Anacostia Art Center preserving the soul of the historic community as it plans for the future of East of the River
By Cate Burgan
“A lot of different, beautiful things”: Historic arts center strives to create generational wealth among Black community
From Frederick Douglass’ home Cedar Hill from the late 1800s to The Big Chair sculpture from the 1950s, Anacostia is bursting at the seams with antiquity, heritage and opportunity.
Historic Anacostia. Photo by Emilee Kessler
The Anacostia Arts Center (AAC) strives to capture every ounce of the neighborhood’s culture while uplifting Black-owned businesses.
The center, tucked away on the main strip of downtown Anacostia on Good Hope Road, is dedicated to creating a home for small businesses, artists, arts and cultural organizations to fulfill their commitment to the revitalization and sustainable economic development of Historic Anacostia.
“When you go to places like the Anacostia Arts Center, not only are you investing in hyper-local authors, not only are you investing in more unique small-scale manufacturers and creatives, not only do you have the opportunity to go into vintage store with a Black woman and be styled,” said Jess Randolph, associate creative director of AAC and life-long resident of The District. “It’s a different experience. You are investing directly into the local economy.”
I think that our space, like a lot of other spaces, serve[s] a purpose to give people in the neighborhood a variety of different things to experience and taste when they’re at home. And I think that that also gives folks in other parts of the city so many opportunities to come to Anacostia and celebrate what makes it so uniquely itself. – Jess Randolph, associate creative director of AAC
Just like the neighborhood, Anacostia Arts Center has a rich history.
Anacostia Arts Center currently sits on land originally purchased by the Margolis family in the 1930s. The family was renowned throughout D.C. for their vast ownership of property in the area. The location originally housed the discounted apparel store, Woolworth, for most of the 1900s. Although the chain didn’t last into the turn of the century, AAC memorializes its existence by preserving the bright red “W” enclosed in a diamond tiled into the floor at the main entrance.
The “W” at the entrance to the AAC symbolizes the original five cent store, Woolworth. Photo by Cate Burgan
In 1999, a local nonprofit decided to purchase the property from the Margolis family. Three years later, they began construction to transform the department store into a job training center for local residents. Eventually, the lower level of the building was renovated to serve as a small business incubator –– which allowed for local entrepreneurs in Anacostia to display their shops to the public. After a decade of business, the non-profit switched from a job training center to an arts center, with the goal of employing the arts and creative economy. Anacostia Arts Center officially opened to the public on June 22, 2013 and has continued to grow as a home of the arts and culture.
At the end of 2021, the Anacostia Arts Center was acquired by its current owners, Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif), with the vision to expand on the center’s historic mission to support the local art economy and culture and to create a hub for inclusive entrepreneurship in the heart of Anacostia. Wacif was established in 1987, and offers programming, loans and advisory services for low-income entrepreneurs in The District.
The Anacostia Arts Center is located in Downtown Anacostia on Good Hope Road SE. Photo by Ciara Litchfield
On any normal day, the AAC’s gallery is open with natural light and clean wooden floors, while art from local painters covers the bright, white walls. On an evening that an event is held, the gallery is filled with chairs and residents from all across D.C. coming to attend an open mic night, a sake tasting or a small Black-owned business exposition.
AAC is the home of six different small businesses: Mahogany Books, Nubian Hueman, The Fresh Food Factory, CHIROKEI Consulting, LLC, E Life and Vintage and Charmed.
“A lot of these businesses are Black women-owned, which I think is a really great reflection of this trend in America . . . where Black women, specifically, are . . . turning to entrepreneurship to achieve upward mobility,” Randolph said.
In the past six months, Wacif has continued to work with small local businesses, community members, artists and partners to create equitable economic opportunities, build community wealth and help businesses and residents have opportunities to prosper in place.
Amanda Stephenson was inspired to open The Fresh Food Factory after she watched her sick father increase his lifespan from six months to 18 years. Photo by Ciara Litchfield
Amanda Stephenson opened The Fresh Food Factory inside the Anacostia Arts Center in 2019. The center is a great location for her to connect with residents in the neighborhood, she said, expressing appreciation for the opportunity AAC gave her to explore her passion for healthy foods in the culinary arts.
“I wanted to [open The Fresh Food Factory] because there wasn’t a lot of information, and definitely less access in the community readily available for residents to change their health and life trajectory. Residents east of the river are said to live 15 years less than those west of the Anacostia River,” Stephenson said.
With Anacostia being a food desert (Ward 8 has three grocery stores, whereas Ward 6 –– which is home to historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill –– has 15 fresh food chains) a store with affordable, healthy options is a necessity, and the center gives Stephenson the platform and tools she needs to build a healthier, more nutritious community through trainings and easy access to organic and ethnic food choices.
Another small business that has been a part of the AAC for over six years is CHIROKEI Consulting, LLC. The Holistic Chiropractic Office was founded by Dr. Keita Vanterpool with the hopes of providing a service not often available to her community in Anacostia.
“I believe it was super important to have a chiropractic office in my community that met the needs of the people who looked like me,” Vanterpool said in an email.
CHIROKEI Consulting, LLC is one of the only chiropractic offices serving the community in Anacostia. Photo by Cate Burgan
She said the center is a hub for several businesses in the neighborhood. When a person stops in one shop, it gives the other storefronts an opportunity to gain a customer as well –– further reiterating the idea of circulating and building community wealth.
“This perfect little nook is one of Anacostia’s best kept secrets and I love being a part of its growth,” she said.
As the customers walk away from the small business incubator on the ground level, they continue down the stairs to the lower level of the arts center, where they will find The Hive 2.0.
The Hive 2.0 can be found in the basement of the AAC. Photo by Cate Burgan
The headquarters is the only co-working space east of the Anacostia River, and it is dedicated to helping small local business owners thrive and prosper while generating community wealth long term. The space is open 24/7 to members, so Randolph has come to think of it as a community of entrepreneurs coming together to help each other achieve their goals.
She remembers times when folks who are working full-time jobs, but are still struggling to make ends meet, come to The Hive just before midnight and leave well after 2 a.m. to put in work on their entrepreneurial business.
Randolph said she believes that’s what makes The Hive 2.0 “so unique and so needed.”
“The really beautiful thing about The Hive 2.0. and the space that’s created there is . . . through inclusive entrepreneurship –– and I’m talking about not just office space and dedicated desk mailboxes. I’m talking about the workshops that we offer. And . . . more advanced technical assistance and funding opportunities,” Randolph said. “The Anacostia Arts Center is a lot of different beautiful things.”
The arts center serves really important functions, Randolph said, but one of her favorite parts is the way the community comes together to experience new things.
They host events to celebrate Black History Month, open-mic nights for poetry and music empowerment, portrait pop-ups to celebrate Black boyhood, among many other events.
In mid April, Randolph worked closely with Anacostia Bid, and several other organizations, to host something different and new. They transformed the front gallery in AAC into a Japanese inspired space for the evening. Cherry blossoms covered the area from ceiling to floor, and small tables were spread across the room.
Two Japanese-American women came to speak to the crowded room during the 110th annual Cherry Blossom Festival. They spoke about the beauty and diversity of Japanese culture, as well as Japanese traditions, cuisine, fashion and lifestyle. The two women then offered an interactive sake tasting session where participants got to experience three different delicious premium sake from the small business.
This was Randolph’s favorite event since Wacif took over AAC, because it was so different from those that they typically host.
“We were able to bring these beautiful women in a space that’s known to be Black. And we were able to create community with new friends in our space,” she said. “I think that it’s important for everyone to have something cool in their neighborhood to attend, and to have fun, and to experience new things and it was really exciting to see the art center be that space for the evening.”
Randolph said she believes AAC is an integral part of the Black community and The District overall, because Anacostia is made of so many “different, wonderful, creatives, business owners and innovators.” She said she feels joy when she is able to bring people together and build commune around different things –– like a sake tasting –– and is excited to continue to be a part of the diversity that the Historic Anacostia District has to offer.
“I think that our space, like a lot of other spaces, serve[s] a purpose to give people in the neighborhood a variety of different things to experience and taste when they’re at home,” she said. “And I think that that also gives folks in other parts of the city so many opportunities to come to Anacostia and celebrate what makes it so uniquely itself.”
The center itself is like no other space in the city, and Randolph is passionate about sending Anacostia and The DMV a positive message through programming, small business support and entrepreneurial creations.
“Our goal is to continue to honor the Arts Center as a Black space to gather, shop, and learn moving forward. Our diverse programming slate is a direct reflection of the brilliance residing in our neighborhood,” she said. “Curating events that start conversations and inspire through the celebration of Black culture is what sets us apart from other spaces in our city.”
Working in one of Washington, D.C.’s oldest neighborhoods, Anacostia, I knew I was going to uncover interesting stories. It’s an area rich with Black history and pride. When speaking with the residents over the past semester, a lot of them felt animosity towards being an underfunded and misrepresented area, but that still didn’t break their spirit.