Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gentrified Rest

When I moved to Washington in 2004, a hot topic in the city was the escalating price of real estate. A huge issue in parts of the city involved condo conversion.  Slumlords of rundown buildings full of all sorts of code violations of health and safety regulations were offering tenants what seemed to them like enormous sums (~$12-15,000, for example) to entice them to vacate apartments.  The owner would then remodel the empty building, converting it into expensive condos, and make millions and millions of dollars in a market growing increasingly affordable only to the well-off. 

Almost immediately I became involved with Washington Interfaith Network.  Within a month or two of my arrival, I was sitting in the office of the Chair of the City Council pressing for action to put brakes on condo conversions.  We had some successes, but within a few years it seems to me that gentrification just rolled on in, an ever-rising tide too strong to resist.  I hear virtually nothing about it any more.  Washington Interfaith Network has gradually shifted its emphasis to other issues, such as short-term family housing, access to mental health, and economic justice in poor neighborhoods.  

It’s not all bad, as all but the most radical people will tell you.  A city that as recently as 20 years ago was on the brink of bankruptcy is now full of life and vitality, if you measure it in the number of millennials downing beers in scores of restaurants and bars every night.  14th Street, NW, which runs through the center of my neighborhood, looked 15 years ago like a war zone in parts, still blighted from the fires lit by angry throngs in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination in 1968.  Now between Thomas Circle on the northern edge of downtown, and Florida Avenue, which once was the boundary road on Washington’s northern border, it is impossible to keep track of all the new stores and restaurants where only a dozen years ago there were pawn shops, prostitutes, and drug dealers. 

Not everyone shares in this new prosperity.  Although hundreds of people are now working in stores and restaurants along 14th St., H St., and other revitalized neighborhoods, large numbers of folks have been uprooted from their homes, some by choice and some because they can no longer afford to live where they’ve called home for generations.  So the city has been exporting some of its poorer citizens to surrounding suburbs, where the pressures have swelled to address resulting needs and issues.  And some are left, homeless, jobless, caught between the seismic shifts in economy and demography. 

a Studebaker dealership, a shelter, now upscale apartments
An interesting landmark, a kind of monument to this profound change, stands on the corner of 14th and R.  This four-story building until a year or two ago housed the Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter.  I drove by it this week and read once more the tall red letters still on its front façade, “Come Unto Me.”  I am queasily uneasy with the fact that a homeless shelter moved out to make room for upscale apartments.  What’s more, the anchor tenant on the lower floor is Shinola, a relatively new company based in Detroit that specializes in luxury watches and expensive bicycles, as well as fine leather accessories.  Does it all seem slightly obscene?

Well, not necessarily.  In the first place, the Central Union Mission is happy with its new quarters near Union Station.  They like being downtown in an area closer to where many homeless and poor people congregate.  Moreover, the building that they bought for $1 million in the early 1980’s they sold for $7 million in 2013.   They struck a deal with the city by agreeing to renovate an old school building in exchange for a $1 per year lease on the land.  The new facility gives guests amenities and support services that reportedly make it very welcoming. [1]

overlooking gentrifying 14th Street, NW

It’s easy to spurn “gentrification,” particularly if you actually care about the poor whom new “gentry” push out.  But life is more complex than reductionist approaches ever take into account. 

where the homeless once slept
One of those complexities is in “Come Unto Me,” now ironically the emblem of a luxury building.  But maybe it is quite appropriate.  “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus once upon a time.  You don’t have to feel sorry for the affluent to realize that in myriads of ways they are as heavy laden as the poor.  There is a kind of poverty that hides behind the drapes and folds of wealth.  It is poverty of spirit, and not the “poorness of spirit” that equates with humility.  Pushing to attain status, accumulating things, pride of place and race:  in general, all the things capitalist societies prize fuel the one big engine that sucks the life out of the soul and leaves the winners of the rat race bone weary, craving rest. 

The nubbin of Christian baptism I sum up in the phrase, “down under and back up again.”  The way up is the way down.  Perhaps there is some spirit lingering in the halls of the old Central Union Mission building left by the down-and-out who slept there many a night, a spirit that might work some grace on those who have the means to spend $70-80,000 a year on rent.  Maybe that spirit will drift through the halls and crannies of the old building bestowing rest and peace upon those who might not yet know the way down or where up actually is.   Some resident or two might look at the old sign and even wonder who the “me” is bidding them come.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016


[1] See the article by Clinton Yates, “Luxury brand to occupy former shelter on 14th Street, but somehow, it works,” The Washington Post, October 23, 2014, online at , accessed October 19, 2016. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pieces in Charcoal

 “You’ll be surprised to see it when it all comes together.”

I didn’t really think about what he was saying.  Pencils, erasers, sketch pad, and other paraphernalia I continued to lay out, ready for this class I’m enrolled in, my first ever in the art of drawing.  After three weeks I’m learning a good bit, some of it well beyond technique. 

As for technique, charcoal proves to be as interesting a medium as it is messy.  Scott Hutchison is an adept.  He puts his expertise to good use, modeling for his students the way to measure, reproduce shapes, create on paper what the eye actually sees rather than what the mind anticipates. 

Scott collected sheets of sketch paper from the dozen or so students, carefully measuring and cutting them into 12” squares.  He carved up a photograph into 2” squares, laying them out on a table, numbered on their backsides.  There was no way of telling what the undivided image had been.  It lay in pieces in various shades of white, black, and gray, random streaks and swirls here and there.  We watched.  He explained step by step what he was doing as he chose one little square and began to replicate it on one of the larger squares.

First he took a very thin piece of charcoal and with it rapidly coated the paper.  Then he shocked me by smearing the whole thing with his palm until the paper was a shade of light gray.  With an eraser he created white spaces.  With a thicker piece of charcoal he gradually darkened the grays to blacks as dictated by the section of the image he was copying.  A piece of face began to appear, although I don’t know I’d have figured it out if he’d kept it a secret. 

“Now, go to it,” he directed."  I chose one that I could tell had a section of eyeglasses.  Other than that, it was completely abstract.  The job was to pay attention to shapes, lines, values, paying attention only to the details relative to each other, translating the small image to one ten times larger.  I felt reasonably good about my creation, finished in about forty minutes or so.  I began working on a second, simpler piece that interestingly was harder to reproduce than the more complex one. 

In the last quarter hour of class, each completed square of the twenty was put up on a wall in the pre-numbered order.  Before our eyes emerged the billboard-size photo of an elderly man, remarkably like the original photograph posted beside it. 

click the image to compare with the original
the finished product
“I kept thinking that I was doing it all wrong,” commented Mazie.  “I couldn’t imagine how what I was drawing could possibly fit anything.  But it does!”  Confessions of pride and awe followed the initial surprise.  The finished product looked to me quite like a cubist’s work.  Each square was distinctively different, yet everyone’s style was consistent with the whole.  Some squares matched up uncannily well.  The mind, in viewing the image, corrected the mismatches so that the whole metamorphosed into more than the mere sum of parts. 

“Life’s a bit like that, Mazie,” I said, quoting an old comedy routine of “Beyond the Fringe.”  We think we must be messing up, doing something wrong, certainly something that cannot possibly be what is intended.  In the end, we find that what we have done was exactly right.  The picture is whole.  Every piece mattered.  It all hangs together.

It always does and always will. 

Trust the process.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Go, Jackets!

Sometime around Labor Day it becomes impossible to eat peaceably in sidewalk cafés.  The yellow jackets are out in force.  I suppose it is not impossible if you are just a regular unattractive human being.  I happen to be married to someone whom I accuse of being made completely of sugar and spice and everything nice, so attractive he is to all creatures that bite and sting.  A mosquito in our house can buzz around indefinitely and sense that I am as tasteless as cardboard.  The same mosquito will dart straight for Joe and leave him looking as if he has measles within half an hour. 

We avoid outdoor eating in the fall.  And somehow we’ve never managed quite to discern the day and hour when the yellow jackets will invade, so we have to experience each year a Day of Trauma before we pack it in and go inside.  It isn’t safe to sit outside again until perhaps late November. Then it’s too cold anyway.

Today, however, I went alone to lunch at Le Caprice, our favorite neighborhood café.  As its name suggests, it is a French establishment, laden with all manner of good breads and desserts, with an attractive menu including soups, salads, and sandwiches.  The weather was beautiful after four or five dreary misty days.  I decided to eat outside, knowing the risks full well.

My friend Bill MacKaye was to join me.  I was prepared to relocate should he determine that the yellow jackets were too bothersome to tolerate.  It turned out that, once he acquired his lunch and joined me outside, he was even less bothered by the yellow jackets than I.  My general approach to yellow jackets is to set something sweet down a short distance from me, so that they will get their needs met without bothering me.  Ah!  The little dish that contained raspberry vinaigrette was exactly the thing to lure them.  I set it down, unfortunately to little avail.  

One yellow jacket, about halfway through our meal, discovered my Coke bottle and flew inside it.  I said goodbye to the Coke at that point, about a quarter of a cup of it left in the bottle. 

The poor yellow jacket, like so many of earth’s creatures, simply did not know how to stop himself.  Within seconds he looked a little like a downed plane that had crash-landed in the inky waters of a Low Country lake.  Splashing about, he created in the syrupy liquid the semblance of undulating waves of a dark sea.  He was soon unable to do anything but lap (or whatever bees do) the substance between (I presume) final gasps that accompanied his ultimate demise. 

I screwed on the cap out of respect.

Bill and I continued our conversation over this little bottled-up tragedy happening before our averted eyes.  We talked of many things, some of them important, even critical to us both.  We finished our conversation.  I had to go.  I cleared the table, took our dishes inside, dropped the Coke bottle and its captive into the trash. 

Now, hours later, I am recalling how as a child I used to imagine that creatures like ants, butterflies, frogs—even sometimes the beans I was shelling or the peanuts at the bottom of a pack—had personalities, consciousness of a rather human sort whereby they knew when they were spared being killed or stepped on or eaten, as the case may be.  In my tiny world, everything seemed to matter before I learned the fine art of extermination.

I wonder, really, if there is any such thing as a death that does not matter.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Body Sculpture

Digging through my photos, I found one that on an impulse I decided would make a good identity avatar on Facebook.  It is a photo not of me but of something that I hold a memory of, quite important to me but for no apparent reason. 

My friend Bill Puckett, whom I’ve know since third grade, recognized it on Facebook as a piece of statuary in Brookgreen Gardens, in Georgetown County, South Carolina, not far from where we grew up.  I wouldn’t say that it is the most famous sculpture in that amazing collection, but clearly one of the most unusual and most memorable.  It is “Alligator Bender,” poised above the reflecting pool on the site of the burned house of one of the four plantations parts of which comprise Brookgreen. 

I remember the first time I laid eyes on it, though I have little idea of old I was, perhaps four or five.  My family had gone to Brookgreen to picnic and spend a leisurely summer Sunday afternoon in a lovely park.  We wandered through the outdoor collection of sculpture.  In those days Brookgreen Gardens was still relatively new, and the collection of sculpture was very much smaller than it now is.  Statuary, ranging in size from the colossal to the miniscule, fascinated me.  But none so much as “Alligator Bender.” 

For one thing, there were plenty of real live alligators in the zoo at Brookgreen, and not a few baby alligators were allowed to swim in small ponds throughout the grounds.  Adult alligators are ferocious creatures. No one wants to be alligator bait.  So the statue of a nude man sitting astride an alligator was itself a harrowing image on multiple levels.
Alligator Bender, front

The sculptor, Nathaniel Choate, carved out of Italian marble a hefty man, his left leg braced against the alligator’s head, his right leg bent backwards, his muscled back taut, his left hand clamping the gator’s jaw shut, his right arm curving around the tail as he bends the powerful body in an arc.[1]  The alligator for all its strength is no match for the bender.  This image of two combatants is all the more compelling as it sits in the middle of an inky pool whereon float lily pads and blossoms, the water gently spilling over the edge of a perforated brick wall.

All of these details registered on my young soul, of course, not my intellect.  Only now do I stop to parse the elements of the scene, pulling them apart to reflect on this curious wedding of masculine power and feminine depth, and the beauty emerging from both stone and water.  I knew nothing until well into my adulthood of style.  Only on my last trip, or maybe the one before, did I as viewer bring to Brookgreen an appreciation of the art deco style that dominates much of the sculpture there, reflecting the design motifs popular in the 1930’s. Choate’s statue is an excellent example of art deco.  He finished it in 1937, so it was practically new when I was born.  But it is not style so much as symbolism that even now makes me marvel at “Alligator Bender.”

In a way, the statue reflects a kind of dominion over nature that I find true to life but deeply disturbing.  Such unchecked human power damn near caused the alligator to disappear from the earth until, through the protection accorded endangered species, it rebounded and now thrives again.  But on another level, “Alligator Bender” leads me not so much to moralize about the environment as to confess awe at the image of the human male being totally vulnerable.  Perhaps alligator wrestling, like snake handling, seems mundane to those who have no fear of formidable reptiles. But even at my bravest, I would need some armor.  To struggle with nature naked is, I think, the dimension of the image that totally stunned me as a child.  It still does.

As I look back on it, Brookgreen was the first and perhaps the only place in my early years that I encountered the unclothed human form at all, certainly outside the restrained context of the farmhouse in which I lived.  I remember another statue that I particularly liked at Brookgreen, that of a friendly little faun, holding a pod of grapes.  If “Alligator Bender” fascinated me gazing upon it from a safe distance, the faun endeared himself to me because he was small and touchable, and unabashedly had a penis too. 

When Mrs. White took our fourth grade class to Brookgreen Gardens, some of the boys who perhaps had never been there found a reclining statute of a nude woman titillating. I was distressed at their snickers to the point of saying something to Mrs. White.   Rather than react by either sanctioning my concern or by upbraiding me for being a tattletale, she quietly pointed out that there was a way to appreciate the nude body as a work of art and that nothing was strange or wrong about that—in other words, don’t be upset because some kids don’t (yet) understand how to appreciate art.

What I now know is that nascent in me was a struggle to appreciate my body.  It was to take me two decades and a little more before I would be able even to begin to appreciate my body, and even more time before I got over some rather serious body shame.  Human anatomy beautifully presented at Brookgreen edged me forward in that struggle.

Come to think of it, it might not have been the alligator at all that gave the statue its power and charm for me.   I saw a naked man in a struggle.  I saw a human being in an unarmed and unarmored body.  He was vulnerable, struggling, fighting something fierce.  I think I am beginning to understand why, fumbling through photos to put on Facebook, I would choose one of “Alligator Bender” as a reflection of myself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

[1] I am grateful for the website of Patricia Blackstock for this information,, accessed 1 October 2016.