Art Works Blog

A Sense of Place

As you may have seen, we recently had some big news in Big Read-land: the novels The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka will be joining our roster of Big Read titles for the 2014-2015 grant cycle.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears has particular resonance here at the NEA since the story takes place in our hometown of Washington, DC. The novel revolves around Sepha Stephanos, a lonely, homesick Ethiopian immigrant who has become the proprietor of a grocery store in Logan Circle. As Sepha navigates a landscape vastly different from his native Addis Ababa, his sense of dislocation continues as his adopted neighborhood—a run-down area with large African-American and immigrant communities—begins to show the first stirrings of gentrification. When a white woman begins renovations on a house next to Sepha’s store, Sepha notes that, “Before Judith, these were the only reasons white people had ever come into the neighborhood: to deliver official notices, investigate crimes and check up on the children of negligent parents.”

For anyone who has been to Logan Circle within the past few years, it’s clear that the wave of urban renewal described in the book has fully crested. The main drags are lined with boutiques and restaurants, new condos seem to pop up every day, and the area has become one of the city’s major nightlife destinations. In a 2010 issue of NEA Arts, we wrote about the Studio Theatre’s role in revitalizing the neighborhood, and how the arts can serve as agents of positive social and economic change.

But Beautiful Things is a work of art that serves a different purpose: to give voice to those whose stories are seldom heard. Amid the celebrated benefits of urban renewal, such as safer streets and increased economic viability, Sepha’s story reminds us of the rent hikes, racial tensions, and loss of business that gentrification can also bring, further marginalizing those who are already marginalized. One can guess what happened to corner stores like Sepha’s when the Whole Foods in Logan Circle eventually went up.

Although The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is the story of one individual, it also tells the story of a city: its communities, its history, and its own changing identity. For those of us who live in Washington, its portrait of a bygone Logan Circle is a poignant reminder of the incredible strides our city has made, and of those who have, at times, been pushed aside by progress.

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