Dance Place: Revitalization and gentrification of the Brookland community
| By Maya Kosover |
After being forced out of Adams Morgan by gentrification, Carla Perlo was left with no choice but to find an alternative home for her newly established organization, Dance Place. Her monthly rent quadrupled from $1,500 to $6,000 nearly overnight in 1986. Brookland in Northeast became her solution.
When attempting to find the Brookland neighborhood on a D.C. map almost 30 years ago, it was close to impossible – the map key covered it.
Now, in addition to Catholic University and the Washington Hospital Center, the area is full of developing real estate and cultural, creative spaces, including Dance Place.
Dance Place was one of the leading pioneers that aimed to enrich the Brookland community. Ever since, its mission has been to build a community of artists, students, and audiences through performance and educational programming.
But once again, gentrification changes in Brookland in 2013 stir up a sense of force-out déjà vu for some in the Dance Place community. Others, like Perlo, feel more confident this time around.
And that might explain why Dance Place is currently undergoing a $5 million renovation. $4 million has been allocated to the expansion and revamp of the theatres and studios; “Program Enhancement” and “Organizational Stability” are being improved at $500,000 each. Perlo does not foresee her property or her students going anywhere.
“That word usually means moving the rich in and the poor out,” Perlo said. “But that isn’t happening here.”
The middle class that lives in Brookland has been living there a long time. They own their property, and they’re not going anywhere. If anything, they’re cashing out, she said.
“We have an opportunity to see how revitalization comes to a neighborhood without gentrification,” Perlo said. “We want to make this place green, beautiful, friendly, clean, livable, walkable, and artistic – have it feel artsy, not like the neglected ghetto.”
Co-Director Deborah Riley agreed, stating that Brookland has always had a base of homeowners, apartment dwellers, and a range of economic security.
According to the Washington Post, 61% of Brookland residents own their homes whereas only 29% occupy rented homes. In addition, the average household income is over $70k, a 73% increase since 1990 when Dance Place first arrived.
Dance Place has performed for roughly 10,000 people a year for the past 30 years. It’s this kind of steady impact that keeps Perlo and Riley optimistic.
“It’s a great thing when a neighborhood has a positive energy,” Riley said. “You come to a lively place, it’s a place you want to be. It says ‘We’re connected here, and we want to be connected.’”
‘The kids came to our door’
When Perlo and Riley first envisioned Dance Place, programs for youth were nowhere on the agenda.
But Dance Place pretty quickly became a gathering place for neighborhood kids. Some were locked out of their homes, others were bored and causing trouble.
On one occasion, an 11-year-old and her sister stopped by to use the restroom because they were locked out of their house, Riley recalled. She was smart enough to know that if they just sat quietly and did their homework, nobody would kick them out.
“These weren’t even latchkey kids – these were no-key kids,” Perlo said.
That same girl now serves as a member of the Dance Place Advisory Council, and her son also participates in dance programs. Riley said she’s been an avid contributor, bringing numerous participants to Dance Place from the neighborhood.
Perlo finally decided they needed a more formal system to keep children occupied when a group of boys were throwing rocks, breaking car windows, and running up and down the building’s roof.
The owner of the auto service down the street, Tony, told Perlo she had to ‘get them under control.’ When Perlo asked, ‘Why me?’ he replied, ‘Because nobody else would.’
So Perlo pulled them off the roof and started assigning tasks. One day, they filled potholes on the streets. Another day they painted the rusty bridge by the Metro station blue with yellow stars. Sometimes they picked up trash, other days they learned to use new tools and planted trees.
Perlo did not like to dwell on the fact that the city was neglecting the neighborhood – a neighborhood with a University and a Metro stop, usually where the dollars go. Instead, she repaired the issue and gave the boys something to do.
That first group of boys became Perlo’s protection in the neighborhood.
“Nobody messed with them, so nobody messed with me,” she said.
Now, the Brookland youth are woven into everything Dance Place strives to do, from after school classes to summer programming to student internships.
It has been nearly 30 years that Perlo and Riley have been co-directing Dance Place. While the two women can’t imagine their lives without the studio, especially with the upcoming renovation reveal, both admit retirement is within the next 10 years or so.
“We’re going to need an artistic director and an executive director – right now we both are involved with both,” Perlo said. “Our co-directorship evolved organically, and it’s not the right structure for the future of Dance Place.”