In 2014 a dilapidated property in Fairlawn caught developer Stefanie Reiser’s eye. “I wasn’t actually looking for property in that area,” Reiser confesses as she had focused mostly on rehabilitating homes along the H Street corridor in northeast. However, this ramshackle, clapboard home drew in Reiser as its potential to create a community asset could not go unnoticed.
Thankfully, Reiser had both the vision and the patience for this project. The home had lain vacant for years. The elements had taken a toll on the fragile wood-frame structure causing years of deterioration due to neglect. During that time, raccoons, squirrels and other wildlife had taken refuge in the home further damaging it. Making matters worse, next door, the attached home caught fire, leaving additional destruction in its wake.
By right, Reiser could have leveled the clapboard home and built a 28-unit multi-family dwelling in its place and on the adjoining vacant lot which she had also purchased. However, Reiser had a different vision for the space, one which centered on the community. Most importantly, Reiser explains that she did not want to create a “temporary” space; she wanted something “permanent and embedded.” It would take five years to open Nicholson Project’s doors.
While the rehabilitation of the wood-frame home progressed, Reiser spent three years engaging the community to create a sense of what could bring neighbors together and serve as an anchor and cultural hub in the neighborhood.
In collaboration with community stakeholders, three main programs emerged from the engagement period —an artist residency program, a gallery space and a community garden.
Artist Residency and Art Gallery
Inside Nicholson Project, Reiser sought to salvage as much of the building’s interior as possible. She managed to rescue the original floors and stairwell banister. Many of the original doors were lovingly restored to their original condition. It is here, inside the Nicolson Street abode, that the art programs take place.
Amber Robles-Gordon, a DC-based artist, was selected as the first artist resident from July through October 2019. She lived on the second floor which includes a bedroom and a bathroom. Adjacent to the living quarters, Robles-Gordon accessed a separate studio which she used as workspace.
Nicholson Project’s artist-in-resident program accepts applications in October and March for one-to-three month residencies which take place twice a year. Artists are offered live and workspace and a stipend of $2,000 per month. Applications are available through the organization’s website (see below). The residency emphasizes community engagement as its core mission.
This year, Nicholson Project hired Allison Nance to lead the charge. Nance has extensive executive experience running arts organizations including the prestigious International Art & Artists, formerly Hillyer Art Space, in Dupont Circle.
The art gallery, which occupies the ground level of Nicholson Project, features rotating art exhibitions. “Starting in April, we’ll begin installing a new exhibition in the gallery,” says Nance. The Project also announced its two new spring-summer 2021 residents, A.J. McClenon , who will be completing her residency at the end of April and Stan Squirewell who will live and work onsite from May 15 through August 15. Both artists are originally from DC.
Nicholson Project’s community garden provides residents with the opportunity to connect through a shared amenity. To accomplish this feat, Reiser partnered with Love and Carrots, a women-owned business that “envisions a future where vegetable gardens are commonplace in urban landscapes.” The urban farming company built a pergola with a vine canopy, five raised beds and ten in-ground beds for herbs and vegetables.
Moving forward in 2021, Geoffrey “Geo” Edwards will take over as “Famer-in-Residence” to manage the garden and public programs. Edwards describes himself as “an educator and healing artist whose practice encompasses herbalism, community acupuncture, urban farming, and the creative arts.” He owns and operates Nu Healing Arts, located in Rockville, MD. His multifaceted business combines fine art and herbalism to provide holistic healing for its clients.
During the 2020 growing season, Nicholson Project donated over 1,200 bags of produce which equals roughly 4,400 servings of fresh food directly to the community. The Project worked with neighbors to donate the food to the neediest neighbors many of whom were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and faced food insecurity due to unemployment.
Neighbor Angela Byrd worked closely with Nicholson Project to distribute the vegetable garden’s bounty to her neighbors at an adjacent apartment complex which houses over 100 residents. Byrd first came into contact with Nicholson Project as a result of her interest in gardening.
Her community outreach has been vital in ensuring full distribution of vegetables and herbs harvested. “The garden has been a great help,” Byrd explains. “I underestimated the power of vegetables. I didn’t think people would eat all the eggplants; same thing with turnips. We’ve been able to grow so much from tomatoes to okra.”
Byrd underscores that Nicholson Project’s garden is one of the only healthy food options within walking distance of her apartment. While she doesn’t mind walking across the bridge to shop for vegetables at Capitol Hill grocery stores, she laments that “the vegetables from the store are not as good as the ones from the garden!”
Gayle Jordan also lives a block away from Nicholson Project. Like Byrd, she has actively connected with Nicholson Project’s garden since its inception. Jordan is especially encouraged that the garden will now have a resident farmer or as Jordan jokingly calls Edward’s position the “famer-on-duty.” She hopes his presence will allow for regular access to the vegetable plots by area residents.
Sharing Byrd’s concerns about local food options, she worked with Nicholson Project in conducting a feasibility study to bring in a regular, local famer’s market to Fairlawn. “We started looking at the possibility for the community to set up some kind of farmers market nearby including partnering with a group that had a mobile market.” While the idea is still on the table, it has not yet been realized.
In addition to gardening, Jordan also enjoys the art exhibitions at Nicholson Project. She was especially impressed by Amber Robles Gordon’s site specific installation in fall of 2019 which took up an entire room in the gallery.
Nance is looking forward to managing a variety of programs at Nicholson Project in service to the community. She actively seeks community participation to find out its needs and wants.
For example, the Project has funds to renovate a large unused garage on the property. Nance states that, while discussions surrounding a formalized distribution of produce include storing refrigerated vegetables in the garage, the structure could also serve as a mixed use, community space.
While many garden programs are in the works, the Project plans also plans to hire an art educator to pilot teen programs to teach youth how to install artwork and activate outdoor art.
Nicholson Project is located at 2310 Nicholson Street SE, Washington DC, 20020. Gallery hours are by appointment. For more information visit www.thenicholsonproject.org To engage with Nicholson project, contact Allison Nance via email at firstname.lastname@example.org