Grant warfare: The real story behind MidCity's contentious arts district branding project
- Businesses along the 14th and U corridors will soon be part of an arts district. (Photo: Samuel Corum)
By the time the holiday shopping season is in full swing, D.C.'s fast-growing commercial corridors around 14th and U streets will be festooned with shiny new banners proclaiming the area an “arts district,” in a city-funded effort to promote and sustain economic development across the surrounding neighborhoods of Shaw, U Street, and Logan Circle.
The banners, along with a smattering of storefront signage and other graphic representations, will come courtesy of an unprecedented bundling of four Neighborhood Investment Fund grants from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, totaling $200,000. The grants have been combined as part of an overall $500,000 effort to apply a yet-to-be-determined overarching brand to an area that stretches from Florida Avenue NW to the north, Massachusetts Avenue NW to the south, 16th Street NW to the west, and 7th Street NW to the east.
"We need something very distinctive, something that's visual, at street level, so that when people are walking around, they know that this is a distinct area," explains Andrea Doughty, an economist who's serving as the branding project's pro-bono team leader.
But some of the very people this branding campaign is theoretically aimed at helping, small business owners along these same corridors, have responded to the plan with anger, resentment, and skepticism. A series of public meetings about the project held in August and September brought out critical voices, many of them business owners who claimed they couldn't fathom why $200,000 in District funding has been allocated to re-brand an area that already has a number of established identities.
"I haven't seen anything in what they've done that I think will be beneficial," says John Snellgrove, operator of Cafe St. Ex and Bar Pilar on 14th Street. "We've all been talking about branding for eight years now … They're not covering any new ground."
The complaints have been various and varied: The area they’re trying to brand is too big. There’s no plan in place to maintain the banners over the long term. There’s no money to help actual artists. People involved with the project appear to have a conflict of interest.
Attempting to understand how a seemingly simple branding exercise wound up becoming so contentious not only requires delving into the complexities of recession-era neighborhood politics, it also sheds light on how non-profits have struggled to navigate the city’s remaining public funding sources in the wake of the Marion Barry earmark controversy.
What’s in a name?
At the crux of this story is a particular name: MidCity. Unlike some of the completely manufactured real estate terms for D.C. neighborhoods that have appeared over the past decade (think NoMa or Capitol Riverfront), applying the term MidCity to this to-be-branded area has at least some basis in history. More recently, it's been adopted by the Mid City Artists (founded in 2003), the MidCity Business Association (founded in 2005), the MidCity Residents Association (formerly the Q Street Residents Association, which formed in 1994 but changed its name in 2008) and even the MidCity Caffe on 14th Street (opened in 2009).
So when the MidCity Residents Association spearheaded an effort over the past year to obtain city grants for a large-scale branding campaign, it titled its proposal "Economic Development Branding of the MidCity Arts District through Technical Assistance & Training." Early literature promoting the project also referred to it as "MidCity Arts District." And that's where the trouble may have started.
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