Dance Place - 8th Street Arts Park

Dance Place, 3225 8th St NE, Washington, DC, 20017, USA

What started this project: 

Nestled in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC, is the Brookland neighborhood. The neighborhood dates to the 1800s, and development was strongly influenced by the events of the time, including the Civil War.28 Many religious establishments also settled in the neighborhood, and residential development boomed after World War II. Today, 30 percent of Brookland residents live below the poverty line and 51 percent of children live in poverty. High levels of unemployment are a major concern, where rates in Brookland are double the rest of the District. The neighborhood is predominantly African American and is more homogeneous than the rest of Washington in that regard. Dance Place is a neighborhood cultural center headquartered in Brookland. The center curates and hosts a 45-week presenting season, runs a dance school, and offers community arts and dance programming. Dance Place has been working in the neighborhood for thirty years, offering rigorous programming in Brookland, in partnership with various schools in the area, and to serve communities in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland. In 2009, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development set its focus on creating affordable housing in Brookland, with a focus on housing for artists. In partnership with Dance Place, the department created affordable live/work artist spaces known as Brookland Artspace Lofts, on the lot adjacent to Dance Place’s center.


Dance Place’s core mission has been to build a community through high-quality performances, commissions, training, and educational programs for audiences of all ages and abilities. Carla Perlo, Dance Place’s founding director, has been the long-term force behind the organization’s artistic excellence; her vision saw a new goal: that of taking that artistry into the community around their building. Although there are parks and green spaces within the neighborhood, not all are obviously public. An alleyway, owned by the city and protected as a right-of-way for the Metro system, lay between Dance Place’s building and the new housing complex – and presented itself as an opportunity to create and activate a vacant lot for public use. Overall, Dance Place sought to take advantage of this opportunity to activate the neighborhood through programming that is interactive and open to all. This work also related to other community concerns. Given high levels of crime in the Brookland area, dance, programming, and park creation were fused to ensure that public life took a stronghold in the neighborhood and dissuaded activity that made the area feel unsafe. Also, like many neighborhoods in Washington, DC, Brookland is experiencing high levels of new development. With existing fears of displacement, this project provided a positive interaction and model for public space improvements that offer benefits to existing residents. The goal of this effort was to build upon public investment – in this case, an artist affordable housing project – to advocate for investments to revitalize otherwise underused open, vacant spaces. As described in a local paper, “Perlo … and her colleagues hope that the park will be a natural extension of their organization’s artistic and community programming.”


Dance Place took responsibility for funding this asphalt-covered, vacant alleyway and transforming it into a public park. Dance Place has led the development, taking part in designing the park, and now overseeing the maintenance of the park, as well as the funding for the arts that take place in or because of this space. Named 8th Street Arts Park, it opened in 2016 and is considered the final phase of Dance Place’s arts campus. The Dance Place and 8th Street Park story involves three key components. The first was an expansion of Dance Place’s own building, the second was the artist’s lofts, and the third was the creation of an arts park on the public land between the two buildings. Together, these elements created a powerful “arts campus” in Brookland.


The expansion of Dance Place’s campus to the adjacent alleyway has created a new, artistic, playable green space, available for use by more of the local community. The dance and arts and crafts workshops have engaged the community with public space and served to physically revitalize and enliven these places, bringing neighbors together. Poignantly, 8th Street is also the area’s “first community park built by neighbors, for neighbors.” The process to create this park space required the collaboration of key stakeholders, including several government departments. These relationships, particularly with local government, can be time-intensive but are essential and fruitful. Keeping this engagement was consistent and intentional throughout ensured that support and funding were available for both physical improvements and ongoing programming. Today, Dance Place serves over 13,000 people annually through diverse programming that takes place in the traditional indoor spaces, as well as in the community center and in the 8th Street Arts Park. More than 1,000 artists are hired and paid to present, and Dance Place hires forty artists as teachers for educational programming. Many of the presentations and associated artists reflect local cultures, but Dance Place also brings in touring companies and international artists, which many community members would not have an opportunity to experience otherwise. As the Arts Campus thrives in its fullest realization, the leaders of Dance Place have started to plan for the long-term success and stewardship of this grand idea. The idea to create this park was exciting and improvisational. Now the organization is building longterm plans to ensure the success of its artistic mission, the park, and the deep relationships it has built with the community. The 8th Street Arts Park has brought culture from inside the walls of the cultural institution to the outside, figuratively and literally.