By Dipanwita Ghosgh
Rioters burned down Columbia Heights 40 years ago. Today a group of artists is working hard to create a reawakening of the arts in this area.
Following Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination in 1968, angry mobs destroyed much of this northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood. A picture on the walls of the Gala Hispanic Theatre shows that only shops owned by black people were left standing. All other buildings were burned down, or closed for business after the violence.
But today as you step out of the Metro station, you encounter a whole new story. New condos, popular restaurants, shopping centers-the area has gone through a complete makeover. But amidst the mushrooming of new and posh places, what stands out most is the new push towards rebranding the area as the art capital of the district.
Tiffany Hill, the executive director at the Dance Institute of Washington, housed in one of the tall buildings that towers over Columbia Heights. It was the third building to be constructed after the riots, after the Tivoli and the Triangle Partners buildings, which face the institute.
“The D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities and Art Service Communications are trying to bring about a synergy between various arts programs, art organizations and charter schools to bring about a revival of the arts,” she said, sitting on the sofa in the lobby of the institute as little children in leotards made their way to their next ballet class.
Hill said that even a few years back, she and her friends considered the area unsafe because of problems related to drugs, violence, crime and homelessness.
“No one wanted to stop here, people would just drive by as fast as possible. But all that has changed now,” she added.
Today she feels comfortable and happy working in this locality, she said.
Columbia Heights has a dynamic history. It used to be a predominantly rural area initially and then in the 1800s was a horse racetrack. A large number of government workers and middle income groups lived there around the 1920s and it became a full- fledged “city within a city” by the 1960s.
Today Columbia Heights has a diverse population, with an African American majority. Latinos form the second largest group, followed by whites and then Asians. Significant differences in income levels and religious backgrounds add to the diversity.
“There are people who have lived here in this area for many decades while there are people who have recently bought the plush condos in the neighborhood. As a result we have children from poor and rich families in our classes,” Hill said.
The dance school has students who come are Latinos, Indians, African Americans, Vietnamese and white Americans, said Emy Imoh, in charge of marketing and registration.
Fabian Barnes founded this dance institute to bring together a diverse community in the pursuit of the arts, specifically dance.
While touring with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1970s, Barnes fell in love with D.C., he said. During those days, the mayor would organize summer youth programs, for which students were paid to take art classes. Barnes taught the dance part of that program.
Following the success of the summer program, he decided to open a dance school in the late 1980s with funding from the D.C. Art Works.
Initially, he started the school in the basement of another school which had some extra space to offer. It grew, and two years ago they relocated to the location in Columbia Heights.
The school offers dance lessons in ballet, modern, fusion, folk, jazz, hip-hop and West African styles. Community classes are offered to students who want to learn dance as a hobby. At the end of the semester, students in the community classes stage performances for friends and family. Students who are interested in dance as a career gravitate toward the more rigorous pre-professional classes.
Even though the institute offers classes for all age groups, it primarily focuses on youth.
“Our purpose is to get the young people interested and motivated in the arts,” Barnes said.
Often, young people feel a sense of disillusionment and frustration, Barnes said. Many of them feel that they have nothing positive to do with their lives and they think that there is a lack of options of constructive things to do, he added.
For them, engaging in any form of art provides an outlet.
“When you dance or sing or play an instrument you do it from your heart and your energy is put to good use and you have fun with it,” he said.
“Having an institute like this gives them an option to do something positive and constructive with their lives.”
Many of the young people in the community come from families where the parents have menial jobs and work for more than 12 hours a day, he said. During this time, after school, taking up dance can be a productive hobby that will keep them busy and they can have fun.
“Some of the kids don’t fare well in academics and are good in sports or the arts. Here they can realize their own potential and can get something to feel good about themselves,” Barnes said.
The ongoing economic crisis has been difficult for the institute. But, they have made the necessary changes, like hiring part-time teachers instead of full-time ones.
“We are trying to be responsible and still make the necessary changes to suit the situation best,” he said.
The vision for the future is to have this institute operate above capacity, Barnes said.
“We want to be able to give individual dancers and small companies the ability to live their dreams. We want to make a name for ourselves, not just nationally but internationally,” he added.
Any honest citizen should give back to his community, Barnes said.
“I am doing the same in this community and I believe dance is a great way to do that.”