Now We See You

Oluseyi Akinyode
3 min readApr 25, 2024

Oral History Project

The Lone Tenement, (1909) by George Bellows, at National Gallery of Art

Three weeks ago, I was excited to receive a grant from HumanitiesDC for my Oral History Project, Now We See You. This project seeks to uncover the often-overlooked narratives of rapidly transforming neighborhoods in DC and connect residents to the city’s rich history.

Now We See You was inspired by the George Bellows painting The Lone Tenement at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. When I first saw the piece six years ago, I was struck by the light emanating from it, punctuated by the sound of the chu-chu coming from the steam engine boat on the right. Sadly, I failed to notice the lone building smack in the center of the painting and the black-clothed figures scattered under the bridge.

Despite not being fully visible in the painting, the newly constructed Queensboro bridge, linking Queens with Manhattan, casts a shadow over the lone tenement, symbolizing urban development and progress while relegating it to the background. The bridge plays a vital role in the scene. It serves as a metaphor for urban development, an overarching theme I want to explore in my Oral History Project.

The scene in the Lone Tenement reflects the promise of commercial transformation during the Industrial Revolution, highlighting the potential benefits of technological advancement and urban development. However, such progress often comes at a cost, resulting in a loss of culture, communities, and a way of life, particularly affecting marginalized and minority communities.

As I learned more about the painting’s history, I was shocked to discover that the vast space under the bridge once contained rows of tenements filled with immigrant communities striving to make their way in New York. Removing these tenements was hailed as progress, as they were considered a societal scourge.

This begs the question, How do we balance the fruits of progress with its losses? Who gets left behind? What is erased? and what is it replaced with? Might there be opportunities to create markers that give evidence that people with a way of life once existed in these spaces?

Interestingly, the lone tenement depicted in the painting no longer existed by the time Bellows was working on it. The painting serves as a marker of those tenement communities, and this is what I find particularly powerful about it.

While the Queensboro Bridge facilitated the movement of people and goods, we can’t deny it ultimately resulted in the displacement and erasure of communities. I am particularly interested in exploring these themes of displacement and erasure in my Oral History Project as I consider DC’s transforming neighborhoods.

Three years after seeing this painting, I was on a walk along H Street NE. Seeing its transformation — the signage of new stores, renovated homes, and trendy cafes sprouting up — ignited a desire to capture the stories of the people who once lived there and in similar neighborhoods in DC.

I recently reviewed an art installation, Centuries, by artist Nekisha Durett at the K Street underpass in NOMA. This rekindled my interest in hidden histories because the underpass had been an encampment for homeless people. Though I have lived in DC for twenty years, researching the history of the underpass and the city’s goals for redevelopment made me realize there were several perspectives regarding the redevelopment issue.

My Project, Now We See You, seeks to explore these perspectives. Like the painting, I want to capture the memories of long-term residents witnessing changes in their communities for future generations. It’s also about connecting residents to the city’s rich history. I want to understand the cultural shifts emerging from urban redevelopment. For example, what do we mean when we say a neighborhood has lost its character?

The stories captured will be housed at the DC Public Library, ensuring they are accessible to all. Our initial focus will be the Columbia Heights neighborhood. This area has undergone rapid changes over the last twenty years. Please comment below, if you’re interested in learning more or getting involved. Your voice is important! As the project evolves, I will share more information on this blog.

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Oluseyi Akinyode

Omo Naija | follower of Jesus | Kdrama fanatic | film & art lover | coffee addict | product enthusiast | getting lost to find myself