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  • Meera Chakravarthy

Community in a Creative Place

Tucked away amongst a pocket of restaurants and small businesses on 18th street in Washington, DC sits a charming 3-story brick building vibrating with culture. As you walk past, you hear the sounds of nations spilling out onto 18th street — a guitarist playing an elongated solo in tribute to his Latin American roots. A shekere keeping the beat for a West African ngoni and dancing to the eccentric rhythms.

Gentrification has brought new demographics, socioeconomic statuses and higher rents into Adams Morgan, one of DC’s iconic neighborhoods. But Bossa Bistro has kept a steady, beating pulse of culture for over 18 years.

Calling this place quaint is an understatement. Walls lined with a mixture of Brazilian and African art, a wait staff with the warmest hearts who eloquently speak broken English, and secret moving meditation classes on the second floor; all of it fills this place with vibrancy. Whoever you are, whatever culture, creed, or orientation, when you walk in, you feel like two big arms are wrapping you up and singing “welcome home”.

I am blessed with both deep sensitivity and sound practicality. I studied both music and economics at university, always trying to find a way to blend the two; feeding my creativity and my intellect. I began studying a concept called creative placemaking, which puts arts and culture in the center of urban planning and community development. Creative placemaking invigorated me because it was a way I could communicate the value and impact musicians like me had on society. However, I was hesitant to make a career out of it, as I didn’t know how to fully develop or position myself in this space. Therefore, moving to DC was for a practical reason — to enter the corporate world as a management consultant with a prestigious firm, a position I was grateful to have been offered. But, when I arrived, I desired to find the sensitivity and unique factors within my community.

Surrounded mostly by young professionals who were discovering what it felt like to make a fat paycheck for the first time, I was initially lured into engaging in the rituals of bonding over alcohol, clubs, and working too much in order to get promoted. However, while my colleagues were ordering their 3rd round of beers and complaining about their surprisingly mundane jobs, I was striving to not be trapped in the loneliness of corporate America; so I began to throw myself into exploration.

Thus, I would spend all my free time going to community events, trying to find ways to become rooted to my community. You might find me venturing into local independent bookstores, engaging in conversations with a DC women’s business pop up store, giving input on the DC cultural plan, or taking a leadership role in my local arts collaborative. I met activists who yearned to bring to the forefront the narrative of African American history on Georgia Ave., once the prime real estate of the African American gentry, being re-gentrified by yoga studios and beer gardens. I engaged with developers who had owned family property for years, trying to sustain such small businesses as diners and bookstores, but struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Their stories offered new perspectives that ignited a fire of motivation as I engaged with my new city.

But something still didn’t feel right; I had yet to find a community place to call my own.

The first time I walked into Bossa Bistro, having lived in DC for a month, I brought a group of millennial friends to visit this obscure little bar that sat right in the heart of Adams Morgan. As soon as my foot crossed the threshold of Bossa, a wind of cultures encircled me as if they had been here for centuries. Live music was bouncing off the patterned brick walls while folks were dancing salsa and sipping caipirinhas. It was as if I had walked into the real-world manifestation of creative placemaking, a concept I was striving to re-engage with in DC. Immediately, I declared to all my friends that this was MY spot in DC. The practicality in me fought to explain to others why I was so attached to this place. The sensitivity in me knew no explanation was needed; the energy just felt right.

Bossa and I continued to date each other for months. Anytime new friends came into town, this is the place I would ritualistically take them to. When I wanted to be alone or heard, I felt safe coming here, welcomed by the doorman who no longer had to check my ID. Many nights, I tipsily dreamt of being on stage with my flute, while the practical side of me envisioned running a business like this one day. Unknown to both of us, Bossa served as a source of stability in the early months of my professional life.

As with all great occurrences in life, the beauty of happenstance brought the community of Bossa Bistro deeper into my life. After 1.5 years in DC, my creative brain was hurting and yearning for fulfillment, so I began volunteering with an immigrant arts nonprofit, whose leader told me she needed more performers for an event she was hosting at Bossa and asked if I would play flute. At that point I had not played in public for about 2 years, but after seeing my minimal resistance, she easily convinced me. That night, I went up on stage and asked the guitar player from the previous set if he could improvise in the key of D.

For two minutes, we total strangers wrapped ourselves in a dialogue in D major, supporting each others’ melodic patterns, agreeing and disagreeing sonically until we hit a rhythm, and improvised a story in front of our audiences’ eyes.

After our piece, I learned that the guitarist I was playing with co-owned Bossa Bistro and wanted me to play flute in some of his other projects. That day I went from having not played music for 2 years, to joining 4 different music projects spanning a host of cultures from Malian music to Indian music. It was as if all the family and communities I had left behind across the world had suddenly reappeared; I was once again home, playing music. This was community. My community.

I began to spend almost every night at Bossa, making and listening to music, and developing friendships with the regulars. I’d look forward to seeing the smile of the young woman who worked for the NIH but was also an impressive dancer. I loved commiserating in the drudgery of life with the overworked IT professional who had just quit his job to become a full time bass player.

I also spent hours learning the story of the co-owner, Rob, who like me, had lived a dual life. Years ago, he had been extremely successful in helping build the foundation of the internet, but also had a deep passion and talent for music. After he retired early, he purchased this bar and brought to life all of the community’s cultural projects.

When he started this club, it was out of a passion to combine the pure intimacy and musical genius of a New Orleans jazz club with the artistic taste and vibrant characters of a New York music club. To him, Bossa was not necessarily a profit making entity, rather it followed more of a nonprofit business model, focusing on ways to preserve and sustain the ever-evolving cultures of DC by way of music. However, with a constantly gentrifying neighborhood that had a McDonalds and a Subway within two storefronts of each other, making a profit had become an increasing need for Bossa’s sustainability in this city. Rob and I would spend hours trying to problem-solve genuine ways to create profitable approaches for his unique business.

By engaging in his narrative, I came to realize how the more visible world of DC politics and business was truly transient; what laid the foundation of this community were places like Bossa Bistro that had lasted for years — and will continue to last — not because of a system, but because of individuals who recognize a mutual dream, and who wake up every day to put that dream into practice. This was the type of individual I wanted to be.

Over the next few months Bossa, its patrons, staff, and owners saw me transition. I went from working a corporate job to working as an independent contractor for a small firm, granting more time to figure out my creative goals in life. By day I struggled with new managers, shifting dreams, and a wavering sense of self confidence. Each night I got up on stage and improvised music into the audience at Bossa where a nurturing force always told me “everything is going to be ok.” The energy of this whole community in Bossa was better than any therapist I could have consulted.

This space exemplifies the intersections of communities merging. I have been able to see all versions of my person thrive in this space, from having a drink with a Supreme Court justice’s son to participating at an event on the “divine feminine’. You can never quite tell who walks into this space on any given day, but you love them all the same.

Bossa has not only opened up my sense of community locally, but also internationally. A few months ago, I had the honor of traveling to Mali with the West African band I play with at Bossa. With the support of the Ambassador of Mali, UNESCO Center for Peace, and a whole cohort of folks, we are exploring how to improve the arts and culture scene in DC, and abroad.

Bossa Bistro is now my second home- a place where I can freely feel valued and supported, and a place that taught me to love DC. It has helped me rediscover Washington as not just the nation’s capital, but a unique and thriving artistic city, attracting ambassadors and refugees, poets and technicians. Bossa organically expresses the melting pot this nation was built to be.

My relationship with Bossa has taught me what policy, research, and evaluation work cannot teach me when it comes to creative placemaking.Bossa has taught me what creative placemaking actually feels like. This level of artistic depth and tactical understanding is so necessary for us folks who straddle the world of practicality and sensitivity. We need a lab where we can creatively test all our ideas and bring what we learn back to the design, evaluation, and operation of a creative place.

As the framework of our American cities begins to change, and as we introduce new players into our community, I often wonder how the composition of creative places will also change. As bright young minds come into Washington, DC ready to redevelop the “community”, will they be able to acknowledge the practicality of spaces like Bossa, or have they lost their sensitivity?

To address these questions, I turn to the art of improvisation. The beauty of improvisation is that it is the ultimate democracy; everyone has an opportunity to share and be heard. Every night I go on stage and play my flute, I actively open my ears, listen to the chords and keys played by the band, find a space to enter the dialogue, and begin to improvise with others. When we humans develop our communities, we naturally engage in a similar dialogue of improvisation. My experiences in Bossa have taught me that part of our duty as citizens who want to preserve creative places in gentrifying communities is that we must similarly invite others to experience and collaborate in what we create, must open space for a dialogue, and ultimately improvise solutions together.

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