects, while the greater Washington region experienced a housing boom that benefited inner Beltway communities. It was during this period that the nonprofit sector was establishing roots across the region. What emerged over this period is an affiliated collective of collectives that is home to an array of producing and teaching artists. The initial creative ferment gave rise to many new enterprises joining the community, including Art Works Now, Flux Studios, White Point Studio, DC Glassworks, Blue Door Studio, among others.
Meanwhile, spearheading more obvious economic development efforts in 2002, the funky toy and general store entrepreneur Mike Franklin mortgaged his home in order to open Franklin’s Restaurant and Brewpub (the original deli and store were established in 1993). This commitment further embodied the spirit of a locally driven transformation of the corridor that started with Glut Coop in 1969.
In 2009, Gateway CDC, in conjunction with the Arts and Cultural Heritage Division of Park & Planning, rehabbed a vacant industrial building in Brentwood to establish the Gateway Arts Center as one of the originally conceived “anchor projects” for the Arts District. Artist and curator John Paradiso was hired to manage the 39th Street Gallery where his presentation skill attracted 100s of artists to hold exhibits or lease studio space. Brentwood Arts Exchange, managed by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Division of Park and Planning, is a vibrant part of this enterprise, programming regular exhibitions, events and classes. After many years in the planning by North Brentwood residents Lillian Beverly, Eleanor Traynham and others, The Prince George’s African-American Museum and Cultural Center began managing traveling exhibits and showing its nascent collection in space located in the Gateway Arts Center; and began renovations to the former Wonder Bread store just south of the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia. Half a mile to the north Hyattsville CDC was part of the team that facilitated a significant mixed-use redevelopment of 25 acres of former car dealerships and repair shops dubbed “Arts District Hyattsville (ADH)” by infill development specialists EYA. Around this new housing, a dozen new businesses opened that reflected a brand of local, healthy, and green living.
Several arts organizations have purchased their own properties to ensure their continued residence and impact. In 2011, community members Imani Drayton-Hill, Michele Lee, Anne L’Ecuyer, and Brooke Kidd strategized for another round of community investment through Art Lives Here, that has directly invested more than $500,000 in creative placemaking programs and visibility for the Gateway Arts District, and attracted much more in private investment.
The Gateway Arts District exists because of its artists. Various groups and enterprises have benefited from the work of these artists to instill a sense of place, to occupy property and care for its appearance, to attract an authentic and enduring audience, and to enhance the brand that Glut Food Co-oops established over 40 years ago: Funky and Affordable. It has become an anchor for cultural experiences in Prince George’s County and destination for families. Most importantly, the Gateway Arts District is organically diverse with deep community connections around a sense of place.
Opportunity still abounds in the District’s diverse commercial areas: from the warehouses tucked away in Brentwood; to the vacant storefronts in Mount Rainier and Hyattsville; to the open lots along Route 1 in North Brentwood. Affordable and visible, the four towns along Route 1 will fill-in over the next decade to link the largest singular arts district in the state of Maryland. Artists continue to lead the brand and audience development of the Gateway Arts District through their events, opening the doors of their studios, and serving as leaders and activists in local government. Broad support is found in all pockets our four towns for this arts-lead experiment. Every level of elected officials in our towns, county and state appreciates the arts and understands the broad reaching impact which has contributed to a community that deeply values its culture, has an eye toward making space look good and the role an artist plays in this process.
With assistance by Stuart Eisenberg
Note from the writers: The article does not capture all the names of individuals who have contributed to this thriving arts district. Any omission or errors is unforeseen. If you have an important part of this history to contribute, please share photos, stories or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stuart Eisenberg assisted with dates, highlights and edits. – Brooke Kidd, founder and director, Joe’s Movement Emporium