web analytics

Washington DC begins to swarm its darkest streets with civic art. Sound familiar?

On the back end of Washington DC’s Union Station, numerous passenger railways stretch to the northeast across several city blocks, by means of a lengthy, viaduct-like structure.

By and large, this viaduct separates the gentrifying Near Northeast neighborhood, consisting primarily of two- and three-story rowhomes set back from the street, and the gentrifying NoMa neighborhood (“North of Massachusetts”) which is redeveloping into an array of fashionable office and apartment high-rises (probably mid-rises by most other cities’ standards), along with retail on the lower level.

 

Perpendicular to these elevated train tracks, L Street NE is among the east-west collector roads, which, for a few hundred feet at last, turns into a dimly lit grotto thanks to the viaduct.

So why do I dwell on such a subject—in a city hundreds of miles away—on a blog called Urban Indy? Maybe you already know the answer. If you don’t, this promotional banner should offer more of a clue.

This underpass will soon christen a new art installation called Lightweave, which will help brighten and activate the space for nighttime pedestrian travel.

 

Does it ring a bell? If not, maybe a close-up rendering will jog the memory.

By now, for anyone who has followed Indy urban development for at least the last five years, the answer should be obvious: the installation bears more a than passing resemblance to Swarm Street, the signature project associated with the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which runs through the Virginia Avenue parking garage underpass. Here’s the southern opening of the Cultural Trail at the mouth of the underpass.

And here is a rendering of Swarm Street, courtesy of the Cultural Trail website. Take a look. By this point, anyone who has walked or even driven through this stretch of Virginia Avenue should know what I’m talking about. The Washington DC proposal Lightweave unequivocally resembles Swarm Street in Indianapolis.

 

But if it took this much text and all these photos to convey the analogy, it’s pretty clear that Swarm Street suffers a bit of a visibility problem. The intention of Swarm Street (paraphrased from the Cultural Trail’s description) was to create “a dynamic, illuminated corridor that urban dwellers and families alike would feel safe visiting and comfortable walking and riding through”.   It consists of LED-lights embedded in both the pavement and the overhead framework, through which sensors would activate to create a swarm of lights as cyclists and pedestrians pas through them. The creative brains behind the Cultural Trail intended Swarm Street to serve as the signature artistic achievement: the project that took the most aesthetically challenged segment of the Trail—a shadowy, overlong underpass—and turn it into a captivating linear installation, complementing the Cultural Trail’s efforts to blend aesthetics with infrastructure for non-motorized users.

 

By almost all metrics, the Cultural Trail has been a resounding success, attracting national and international attention for its capacity to integrate bikeable and walkable space with a downtown setting, resulting in a cycletrack that even novice urban bicyclists can feel comfortable using. Swarm Street, unfortunately, has proven the albatross of the Cultural Trail. Despite costing more than any other art installation affiliated with the Trail, it has shown little impact: it enjoyed a brief life around 2013, about the time of Cultural Trail’s grand opening celebration, though it only served as a trial run. Very little press coverage on Swarm Street exists (not surprisingly), but from what I’ve understood in conversations with various activists, the project experienced considerable damage from water seepage before it could get fully implemented, and the only means of remedying the source of the moisture would involve cost-prohibitive improvements to the parking garage itself—improvements that served no other purpose than to facilitate the operability of the art installation.

 

For the last four years and some change, Swarm Street has dangled lifelessly from the ceiling of the overpass. The unacquainted may just see it as a strange piece of infrastructure, if they even notice it at all. It’s a bit surprising that the Cultural Trail website still keeps the Swarm Street link activated. While it would be unfair to say it has degraded the overall quality of the Cultural Trail—which remains a great peace of urban infrastructure—Swarm Street certainly contributes next to nothing in improving the space it intended to electrify. And it remains unclear if the Central Indiana Community Foundation—the primary steward for the Cultural Trail—has been able to devise a means of repairing or even an alternative to Swarm Street. It’s a huge challenge, and while I don’t want to fault any individual or entity, I call attention to the current stalemate with the hope of a expediting an eventual resolution.

 

Time will only tell what Washington DC achieves with Lightweave, the Swarm Street equivalent. From what I can deduce (per an article from Greater Greater Washington), it will deploy a different artist than Swarm Street, and, while the scale is probably larger than Swarm Street (Lightweave is one of four installations for each of the underpasses created by the viaduct), the ambition is a bit lower. Unlike Swarm Street, none of the installations sponsored by the NoMa Parks Foundation is likely to be sensor-activated; they will operate continuously, and they will only involve hanging installations, but nothing embedded in the ground.

 

It’s hard not to be a tad skeptical about Lightweave, but perhaps the creators studied Indy’s Swarm Street and learned from its mistakes. The L Street underpass currently seems to suffer from at least some of the same moisture issues that ultimately exterminated Indy’s swarm of lights.

And, although DC is a considerably more densely populated city than Indianapolis, the Virginia Avenue corridor in Indy is higher-profile, closer to downtown, and probably gets as much, if not more, foot and bicycle traffic. Conversely, DC’s viaduct, and the L Street underpass, stretches across a comparatively obscure part of town, which, though gentrifying (like most of DC), splices across NoMa, a recently evolved mixed-use neighborhood on formerly neglected real estate. Odds are strong that Lightweave will elicit some backlash that it’s an attempt to displace a broadly accepted dry space for DC’s homeless population.

While Indianapolis certainly has its share of homeless camps at underpasses, I’m not aware that Virginia Avenue ever was a major respite; after all, it’s a privately owned, securitized garage constructed atop a public street. The construction of glittery displays in obscure underpasses in Washington DC bespeak the city’s mind-boggling wealth and elitism—an undercurrent that simply does not resonate in Indianapolis, to the latter city’s advantage.

 

If Lightweave and its sister projects open to the public this spring as planned, we may witness a considerable amount of Swarm Street’s unrealized potential. Or it could face some of the same structure problems, along with a host of socioeconomic concerns that never really emerged in Indy. Then again, maybe the folks behind the Indianapolis Cultural Trail have another ace up their sleeves.

Social Media

8 Responses to “ “Washington DC begins to swarm its darkest streets with civic art. Sound familiar?”

  1. Micah says:

    There was a homeless camp along Virginia last winter, under the railroad portion of the underpass, not within the garage (and thus not under Swarm Street). The camp grew until it, along with several others under CSX’s tracks, were cleared late last year. I imagine the large number of Cultural Trail users and Anthem employees who struggled to pass through the camp was a main reason it was cleared.

    And periodically some of the Swarm Street lighting works. Only a few of the in-ground lights ever activate, but the overhead section seems to perform as intended perhaps 50% of the time (based on my daily commute along the Trail).

    • Eric McAfee says:

      Thanks for the clarifications, Micah. Since I no longer live in the city, I suppose it isn’t entirely fair of me to report on the functionality of an art installation…except that not once in my return visits have I ever seen it work. At any rate, it sounds like it’s still only working at about a quarter of its intended functionality.

      Then again, I’m not entirely sure about some of the projects along the Cultural Trail. Passing through the portion in the alley near Livery and the Metro before it intersects Mass Ave, the users are supposed to catch whiff of a rose scent. I’ve only noticed it once. Not sure that’s an issue of disrepair, though I know the Cultural Trail’s budget included considerable set-aside for repairs and maintenance to the trail itself.

  2. Tom says:

    I live just southeast of dt indy and use the CT frequently. The upper lights work most of the time. I’ve never seen any lights flash on in the pathway – and am not sure if that is supposed to happen. It is typically difficult to see the lights up above working because, as you pass under them – they light up behind you – so you almost have to turn around while moving forward to see them. I question your claim that this piece of work is supposed tobe the “signature artistic achivement” of the CT. There are several important pieces and this is just one of them. It probably was the most expensive piece of art I will agree. I always smell the wafting perfume smell when passing the “scent art” on Mass Ave by Metro. Sometimes I wish it didn’t work so well as I’m not much of a fan of the powerful, perfumy smell. (Do you think you could have found a worse picture to show of the Virginia Ave underpass? That picture shows one of the few days when there is snow on the trail, shows the construction fence alongside it – including muddy tracks across the trail from construction equipment going across it into the construction site and has no leaves on the trees or grass on the ground alongside it. There soon will be hundreds more apartments adjacent to the trail with many more people living in the immediate vicinity. I agree it would be nice if the art piece worked more effectively – but I don’t see it as a huge disaster or the “albatross” of the Cultural Trail.)

    • Thanks for the clarifications Tom. Glad to hear the lights have worked for you. Admittedly I’m only in Indianapolis about 10 days a year (at most), so I have little exposure, but in my visits, I’ve never seen it work once, and most other people who I talk to who are interested in an committed to the Cultural Trail have echoed my sentiments: lost potential. That said, I’m happy to hear that it is at least somewhat functional, even if the person actually triggering the lights barely has any idea that it’s happening. Would love to actually see it sometime.

      Beyond that, I’m confused by most of the rest of your response. Why would the creators engineer the lights on the ground so that they’re not supposed to work? The CT’s profile of Swarm Street states that they’re a part of the installation.

      If you would like to plug Swarm Street, I’m happy to replace out my photo in this blog article with one of yours. I’m not in Indy much these days, and this photo was the best I had available.

      As for it being the “signature artistic achievement” to the CT, I hold my ground firmly on that. It absolutely was intended–-both in terms of the budget allocated to it and the vision of the people with Central Indiana Community Foundation spearheading art–-to be the most prominent piece of art to the Trail. They wanted the highest investment in the area the thought was the biggest aesthetic challenge: i.e., the Virginia Avenue parking garage. I know because I lived in Indy in 2009 and 10 and attended several of the planning meetings where these specific words were used. So yes, it was intended to serve as the Trail’s largest artistic showpiece, and considering the underwhelming results in relation to the cost, it pretty clearly serves as the Cultural Trail’s albatross.

  3. ahow628 says:

    A few comments:
    1) The Swarm Street installation is only under the parking garage area and does go into the rail viaduct at all.
    2) The upper lights are about 90% working currently. The floor lights worked for a few months, but have been dead for a few years now.
    3) The homeless camp was actually in decent shape for a while, although it started crowding the walkway after a bit. It was fairly safe and relatively drug free for the first few months. Later on, it attracted some drug addicts and was eventually disbanded when there was an overdose death.

  4. Mallory says:

    1) As a former resident of Indianapolis, I am very familiar with Swarm. I actually loved it during my runs and walks from downtown to FS. As of last summer before I left (for the second time), the lights did work. Also, I don’t think the unrealized potential has as much to do with the “failure” of the installation as a lack of sprawl to FS from the downtown core. I’m not an expert – just my 2 cents.

    2) I am a current and former resident of the District. Actually, used to live a block from the M street underpass where the “rain” installation is happening. As such, I attended community meetings put on by NoMa parks. Just to be clear, this is NOT a homeless clearing project. There are concerns that the homeless will be temporarily displaced, but none of the literature, renderings or the meetings touched on the idea of eliminating a homeless presence from the neighborhood. The affordable housing problem in DC is very, very real. Just around the corner from these sites is a shelter that is at capacity nightly. The reason for the homeless living under these passes is because they are a part of the neighborhood not intruders. And again, with affordable housing being such a huge issue in the city, residents are generally inclined to blame local government on the problem of homeless residents rather than the individuals themselves.

    I think it’s easy to demonize the “wealthy” but you would do well to understand that the wealth and poverty dynamics in the District are stark and obvious to all residents. It’s not opulence that drives us to desire public art. We genuinely believe that these spaces deserve love and that they will continue to be used by all residents – homeless included. The vibe of how homeless are treated in Indianapolis vs DC are quite different. Indy could learn something from the District in this instance.

    • Hi Mallory–thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear from another person indicating that Swarm Street has worked quite well at various points. Perhaps my luck was just unusually bad: over the course of at least a half dozen visits in the last few years, I haven’t seen a single flicker of life on it.

      I live in DC now as well. As for the M Street project, I definitely don’t intend to imply that it’s a homeless clearing initiative. But it certainly stands the chance of facing scrutiny that Indy would not face, since the parking garage is a private development built over a public right-of-way, presumably through easements if not an extensive array of public-private partnerships (esp. since the garage’s primary purpose has been to serve traffic at the Fieldhouse nearby). The M Street project is much more akin to the rail underpasses in Indy just south of Louisiana Street, which themselves nearly always have at least a few homeless overnighters.

      I am well aware of DC’s affordability problem. But I’d be curious as to your opinion as to how Indy could learn something from the District in terms of “how homeless are treated”, since I have much better experience with homeless relief in Indy (through volunteering at Wheeler and other locations) than I do in DC. And I see Indy’s culture of affordability as often leading to more charitable and successful long-term outcomes than an expensive city where opportunities for the poor to extricate themselves from poverty are often much more limited, at least in terms of procuring adequate housing. I have yet to find a single high-cost city struggling that has come close to solving its problems of widespread unaffordability; meanwhile, highly affordable cities (like Indy) often face their own host of issues relating to an overwhelming disposability of their housing. So what does DC have to offer? It is, and has long been, a city of elites and ultra-poor, with very little of a middle income population, and virtually no blue-collar industry to speak of. DC has amazing resources by which to implement creative and often costly infrastructural investments–resources that most cities can only dream of. But it does come at the sacrifice of affordability–something the District won’t begin to solve, as long as it remains a hub for fancy high-paying federal jobs and places constraints on housing supply through height limitations.

  5. Blair says:

    I guess it could be an albatross on paper, but in terms of daily effect it matters little to none.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *