“The Art of Vandalism”: A Built Environment Analysis of Edgewood Washington, D.C.

          David Fleming states in City of Rhetoric “We need…commonplaces that can link us to one another… but where we remain free and unique as individuals” (34). “Spaces that are grounded, real and reliable… unitary, that we can all feel we belong to… official, that we all know we are bound to” (34). Purchased in 1863 by The United States Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Edgewood was designed to serve as a segregational ghetto and nothing more. (Deutsch and Henderson). In 1985, 122 years later, the crack epidemic in Washington, D.C. sparked. Young dealers were dominating street markets, violence was widespread throughout the district, and Edgewood topped the crime charts (“Metropolitan Police Department”). Ruben Castaneda, a Washington Post reporter, references Edgewood in a memoir stating: “One neighborhood in Northeast [Washington, D.C.] was so violent it was known as Little Beirut.” (28). Beirut, Lebanon is a hostile war zone in the Middle East that has been concentrated with violence through attacks, specifically by suicide bombers. The rate of attacks has built its reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world (Barnard). Otherwise known as Little Beirut, this gentrified neighborhood has undergone a tremendous transformation since the dark, violent crack era. Edgewood now serves as a commonplace, which Fleming states is a location where the conversation of conflict and opposition can occur, while also making members of the community feel as if they belong and matter (34). Edgewood is home of a hidden, accepting, and legal place for diverse artistic and political expression, protecting the image of unity in The United States that Washington, D.C. has diligently worked to protect.

        As crime rates went down in Washington, D.C. and graffiti rates were on the rise (Aratari), MuralsDC was created in 2007 by Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham (D) in an giphy-4attempt to stop illegal graffiti (Hesse). By only creating murals directed towards the tourist eye, MuralsDC has failed to promote a true Washington, D.C. art form in their initiative: graffiti. Graffiti is an art of communication, expressing passion through words often directed towards the political public. Open Walls DC, a graffiti-promoting art initiative created by Albus Cavus that is partnered with MuralsDC, placed the largest collaborative D.C. Mural in Edgewood (“DC Murals”). Now filled with unique forms of politically and socially directed art, this collaborative mural is unique from others.

        The Edgewood Wall is a dominant focal point in Edgewood, as a small portion of it is visible from the red-line Rhode Island Metro Stop. Commuters across Washington, D.C. that are Glenmont-bound pass this mural through each season, restricted from the true depth and length of the mural. Standing at two-stories tall and 275-feet long, the Edgewood Wall is massive (Zak).

        Since 2009, paint from the title portion “From Edgewood to the Edge of the World” has slightly chipped and faded. A large mural of eyes – one brown, one blue – lingers beside the title, also fading in the same speed. Although the original art heading the wall of the diverse murals has aged, the graffiti along the wall has further evolved. Located in the alley behind The Rhode Island Shopping Center, the Edgewood Wall is hidden, extending with freshly painted forms of art that differ exponentially from the original visible sections. The hidden sections of the wall serve as a grounded location that Fleming discussed in City of Rhetoric. Reflecting the intellectual, ideological, and emotional needs of the community, “From Edgewood to the Edge of the World” is more than just a mural. Featuring artists from over the community, the wall is filled with different rhetorical messages in the form of art.

        As the murals continue, hidden from the public eye, a collection of art with diverse styles and rhetoric is scattered. Created by spray paint, rather than acrylic, the art is created in a spontaneous manner instead of a professional setting. This unitary area functions as the giphy-3center of social expression and change that David Fleming states is needed for true commonplaces (35). The art – rather than being unique professional murals – are statements of graffiti featuring terms such as “New Columbia”, “Bern the System”, “Another Wall Punished”, “Resist”, and “Defy”, representing the change in political culture that has occurred over the years. Concentrated with sections of graffiti from local street artists across the district, Edgewood serves as a literal hidden goldmine for street artists to legally produce their work and opinions.

        Rather than accepting street art – specifically graffiti – created at random locations upon the artist’s discretion, the district attempts to control its proximity to tourists and residents. Washington, D.C. councilmen and women take responsibility to voice concerns and take action on the behalf giphy-2of their individual Ward. With millions of tourists the district hosts each year, image is important. Graffiti in Washington, D.C. directed towards the political public is viewed as harmful, as it gives an image of division instead of unity in The United States. The concern of illegal graffiti has been specifically dominant in Wards 2 and 6 of Washington. Ward 2 includes the National Mall, The White House, Federal Triangle, and much of downtown Washington. Ward 6 includes Penn Quarter, Gallery Place, The Capitol Hill neighborhood, Chinatown, federal buildings, major retailers, and museums. Despite the major amounts of illegal graffiti residing in downtown areas, Edgewood is a secluded residential neighborhood in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with exponentially fewer incidents of illegal graffiti. The seclusion from downtown areas and the public eye has created a designated spot for old-school graffiti with political and social messages to be displayed.

         Although there are rising graffiti reports, the Edgewood Wall has served as a place of rightful diverse artistic expression for street artists across the district, leaving the intentions of the district’s MuralsDC initiative questionable. The founders of the ‘graffiti prevention’ initiative and representatives of giphy-1Washington, D.C. have been pushing for graffiti to only be produced in approved locations (“MuralsDC”). However, it seems as if MuralsDC is only promoting professionally styled artistic murals, while removing true street art and graffiti from the public eye. In fact, in the 5th year of MuralsDC, graffiti was continuing to grow rapidly. In 2011, Washington, D.C. was on the track of spending twice as much funding on the removal of illegal graffiti as they did in 2010. Officials are uncertain of the reasoning behind the sudden surge of graffiti in the district, but the challenge for a solution is dominant among councilmen and women (Aratani).

Despite being home of the largest mural in Washington, Edgewood Wall is not given recognition. If completely visible, public eyes would find expressions of diverse opinion that could be viewed as rebellion or a divide in the nation’s capital. This hidden location, available through Open Walls DC, is complete with a correlation of artists that could paint freely, rather than for the sake of Washington’s image. The street art that MuralsDC promotes has no diversity, as each mural features the same precise, well-painted structure that artists with professional training share. Edgewood, which features classic urban graffiti styles, radically differs from the
clean-cut walls that MuralsDC promotes on their digital site.

         MuralsDC solves their problem of illegal graffiti by ‘legalizing’ art in areas of Washington that feature little genuine inner-city graffiti. Most people believe MuralsDC is an art initiative that promotes the arts, specifically diverse graffiti and street art in Washington, D.C.; however my research proves that MuralsDC is simply focused on manipulating street art to envision a unified city.

          Having little to zero tourists, Open Walls DC approved for a 20-Foot high mural to beimg_2714 placed along a wall hidden behind a shopping center on the brink of abandonment, simply for the official ability of expression. Residing beside Brentwood – a hotbed for corporate chains and recently built high-end condominiums – Edgewood remains in a bubble of gentrification. Struggling with economic development, Edgewood is a neighborhood that has essentially been forgotten among residents of Washington. With the removal from the public, Open Walls DC brought graffiti to a location in the district where artists could freely express without fear of removal and restriction. Without the fear of removal, Edgewood Wall is a perfect example of the needed official space that Fleming discussed in City of Rhetoric. Edgewood has served as an official space “where our differences are not just aired and tolerated but are also actually, practically, resolved, however provisionally and partially” (Fleming, 35).

          On the outskirts of Washington, Edgewood serves as a perfect location for Open Walls DC to promote legal street art in an area that was once devoured with crime, violence, and drugs. MuralsDC claims their mission is to legally promote street art, however their murals show nothing of the sort. In Edgewood, the wall has evolved to reflect the true art culture in Edgewood, rather than MuralsDC’s preferred image that is exposed to tourists. MuralsDC was not created for the promotion of art, but for the combat ‘illegal graffiti’ that is visible to the public. Rather than serving as an initiative for the promotion of street artists, MuralsDC has served as the proposed solution to the rejection of street art. MuralsDC paints itself as an organization that promotes the art of graffiti in Washington, D.C., yet instead suffocates and restricts street art from the eyes of those who come to tour our nation’s capital.

         Notably, graffiti in tourist dominated territory has been removed and replaced by articulate murals. The opportunity of being removed from the public eye has allowed for the Edgewood Wall to serve as a place for artists’ legal, free expression, showing genuine inner city culture. Although Edgewood is not an area faced with dominant amounts of ‘illegal gragiphy-5ffiti’, creativity has been displayed in the hidden art. In an area where ‘illegal graffiti’ is dominant such as in Wards 2 and 6, the opposite is available due to the concentration of tourists fueling the needed image of unity in the district. Instead of displaying the culture, talent, and expression present in graffiti, the district promotes murals that reflect professional artistic work. As Washington has become dominantly corporate and residential, the approval of graffiti is low. District of Columbia officials are in positions of power and influence over how the district is perceived by residents and outsiders. As they continue to see graffiti as vandalism rather than art, MuralsDC will continue to promote their idea of ‘street art’ instead of true urban art that appeared in Edgewood.

         Representing the nation as the capital, the downtown Wards of Washington take pride in their upkeep and cleanliness. Rather than having diverse, original graffiti scattered in unexpected locations, Washington has taken a controlled approach. For example, when walking, cycling, or driving in Georgetown, chances are you’ll come across the blue and white mural of waves. The large ocean focal point serves as a popular background for social media photos, displaying an artistic Washington to the world.

         Control of perception is vital in Washington, D.C. due to its position as the capital of the free world. Graffiti, rather than being labeled as art, has been labeled as vandalism; especially in the form of political expression. Areas of downtown Washington are not covered in graffiti with words such as “resist” and “defy” for a reason. Edgewood, instead of being subjected to hundreds of thousands of tourists, commuters, and residents, has the luxury of expressing graffiti such as “rgiphyesist” and “defy” freely. Washington wants to avoid the projected image of a divided America in in the public eye, and the approval of street art at the government’s discretion allows for an additional hand of control that officials have in the perception of American culture and ideals. Through the help of Edgewood’s culture shining through, Little Beirut has kept graffiti alive. Although restricted in view, a designated place to create, express, and speak is crucial. David Fleming’s ideas and concepts of commonplaces reflect what the Edgewood Wall has created throughout the years. Edgewood serves as a safe social space for revolutionary work, connections, and opinions to be brought to a grounded, unitary, and official life in Washington, D.C.

Works Cited

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Barnard, Anne. “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten.” The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2015. NYTimes.com.

Castaneda, Ruben. S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in Washington, D.C. Bloomsbury.

Contrera, Jessica. “Washington Is Fighting Graffiti Artists — but It Loves the Graffiti Aesthetic.” The Washington Post, 22 Mar. 2016. washingtonpost.com.

DC Murals » Edgewood to the Edge of the World. Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.

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“Edgewood (Washington, D.C.).” Sussle Visual Encyclopedia, Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

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Hesse, Monica. “Jim Graham Served Four Terms in the D.C. Council. Now, He Promotes All-Nude Stripper Nights.” The Washington Post, 22 Apr. 2015. washingtonpost.com.

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Metro – Home Page. Accessed 16 Nov. 2016.

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Reinink, Amy. “Edgewood Remains Affordable but Is Becoming Newly Desireable.” Washington Post, 24 July 2015.

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Zak, Dan. “A Boundary Redrawn: Edgewood Mural Is Largest Ever in Washington.” August 23, 2009.