During the 100 days leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I was an artist in residence at D.C.’s Halcyon Art Lab (then S&R Foundation) north of Georgetown. I had been paid to work on the last two elections, so it was strange to be on the outside, not traveling to a swing state to knock on doors, not crafting updates responding to every sliver of breaking news.
The art studio was located in a century-old former elementary school. I learned that D.C. had sent only white children there before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. While working in the building and learning this history, it occurred to me that my parents were in elementary school when Brown was decided — not ancient history at all. If they had grown up in D.C. instead of Minneapolis, they might have attended such a segregated school. But northern cities had segregated schools too. Courts forced Minneapolis schools to desegregate in 1972, citing a long pattern of neighborhood boundary manipulation that included the South Minneapolis neighborhoods three generations of my family called home.
The project I developed that fall involved a lot of digging in to these kinds of histories and a lot of abstract, contemplative exploration on foot and in archives. It was in some ways a response to how I spent the previous two presidential election years. Working ten- and twelve-hour days at a political organization, I found little time for detours, nuance and creativity. I had come to believe that imaginative local work is a better way to bring about change, even though that sort of thing doesn’t scale.
I learned all I could about the expensive neighborhoods near the art studio. I dug up the history and urban planning that led to it being a white enclave in a majority black city and then imagined a healing of sorts. An inclusive and sustainable utopia two centuries in the future (Future Cartographic’s original modus operandi). If we live at the midpoint between those two stories, simple geometry tells us the shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. The actions we needed to take in 2016 to get to a better world should therefore have been obvious.
History, it turns out, does not care what the shortest path from point A to point B is.
As revelation after revelation came out about the crude tabloid celebrity running for president against the distinguished Secretary of State, I feared she would lose, but I did not think there was any way he could win. I checked headlines and poll numbers often. There were thousands of good people working hard on the campaign, I told myself. We’ve got this, I told myself.
On election night, I went to an Adams Morgan pizza bar managed by a friend to watch the returns. I knew there would be friendly faces there. I said hi to one group and then found a seat next to my friend Maggie with a good view of multiple giant TV screens. As east coast results came in and states that should have been called for Clinton quick were slow to be called, I felt anxious. As we waited, my phone buzzed with a message from Eric, who had uprooted his life to work wherever the campaign needed help. Michigan was where he wound up. His message said it looked bad there. I sat in denial for a moment before showing the message to Maggie. We both knew then it was likely to be a long and sad night, and neither of us wanted to spend the rest of it in a pizza bar. After stopping in briefly at a friend’s sullen watch party. I walked alone for a long time. I had come to think of U Street — where I now live — as the place to go to take the city’s pulse. I remembered the love pouring out from all directions on that street when Obama won in 2008. This night there was no pulse at all. Nobody out. Very few cars. I continued walking. I was far from home when Rebecca, a photographer friend in distant New York texted me the question that we’re all still trying to answer, “is it going to be all right?”