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Interview: Businessman Duane Gautier on the Arts as a Catalyst for Anacostia

Duane Gautier, president of ARCH Development Corporation, speaks on how the Southeast neighborhood has changed over the past few decades and how it should improve for the future

Duane Gautier isn’t a resident of Anacostia, but with how much time he spends in the neighborhood he might as well be. For the past 30 years, he has dedicated time and energy to improving the neighborhood through the arts through his role as president of the ARCH Development Corporation. Since he founded the corporation in 1986, he has created a variety of arts venues like the Anacostia Arts Center, Honfleur Gallery, and Vivid Solutions Gallery. These venues, all located in Anacostia, have allowed more and more D.C. residents and tourists to venture east of the river and discover a community that they may not be so familiar with.

Below, Gautier speaks about how he has seen the neighborhood change over the last few years and how he hopes for it to continue to grow.

Tell me your role here in the neighborhood.

I am the President of ARCH Development Corporation, which is a community development corporation. We’ve been in Anacostia since 1986, and ARCH does a number of things. We have a business incubator. We have an arts center. We have two art galleries, artist’s housing, and artist's workspaces.

At the Anacostia Arts Center, we do 12 curated exhibitions a year, three which are digital and photography and three which are fine art and sculpture.

Our focus is totally on the Anacostia community.

The business incubator started because of local young professionals moving in who were looking for shared space where they could go. You used to have to go to Maryland or to Virginia, basically Crystal City. Our business incubator is about 88 percent minority, 58 percent of women, and over 40 percent of them are people who live in Wards 7 and 8.

We've seen more entrepreneurs come here. Part of it is because of the lower rents. Part of it is because we’re the only incubator in town that is not industry specific.

So, how have you seen the neighborhood change since you started working here?

I think from the 80s until the beginning of 2001 to 2002, there wasn’t much that changed. There was an area of high crime. There was not much development. There was an area of a lot of vacant storefronts.

Starting around 2000 to 2003, you saw little change. You saw new people coming in, renovating the vacant housing, and it really picked up in 2007. In 2007, we opened our first gallery. People thought we were crazy. The Washington Post thought we were crazy. They said, "What do you need an art gallery?" and we got some community opposition. Then they realized that we show more Ward 7 and 8 artists than any other organization in the city.

The critical thing we’ve seen is that there’s not enough disposable income in Anacostia to get the sort of retail and other community amenities that residents deserve. So, part of our goal and part of what we’re doing is trying to create businesses that will draw people from outside of Anacostia.

In 2008, you had maybe 15 to 16 vacant storefronts. Now, you only have three privately owned vacant storefronts in the entire Anacostia corridor. The vast majority of vacant storefronts are owned by the District government, which is the real problem. The District government keeps saying they’re going to put out Requests for Proposals to actually build retail and housing, and they never get around to it.

#tbt to last month when we got a new #neon sculpture from neighbor @craigkraftstudio. Lighting up #GoodHopeRd in style ✨

A photo posted by Anacostia Arts Center (@anacostiaarts) on

Why do you think that is?

Because they’re more interested with west of the river than they are with east of the river, the same story it's been for the 30 years we’ve been out here, and for years and years before that.

Their interest is not in Anacostia, and you’re seeing some private developers coming in. You're seeing the private sector moving in. What you're not seeing is the government putting its effort here.

Do you think your organization has helped to bring more attention to Ward 8?

Our focus is totally on the Anacostia community. We have more than 47 businesses to our business incubator. We’ve created storefronts that have appeal.

Our goal is not to be the end all or be all of economic development, but more as a catalyst. So, we're highly supportive of programs and activities that bring commercial activity here, but we also want to make sure it keeps its neighborhood feel.

We do not want what happened in Columbia Heights. We do not want what happened in H Street where they basically destroyed the neighborhood. We want to make sure that the neighborhood of Anacostia stays what it always has been, which is small scale, no big box stores, and no 10-story buildings.

What else is Anacostia known for and should be preserved?

It’s a historic area. You have to realize that in the 50s, there was a strong, strong African American middle-class and working-class population here. We want it to go back to that.

A lot of those old families moved out. It’s not a joke that Prince George’s County is known as Ward 9 of the District of Columbia. A lot of those families who are African American moved into Prince George’s County and part of that was because of the neglect of the city. We’d like to see that further developed and moved back.

People are not scared to come here anymore

What do you see for the future of Anacostia?

I think there are a couple things. The 11th Street Bridge construction project, itself, is a great boon to Anacostia. For one reason, it is so well-placed. That has been a real improvement. People don’t see it as isolated anymore. If the 11th Street Bridge Park gets built, I think that will also increase the flow of people from Navy Yard and Capitol Hill.

Because we’re in a historic area and the developers that are working here are workers who care about Anacostia, you’re going to see an integration of new retail, but it’s going to be small scale. There’s nobody interested in opening a big box store here, which would be objected to by the ANCs and the residents and should be objected. It’s going to take a while, though.

The critical thing is for small businesses to survive. There has to be the disposable income either in the neighborhood or coming into the neighborhood to patronize those buildings. I think Busboys & Poets, which is supposed to move in in a couple years, will be a very positive thing.

It’s all positive. There’s nothing negative happening right now in Anacostia. You're seeing no displacement from retail stores that are here, and you’re seeing no displacement of individuals. Most of the single-family housing being renovated is basically vacant or substandard. Crime rates are much lower in Anacostia than they were 10 years ago.

People are not scared to come here anymore. We’ve had since 2007 maybe 400 to 500 arts and culture-related events here. We’ve never had a mugging, a stabbing, a robbery, or anything in all the time that we’ve had open events here. Nothing. People say, "You can’t be serious." Oh, we’re very serious. Just check the statistics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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