DC as Canvas: From Crack to Canvas to Condo

Hanover Place DC street art

A taste of the murals that formerly graced Hanover Place NW (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before it became home to one of the greatest collections of street art in Washington, DC, Hanover Place NW in Truxton Circle was a narrow, dead-end street where you could easily see the cops coming. It was also the place to buy cocaine in the 1980s, so much so that newspapers called it the city’s “cocaine supermarket.”

Until a few weeks ago, the west end of Hanover Place was lined with spectacular murals, but today most of the paintings are lost in a pile of rubble. What was once stables, then one of the city’s first automobile garages, a box factory, then part of a brass knob warehouse and lastly an artists’ space, is now debris, soon to be cleared away for new condos.

Hanover Place DC street art

Before (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC

And after (Photo By: Bradley Glanzrock)

The building at 79 Hanover Place NW, most recently home to the artist-run warehouse and studio space called Wonderbox, was built in 1906 as a three-story stable and box factory. In 1928, it was converted into a storage warehouse, with only the first-floor walls of the stable remaining intact. The stable-turned-warehouse was formerly part of Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage, an N Street complex that stretched north to fill the space between N Street and Hanover Place. Chapman Stables had originally been built as a coal yard with stables for horses and later transitioned into a garage for cars and buses. Wonderbox transformed the interior by hosting art openings, performance art shows and modern dance, although some might argue that the building continued to be home to a bunch of horseshit.

Hanover Place DC street art

Kelly Towles mural (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The murals first appeared as part of the But Is It Art? Fair, a DIY contemporary art show held at Wonderbox in September 2011. Created by Kelly Towles, Alicia “Decoy” Cosnahan and Aaron Lim, these paintings gave life to an otherwise bland stretch of blank building facades facing Hanover Place.

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before the Preservation League submitted a proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board, plans had been in the works to raze all the Chapman Stables buildings to make way for new development. The main Chapman building on N Street, previously home to the Brass Knob Warehouse, was saved from demolition when it was entered into the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in April 2013. Six months later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chapman Stable DC

Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage (and later, Brass Knob Warehouse) on N Street NW (Photo Courtesy of NPS)

The former storage warehouse and bus garage didn’t fare so well. Both were deemed to have “no artistic distinction … [or] architectural value” and were torn down in early September 2014.

But let’s get back to crack. In July 1984, police launched “Operation Beat It” to confront powder cocaine dealing on Hanover Place. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with the hit song “Beat It,” had been the No. 1 album in the country until April 1984.) The law-enforcement action was at first successful, but dealers were back on the streets just five months later.

By December 1985, Washington, DC, outranked all other U.S. cities in per capita drug arrests. (We’re still No. 1 in per capita arrests for PCP – in your face, L.A.!) And by 1986, crack had hit the streets of DC, edging out heroin for the first time as the city’s most popular illicit drug.

Hanover Place was in full swing as the most notorious open-air drug market in crack-infested Washington, DC. From the east end of the block, one could look down Capitol Street and clearly see the white dome of the Capitol Building. Dealers used to quip: “Over there, they make the laws; over here, we break the laws.”

To keep the police from raiding the market, kids acted as sentries at the corners, hollering “OLE-ER-RAY” (pig Latin for “rollers”) whenever they saw a police cruiser approach. But for the most part, the street was a self-regulating marketplace. And with the trafficking came traffic. Sometimes the line of cars turning onto Hanover Place was so long it backed up traffic on Capitol Street, with cars honking to keep the checkout lines moving.

Hanover Place DC crack

The Hanover Place drug market, open for business on the early evening of Dec. 6, 1984 (Photo By: Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By this point, the cops had had enough and decided to crack down on Hanover Place. A year-long, 24/7 occupation ensued, with a command-center trailer on the street and a daily rotation of 60 officers patrolling the immediate area. It was still 1986, but Hanover Place was closed for business.

Two decades later, Hanover Place is mostly quiet. The housing prices have rebounded from their 1990s lows and are now selling for five to 10 times as much. The artists have come and gone, and the condo-dwellers are about to arrive.

Here are more photos of the art of Hanover Place. Some of these murals remain. Others are gone but not forgotten.