3 a.m. // Often while observing my neighborhood for these writings, I can’t help but observe the cops. They of course also observe, though much more conspicuously. At times I felt an urge to erase these stories from the Half/Life project, to walk to another part of the block, to tell a different story. But on the walks between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. they were so often present, idling at the end of the alley, shaping the psycho-social dynamic of fully a third of the clock hours that this dance of watching the cops watch the street and then watching the street in the place of the cops repeated over and over and became the story.
I found it hard not to feel that my act of observing was cop-like as I stood conspicuously in spots where nobody other than police lingers, writing in my notebook at odd hours. Sometimes, as I waited for observations to strike me, I thought of scenes in detective noir films where the private eye waits under a streetlight. Anything could happen. Will my informant show up at the rendezvous point to whisper secrets? Or did she or he flip, inspiring the mob boss to send thugs speeding this way to spray the corner with machine gun fire? And what exactly does the neighbor peering through the Venetian blinds think when she sees the detective out at random hours again and again? Some passers-by give me a look that seems to question or wonder if I’m up to no good. Do they think I’m a drug dealer, a fence, a pimp? But no, criminals tend not to keep notebooks, or so I would assume. Some kind of undercover agent? If not police then perhaps a city inspector. Bureau of alcohol regulations. Nuisance remediation administration. Vice minding council.
Last night I watched the cops again as I brushed my teeth in my warm apartment with the lights out. A squad car pulled in just then. After scanning the alley it turned around and positioned itself in the familiar spot, hood just barely jutting in to foot traffic. The squad car’s row of rooftop floodlights then lit up U Street with an ugly cold white glare. Antithesis of the sleepy cold November Monday night calm of the scene until that moment. Like florescent lights coming on at a nightclub. A driver innocently stopped at the red light raised his arm and averted his eyes from the painful flood of extreme brightness, his car’s interior suddenly on view to the world. Passengers on a city bus squinted to see what caused the police to activate such hostile tech, but their ride soon moved on. Three officers in black uniforms, METROPOLITAN POLICE in white letters on their backs climbed out of the car. One man lifted plastic bags and set them down on the squad car’s trunk. Another unsheathed steaming boxes and passed them out. A dinner conversation in the cold shadows made invisible by excessive use of light. //
3 p.m. // Caring starts with noticing and acknowledging those around you. This was a big theme of these walks — noticing and acknowledging people and details easily missed.
9 1/2 Street is often a backdrop for photo shoots. Girls change outfits in cars and shoot photo after photo that end up where? On Instagram? In fashion school portfolios? Headshot photographers arrange professionals in confident poses against brick walls in shots destined for LinkedIn. Recently the 2020 Census shot on location here using an athletic bearded white actor to portray a homeless person. These photographers are using this place as a stand-in for the generic idea of a gritty urban environment. Noticing my neighbors, the details of this place, noticing me, noticing actual homeless people is an inconvenient distraction on these kinds of projects.
At the same time, noticing too much can be unwelcome. Part of the draw of cities — and of nightlife districts in particular — is the illusion that it is possible to be lost and anonymous here, to go unnoticed. Crowds, music, darkness, and the unfamiliar grant us permission to experiment with trying on new selves, with release, with finding new people to be alone with, together with, or both. The camera and the scribe with his notebook shatter this illusion. What happens on U Street might not stay on U Street, or so the questioning looks of passers-by seemed to suggest. Then again, those who noticed the scribe were also acknowledging, taking a curious step forward, meeting halfway, towards caring.
4 a.m. // Four a.m. is the hour I am least likely to be up and out and observing sharply. It is an hour for sleepwalking and hazy minds. To engage the residents of four a.m. with a clear-eyed 10 a.m. voice is to speak nonsense. Better to let the dream state unfold. The sun will rise soon enough.
6 a.m. // I’m up and outside more often during the 6 a.m. hour than most people. I like to get a quick walk or a run in early. But I tend to follow familiar routes, tend to be focused internally rather than on the world around me. On my usual early walks, I would have missed most everything recorded in Half/Life’s 6 a.m. observations.
Summer’s 6 a.m. scene held far more drama than I had any right to expect on a Sunday morning just steps from my apartment. But even this I would have missed had I not held awkwardly to space in the middle of the scene.
The 6 a.m. of winter that wound up in our collage was more typical. A Thursday morning. No humans in sight. Just the sound of the machines that keep us going.
11 p.m. // Often when we were due to step outside for Half/Life the weather was terrible. Many of the randomly appointed hours last winter were wet. A few were absurdly cold. Slowing down and taking notes on the mundane feels especially foolish at times like these. Is it possible to write while holding an umbrella?Turns out it is. Or while hands are slowly going numb. Also, yes. These are also the times when we’re most likely to rush past without observing, focused on getting dry and warm as soon as possible. These are the times when we look outside and decide to postpone our business until it clears up, until the sun is out.
But the weather is not unique to this place. The way the space changes in the rain and in the cold is the thing I started looking for. New sounds. New behaviors. New patterns
Midnight // When I decided to share this quiet year-long project on noisy Instagram, I was several walks in and hadn’t thought to photograph the early walks. I decided to go back and re-do them so there would be a tidy matching set of posts for all 24 hours. Midnight was one of these requiring a do-over. 12 a.m. is an auspicious hour when things both end and begin. It seemed fitting to hold it until the final walk, a schedule that fell on the midnight few can ignore, New Years Eve.
The “three two one” that wound up collaged between Katherine’s line work and Kristin’s movement notation was the final scream of 2018.
2 a.m. // No two 2 o’clock hours are the same. If the sequence of hours given by the random number generator I consulted last October had been spit out in a different order, the observations that Katherine, Kristin and I came up with for Half/Life would all have been different. These works are the result of chance encounters. Then again, a brushstroke is always a unique event. Environment, emotion, eye, mind, muscle, brush, ink, paper all in motion at one unique point in time.
I again asked a random number generator to pick the order I will post these paintings and poems a year later. This time, 2 a.m. came out at the top of the list. As it happens, both the 2 a.m. walk in Winter and 2 a.m. walk in Summer were on weekend nights when things are lively on 9 1/2 Street. The man with the cane is often out on nights like this, often has the story of the Metrocard and the hospital. It’s possible there are many 2 o’clocks in the morning when he might have wound up in this story, clipped to a painting labeled 2 a.m. I should have asked his name the second time he approached me (if not the first). We’re neighbors. Connected. Sharing space. Next time. By contrast, I’m certain “I wanna get naked in this alley!” has been shouted exactly once on 9 1/2 Street, and certainly only once with the kind of silly joy I heard during the hour assigned by the random number generator. Another roll of the dice and it would have been escaped documentation. Lost to the ether. Perhaps forgotten even to the woman who shouted it.
The half in Half/Life references the name of the street we set out to document (9 1/2 Street is one of only a few half-streets in D.C.’s street numbering scheme). Life refers to the 24-hour life of a block well known for its thriving nightlife. It also refers to the much quieter domestic lives inside its alley-facing residences, including those of Katherine and her husband Adam, their children Calvin and Mae, Kristin, her husband Russ, their daughter Eliza—born midway through the project, and myself (alone with my scattered social- and often antisocial-life).
The project grew out of a monthly breakfast art meet up hosted in my apartment. After a walk-themed writers’ residency, I suggested twenty-four walks, randomly scheduled, one for each clock hour. This became the skeleton of the project, understanding that we would each observe as many or as few hours as life’s demands permitted, as fit our very different processes as a painter, a choreographer, and a writer/artist, respectively. We also sought to encourage contemplation of life within the walls of our homes at these times alongside life outside in the alley.
Using a random number generator, we scheduled the twenty-four walks every other day in November and December. The schedule ensured we’d finish before Kristin’s due date, but didn’t account for the predominance of darkness and cold during that time of year. Six months later, after Kristin and Katherine each moved their growing families to larger homes elsewhere in the city, we supplemented these first observations with a round of twenty-four additional randomized walks nearer the summer solstice when the days grew long and the city hot and verdant.
Decay, Renewal, Displacement
In science, a half-life documents and measures something diminishing over time, as radioactive decay or a drug in the bloodstream. We knew that this past year on 9 1/2 Street would be a last opportunity to document aspects of a unique place that are diminishing over time. Ours is one of the last blocks in the U Street corridor to see major development. A years-long process to develop two properties long held by the city was moving forward. The towering 1887 Grimke elementary school (named for Archibald Grimke, journalist, civil rights leader, and one of Harvard Law’s first black graduates), home to pigeons and squatters, will finally be repurposed. To sweeten the complicated project for developers, a parking lot at the U Street end of 9 1/2 Street was added to the development deal. On early maps of D.C. an outpost of the Metropolitan Police stood on the lot, complete with horse stables outside my present day bedroom window. A mix of commercial, residential, and arts uses, along with a modern home for the African American Civil War Memorial Museum are planned.
Grit and decay of urban infrastructure is not something to be romanticized lightly. Itinerant photographers with no community standing have been criticized for “ruin porn” of decay in Detroit and elsewhere. The decline of buildings like these is evidence of decades of systemic economic apartheid and disinvestment in communities people of color have called home for generations. The two parcels slated for redevelopment on this block are among the last glaring scars from that chapter in U Street’s history. Developing them hardly means that decades of harm have been resolved. The geography of inequality is shifting elsewhere.
However, there is an aesthetic link between the culture of the city and the character of its streetscape. Go-Go, Hip-Hop and Punk sounds now played in the legendary nightclubs surrounding 9th and U, and on the car stereos and headphones that pass by, are genres inspired by the streets as they were in the decades before gleaming white Apple and Sephora stores arrived. The new 9 1/2 Street of clean lines, faux-brick and glass that will appear over the months ahead (the parking lot has closed for business and construction fences are going up as I type this) will not be of a kind with the gritty aesthetic that inspired D.C.’s music. Is this sanitization to be mourned, even if the re-use of the old school is a public good?
Don’t Mute D.C.
I avoid the word gentrification because it isn’t specific enough. It means different things to different people. Cultural erasure and displacement of long-time residents are two of the ills that the term bundles together for many. Others hear the word and picture shiny new things appearing where once they feared to walk.
In March, a neighbor in the high-end apartments at 8th and Florida (a vacant lot and site of a great weekend flea market until just a few years ago) lodged noise complaints against Central Communications, a store famous for playing D.C.’s signature Go-Go beats from outdoor speakers. The store sells Go-Go recordings, but its main business these days is as a T-Mobile retailer. For years, the music provided an upbeat afternoon soundtrack to the bottleneck intersection where Georgia Avenue spills Howard University’s campus towards LeDroit Park, Shaw, and Black Broadway. The store’s corporate parent silenced the music—until word of the newcomer’s complaint spread virally online. The #DontMuteDC movement was born, and today the music plays on. #DontMuteDC has become an organizing force mobilizing Go-Go music against cultural erasure and other social issues.
The bars and nightclubs at U and 9th receive many more noise complaints each week. Some negotiation between neighbors is inevitable when bedrooms and dance floors are mere feet apart, but what is the attraction of living in an area famous for nightlife, African-American music, LGBTQ bars, and Ethiopian culture if your first instinct is to shut them down?
The next wave of change on 9 1/2 Street will clean up the block’s appearance. It will change the nightlife culture, too. How much? And how long before developers buy out the intimate two-story clubs here, perhaps keeping their facades as decoration for new buildings, as has happened elsewhere nearby?
A Contemplative Practice
Beyond documenting this moment in time and culture on this bit of land, Half/Life explores the simple act of stepping outside to notice one’s immediate surroundings. What do we overlook in our rush to get to the grocery store, to drop the kids off at school, and to get home to our screens again?
In repeating this act of observing 9 1/2 Street, of stepping in to the wet, or hot, or dark elements repeatedly, I sometimes felt anxiety towards the task. After living on the block for nearly three years, hadn’t I discovered all there was to know? Without exception, the act of going outside to simply notice yielded unexpected experiences. Insight in to how many working people hold our 24-hour community together. A realization that a color, animal, plant, architecture, behavior, or play of light had been doing its thing all along humbly contributing to this place.
Do It For The ’Gram
I wrote what I saw on my walks in a small notebook and soon began taking photographs for each hour and posting both to Instagram (@erik_moe) as early, rapid-fire drafts of the 48 Half/Life poems (snippets of which appear in our collage paintings). I started to feel that these Instagram posts were a mild transgression in the context of that platform. Social networks are not optimized for subtlety and contemplation.
This afternoon as I write, friends and forgotten acquaintances have posted from the Parthenon in Greece, Yosemite National Park, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, beaches in Mexico and Santa Monica, a bookstore in Paris, and a gritty-looking alley in Rome.
Would I rather be in those places than contemplating my gritty-looking alley in D.C.? In a heartbeat. But I’m conflicted.
Is coming upon an unexpected firefly show among wildflowers at the edge of your own alley as important an encounter with nature as a trip to Yosemite? Is understanding something of a restaurant manager’s struggle to get out of work to spend time with his family waiting in a car outside as valuable a lesson in humanity as a trip to the ruins of ancient Greece?
Apples and oranges perhaps. But pursuing and sharing ever more beautiful lifestyle pics and the FOMO that results does not come at a trivial cost. Big crowds seeking quick photo-ops can overrun sensitive ecosystems, harm the character of a place, and cause damage to ancient artifacts. It is also unsustainable. Travel is a huge element of most people’s carbon footprint, and it doesn’t take very many flights to add your name to the list of the globe’s worst 1% of carbon emitters.
Might some level of renewed appreciation and search for beauty and meaning in our immediate surroundings be warranted?