How Creative Placemaking Supports Artists and Small Businesses in DC

A strong partnership is making D.C.'s Ward 8 more resilient

Like those in many communities, small businesses and artists in Washington D.C.’s Ward 8 were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Josh Silver, Lead Planner for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships for the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning, had an opportunity to use creative placemaking to help both small businesses and artists in Ward 8. Creative placemaking engages community members with activities that connect people, inspire action and creativity, and celebrate the unique aspects of neighborhoods. For more than a decade, the Office of Planning had successfully used the strategy to strengthen communities.

But COVID-19 made connecting with residents difficult. Silver reached out to LISC DC, a long-time community partner active in Ward 8. LISC had also found success with creative placemaking initiatives in the past. The Office of Planning and LISC DC partnered to design and launch Resilient Together, an initiative that supports entrepreneurs and artists of color with small grants.

The lessons they learned from their partnership can benefit other local officials working to encourage equitable development in their cities.

Trusted Partners Connect the City to the Community

Resilient Together was conceived as part of the Cities of Service Guiding Opportunities program, which aimed to foster community-informed investments and development in Opportunity Zones. COVID-19 forced the District to get creative in their efforts.

“We shifted our focus toward hyper local needs,” explained Silver. “It was really about addressing the challenges brought on by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The partnership helped make the initiative a success. LISC DC has been active in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years and drew on its deep web of relationships to engage the community.

With funds from Cities of Service and LISC, they awarded $5,000 grants to six small businesses through a competitive process.

Winners had to meet four criteria: celebrate the culture of D.C. neighborhoods and highlight local small businesses run by entrepreneurs of color; engage the community; adhere to COVID-19 health and safety recommendations; and be located within or adjacent to the Ward 8 Opportunity Zone.

“LISC really views placemaking as a tool to achieve community development outcomes,” said Bryan Franklin, Program Officer for LISC DC, who was the project manager for Resilient Together. “Creative placemaking can help express the unique identity of a place, while also creating a space for residents, artists and other stakeholders to make positive physical, social and economic impacts in their community.”

Community members were involved throughout the process. LISC worked with partners like Anacostia Business Improvement District and Project Create, a community nonprofit that promotes youth development, to help spread the word to businesses and artists. In addition to including an artists and business owner, each award winner had to develop plans for community input.

Connecting with Artists Amplifies Community Voices

As they were designing and evaluating the program, Silver and Franklin considered not only the potential for economic impact and physical transformation of public spaces, but also how to support cultural development in the neighborhood.

Several of the projects underway are highlighting community stories and the work of local artists and writers.

Mahogany Books, located in the historic Anacostia neighborhood of Ward 8, is working with writer and cultural commentator Panama Jackson to recruit and feature writers for Local writers have produced essays that address issues faced by Ward 8 and the larger Black community during the past year, including racism, mental health, and the loss of family members to COVID-19.

We Act Radio is similarly highlighting stories of resilience within the community. The steering committee who selected the winners also included artists with strong ties in the community.

“It’s really a project in building power and building community voice,” said Franklin. “In the midst of COVID-19 we hear the stats about the impact on life expectancy for Black communities, we hear about the inequitable deaths and vaccine distribution. But we’re not hearing as much from local communities speaking for themselves. This was about giving a platform for Ward 8 businesses, residents, and stakeholders to tell their own stories.”

With Support, Residents Make City Priorities Personal

Other Resilient Together projects complement the policy work the city is doing, particularly around food policy. The head chef of Open Crumb, a local Black-owned restaurant in Anacostia, is surveying residents about their favorite meals and also classic ingredients they have in the house. He’s using what he’s learned to create two healthy recipes that residents will enjoy. He’ll be creating a video demo and handing out bags of ingredients to families so they can make the dishes at home.

“The District has a food policy council led by an executive director,” said Silver. Partnerships like this one with LISC-DC are important for implementing citywide policies and programs and raising awareness for small businesses. “There’s a policy implementation piece that happens with initiatives like this too, and what we’re doing is coming in from the bottom up and implementing some of those policies.”

The food policy council is tasked with driving policy that creates a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable food system.

Fresh Food Factory, which is committed to improving the health of underserved communities, is working with artist Luis Peralta Del Valle to produce a mini-documentary series that captures the desires and dreams of Ward 8 residents. In the series, Fresh Food Factory, residents, and artists are imagining together what a more healthy and equitable food system could look like — examining the same issues as the food policy council from a local perspective.

Personal Connections Sustain Investments

Silver and the D.C. Office of Planning were able to talk with people through the initiative they would not otherwise have met. “There’s a whole new set of connections and relationships that we’ve been able to foster through this initiative,” he said.

While many of the projects are in early stages, these new connections are essential to the success and sustainability of the work.

“These place-based interventions reflect community priorities and highlight community strengths and assets,” said Silver. “That will ultimately benefit residents within Opportunity Zones.”

Many of the projects will live on in very concrete ways. Liff’s Market is working with artist Darius Hill to create community murals, for example, and Hair Sprinkles, a hair styling service, will offer apprenticeship scholarships to teach others.

And the stories from Black Books Matter project will continue to be read, including by Franklin.

“Being a Black man, the narratives that are told about the Black community are very personal to me,” he said. He plans to read them to his daughter, who was born this year, when she is older.

Drawing on trusted partners to launch the program and lifting up local voices and artists means the initiative is embedded in the community and can have a longer-lasting effect on the neighborhood.

“This is just the beginning,” added Franklin. “Creative placemaking is a power-building tool and a way for communities to celebrate their culture and reclaim their communities. And that’s going to have a lasting impact.”