On a blighted stretch of industrial highway in Maryland, Artmosphere, an arts-focused restaurant/bar/coffee shop, was a little light in the darkness.
Creative types—writers, painters, musicians—would flock there for the camaraderie and to feed off of each other’s energy. On any given night, there was Miss Jane, poet Jane Landolt, eating dinner at her usual perch at the corner of the bar, wearing her signature black Barack Obama T-shirt; or maybe there were women crowded around Patrick Payne, an artist who makes handbags from album covers. With Obama collages on tables, murals and original paintings hung high and low, the place didn't just showcase art, it was art, and it gave a little heart to a community that needed it. Artists who craved a place to let down their eccentric hair could do so at Artmosphere.
But now it’s gone, and some would say it is another victim of a recession that is disproportionately hurting black people and black communities. Not only are jobs and homes and wealth disappearing, but the art and creativity that help to sustain those communities are disappearing as well.
What happened to Artmosphere is happening everywhere; people are buying only necessities. The little extras that make life more colorful—literature, art, music, dance—are falling by the wayside. In the Washington area, that has meant that along with Artmosphere, Vertigo Books—an independently owned bookstore that catered to an African-American audience—was also a casualty. They closed the same week.
At Artmosphere, there was a farewell concert; there were tributes and honors; grief was expressed, but in the end, another source of African-American creativity could not survive these tough economic times. Miss Jane, who is not African-American but who felt drawn to the place, said, "I'll probably write some poems … I'll probably write some sad poems." But it is more than just a personal loss; as these creative spaces disappear, these communities are even poorer for the loss.
Artmosphere had become an unofficial symbol of hope that rose out of the rubble of a once-blighted corner. It was a neighborhood joint, but also drew people from as far as New York when a good enough band was playing. People in the neighborhood were proud to say: "I live near Artmosphere."
But for Artmosphere's owners—graphic designer and drummer Dyrell Madison and his wife, singer Andaiye Scott-Madison—keeping the 3-year-old place afloat simply became impossible under the circumstances. They already were dealing with tensions with the local government and police department. When the economy tanked and fewer people began coming through, Artmosphere just could not survive the additional weight.
"I realized I was exhausted," says Madison, 48. "I lost 25 pounds. I've got locks past my shoulders, but I've got bald spots in my hair."
Madison says Artmosphere not only was a meeting space, but it drew a wide group of performers, from Angie Stone to Najee's band members. Even Stevie Wonder's harmonica player hit the microphone. Madison tried to do good while running the place, too, hosting drumming classes for young people or hiring youngsters who might otherwise be getting in trouble. The place felt like that neighborhood house where everyone would hang out when you were growing up. You could park yourself in a stuffed chair for hours with your laptop, nursing just a couple cups of tea, and no one would hound you to order food or to leave.
“It was a chance for artists to network, and that's the part I'm going to miss, being able to hear and see other people's talents," said Payne, 37, who lives in the artists' lofts attached to Artmosphere. "I managed to sell quite a few bags, most days just sitting and minding my own business."
But minding a business in this recession is tough on small entrepreneurs.
Vertigo was a Washington-area institution for a long time, a paradise and meeting place for book lovers. For an African-American writer visiting Washington, it was the must-stop place. Barack Obama read there in 1995 to promote his first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Other notables who passed through were Tananarive Due, Edwidge Danticat, Nalo Hopkinson, the late Octavia Butler and John Edgar Wideman.
The shame of it is not just the recession that killed these businesses; some of the fault lies with the new economy and with some of the old headaches that confront small businesses.
Warren says Amazon and the general boom in online merchandising has killed the market for independent bookstores. Madison, in part, blames misunderstandings with the local government and police for Artmosphere’s closing. No free parking and frequent visits by the local police made things difficult for Artmosphere patrons, Madison said. And when he saw a need to do more to attract customers, he began offering jazz at night. Then, officials and residents complained about the noise.
Madison says he was hurt when word trickled back to him that some white residents felt uncomfortable with his African-American clientele. Malinda Miles, mayor of Mount Rainier, Md. who is African-American, says the main issue was that Artmosphere opened as a café and then evolved into a nightspot. She said she empathized with Madison’s need to grow his business and is sorry that he could not make it work.
"I am very saddened to see it go," she says.
But gone it is, and with it a little light has gone out.
Melanie Eversley is a Washington-based writer who has covered politics and civil rights for many years.