Last night we did the major install for the Black Space house at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. I knew we would be installing during while the library was open, so I asked Mel Harper to create a black DC silhouette as a logo for some white Tyvek suits left over from a previous project. The crew said it gave us a cool “Ghostbusters” look, albeit snug-fitting. (Sorry, about the size fellas—I’ll order larger ones next time!) One of the library regulars told us that watching the build was “like watching TV. It’s usually pretty dead around here, but you guys make it exciting.”
During the installation, many people stopped to ask what the project was about. I had an interesting discussion with an older black man who had lived in DC since 1969. I told him the house had to do with gentrification. “I understand what you’re saying, but I just can’t see it,” he said. “What does this house have to do with DC?” I explained how I had lived in DC 20 years and had noted that as the black population dropped, the black cultural sensibilities that I love about DC also were rapidly declining. “Well, if you really want this house to represent DC then you need to paint it three colors—you know which colors I’m about to say—red, black and green!” After he left, another patron came up to me sotto voce, “Don’t listen to him. You don’t need to paint your house. It looks good. You keep it just the way it is.”
And so it went. I spoke with an older white man from Appalachia (“You know that Loretta Lynn song, ‘Butcher Holler’? That’s where I’m from”) who said he had grown up seeing one-room houses, most not as nice as this one. Several folks approached about moving in or joked that a house like this would cost at least $250,000 in the District. One man told us he was homeless and how much he would love to have a house like this. He stood inside like a prospective buyer, imagining where he would put his chair and a small table, the generator he would put in the corner.
Throughout the day, I spoke with Latinos, blacks, whites, men, women, children, homeless folks, artists and working professionals. As I told Mr. Redblackandgreen, “This conversation is the art. You and I wouldn’t be talking now if this house wasn’t being built.”
At the end of the day as we were packing up, a small girl tugged on her mother’s hand. She wanted inside badly. I explained the project and told her mother it was fine for her to come inside. We posed for photos on the front porch and little Niara went inside the house and began dancing, filling the small room with arabesques, leaps and turns. “I want to see out the window!” she said. Her mother was holding onto what looked like a week’s worth of school work, plus a few bags and a rolling suitcase, so I offered to lift Niara up. “It’s beautiful out there!” she exclaimed looking out the salvaged-wood-framed window onto the Library’s main hall. In the eyes of this young girl, an ordinary place became magical. I looked through the window with Niara’s eyes. It was beautiful.
Special thanks to Calder Brannock, lead builder on the re-installation, and to the crew Aaron Johnson, Jefry Wright, Ralston Smith, Mel Harper, and the whole team at Martin Luther King Library, especially Marcia Maziarz, Audrey Middleton and executive director Linnea Hegarty. Black Space was designed in collaboration with architect Kashuo Bennett. The original build team was led by Stephen Crouch.
The Black Space installation sits at the juncture of DC history and the future of DC. The District has been a center of black culture since the early 1900s and hosted a majority black population from 1960 until 2010. We believe that regardless of ethnicity or background, as DC residents and tourists we all occupy black space. This house is a meeting place for young & old, new & native Washington to talk comfortably about the city’s cultural history and our responsibility to care for and preserve that richness.