The Real Ivy City

Two years ago, with a $3.5 million grant from the Kresge Foundation, LISC launched its National Creative Placemaking Program. Creative placemaking is the intentional support of arts and culture-related organizations and activities that bring residents together to make social, physical, and economic changes in their neighborhoods. If done correctly, creative placemaking has the potential to not only infuse money into a community, but also to fuse together relationships, build communities, spark a renewed interest in the arts, and most importantly – elevate voices typically excluded from planning and development conversations.  LISC’s creative placemaking program is unique in that it is inclusive and equity-based, resident and artist-led, and includes access to the following:

  • Financing for creative placemaking projects through loans, grants, and equity investments
  • Technical assistance for local community groups to integrate the arts and culture into their revitalization activities
  • Research and learning opportunities for community groups and funders to understand and support more enduring, equitable placemaking programs

Before the launch of our National Creative Placemaking Program, several LISC sites, including LISC DC, had been making investments in arts-related community development for many years. For example, LISC DC provided low-interest financing and technical assistance to nonprofits looking to operate arts-based community facilities in often overlooked and disinvested DC neighborhoods.

creativeplacemakingIf you are familiar with the DC arts landscape, then you probably have heard of, been to, or participated in an arts or cultural program at the Atlas Theater, the Dance Institute, the Gala Theater, and Dance Place — all recipients of LISC DC’s creative placemaking investments during a time when the respective neighborhoods of H Street NE, Columbia Heights, and Brookland were very different than they are today.

Creative placemaking has the power to boost the health of neighborhoods by investing in the physical and social assets of a community. These investments are particularly important for communities with a history of neglect, blight, disinvestment, and disengagement. This is true for our most recent creative placemaking initiative, which took place in the Ivy City neighborhood.

As previously reported, LISC DC teamed up with buildingcommunityWORKSHOP [bc] to bridge diverse stakeholders and engage residents in conversations on the future of Ivy City. This came about from the DC Office of Planning’s grant from the Kresge Foundation to implement creative placemaking interventions in select DC neighborhoods and ultimately promote community-building in neighborhoods experiencing rapid demographic and social change. Ivy City indeed fits this mold, as large scale developments – the majority devoted to luxury residential and commercial – have opened both to the south and northeast of Ivy City’s residential core.

ivycityisIvy City has historically been a small, predominantly African-American neighborhood with a rich and complex history. Established in 1872, Ivy City was once home to a track that hosted horse races and a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station, both of which offered employment opportunities to many African-Americans who eventually settled in the area. Around the turn of the 20th century, both the tracks and the local B&0 railroad line were gone, making Ivy City less reachable, and with the later development of warehouses, more industrial.

Over its lifetime, the Ivy City community faced various threats, including the city’s proposal in the 1950s and 1960s to change all the zoning in Ivy City to commercial, effectively wiping out the historic residential section to make room for a freeway. Though the freeway was never built, the looming threat of its construction caused many residents to move out of Ivy City, further contributing to a decrease in population and a loss of homeowners.

Today, Ivy City has a population of less than 2,000 people, poverty rate of 53%, and median household income of $15,000. Yet, despite these dire statistics, the people of Ivy City maintain the unwavering, resilient spirit of their ancestors. It is the Ivy City residents’ perseverance that made LISC DC and [bc]’s creative placemaking initiative a success.

Below is a summary of our project:

“Ivy City Is…” is a collaborative, resident, and artist-led creative project that culminated in the creation of a three-dimensional, 5 foot by 20 foot screen printed plywood installation, spelling out “IVY CITY.” This project celebrated the neighborhood’s rich heritage and fostered a dialogue about Ivy City’s identity as it undergoes rapid changes, including a renewed interest in development. Each letter in the “IVY CITY” installation was crafted using a collage of historic photos, maps, and portraits of residents who customized individual yard signs declaring what Ivy City means to them.

The Sanctuaries, a diverse community of local artists, collaborated with area youth from Empower DC to host a series of free screen printing workshops at Open Studio DC, a neighborhood screen printing studio and arts incubator.  Residents learned how to screen print and helped to create the seven large letters that spelled out “IVY CITY.” These individual letters were on display in key locations throughout the neighborhood, including Bethesda Baptist Church, Louis’ Restaurant, the Hecht Warehouse, and Trinity Baptist Church.

Over 200 Ivy City residents, creatives, and community stakeholders celebrated this project’s completion at an event with an on-site screen printer, free t-shirts, food and performances by local artists at Lewis W. Crowe Park. This “place-keeping” installation serves as a landmark for the historic neighborhood and invites residents of all backgrounds to celebrate Ivy City and collectively envision its future.


Successes:  Throughout the project LISC DC and [bc] designed, implemented, and supported a robust community engagement process that involved residents and stakeholders in every stage of the process. The creation of the large screenprinted sign reflects the community’s authentic character and immediately evokes a connection among residents.

The creative placemaking intervention was highly accessible for the wide range of Ivy City residents for whom art and culture may often be exclusive or unapproachable. There were low barriers to entry, allowing residents to participate in a number of ways, reflecting a variety of skillsets and personalities


Challenges:   In Ivy City, many key development decisions had already been made or were being made before the start of the project.  Because creative placemaking is typically used as a tool to collectively envision for the future and test out ideas with residents and stakeholders, once challenge was attempting to determine how LISC DC and [bc] could develop this temporary initiative to provide valuable insight for the DC Office of Planning.

Building authentic trust is always a challenge in community development work, especially for organizations new to a particular geography or social network. In this context, it was particularly difficult to build genuine trust and retain it amongst Ivy City residents and neighborhood organizations.

Given this project’s rapid timeline, it was difficult for LISC DC and [bc] to build well-established partnerships and leverage adequate funding for the next phase of work in the neighborhood.


Lessons Learned:  Throughout this project’s duration, residents identified the importance of genuinely communicating Ivy City’s neighborhood identity. The theme of neighborhood identity originates from residents’ desire to recognize, value, respect, and elevate the community’s rich past and present with an uncertain future ahead. Several key, guiding questions have been consistently broached by the project team in reflecting on this resident-identified theme:

  • Who is Ivy City being built for?
  • Is Ivy City currently being stewarded for all residents?
  • What does equitable development mean and look like in Ivy City?
  • How should we design for an equitable future of Ivy City?

These questions indicate the importance of being thoughtful and intentional about shaping new development in Ivy City.  The Ivy City community has consistently advocated for the inclusion of recreation space and amenities in their neighborhood. Future development in Ivy City provides a meaningful avenue to recognize the rich heritage, history and identity of the neighborhood and meet the essential needs of all residents to thrive and flourish in the face of change.