Community of Hope

The Hope Six Demolition Project album cover next to a photo of a house with the word "Hope" on the front

The Hope Six Demolition Project album cover and the “Hope House” in Minneapolis

Recently, I walked past a home in southwest Minneapolis with the word “HOPE” in all caps affixed to the exterior. I’ve recently been playing with the idea of pairing photos I snap on my walks with songs. Kind of a twist on The Current’s Coffee Break, one of my favorite segments on Oake & Riley in the Morning. “Community of Hope” by PJ Harvey has been on heavy rotation and so I paired the album cover for The Hope Six Demolition Project with the photo of the “Hope House” as I’ve affectionately named it.

After creating the side-by-side image, I realized I didn’t actually know what the song was about. It generally takes listening to a song dozens of times before I even pay attention to the lyrics. This is especially true if the beats per minute match my natural walking stride as is the case with “Community of Hope.” With the phrase “They’re going to build a Walmart here” repeated eight times at the end, I have no excuse for it taking so long to research the story behind the lyrics. Now that I have, I think what I’ve discovered could generate some discussion in the top-notch comments section.

My first stop on the journey to better understand this song was to watch the video:

There’s trains, planes, and automobiles! Freeways, crosswalks, and road signs! Parks, churches, and rivers! As an added bonus it all takes place in a city I visit frequently – Washington, D.C.

Now we’re talking.

Benning Road in Washington, D.C.

Benning Road in Washington, D.C.

Next, I read the lyrics. Though I’ve visited the part of D.C. referenced in the song, I’m not a local so some of the name checking is lost on me. I’ve deconstructed the song with some reactions and links for more information :

Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project
Stretching down to Benning Road
A well-known “pathway of death”
At least that’s what I’m told

“Pathway of death” piqued my interest since our community often makes note of Four-lane death roads.

And here’s the one sit-down restaurant
In Ward Seven, nice
OK, now this is just drug town, just zombies
But that’s just life

Access to sit-down restaurants is something I’ve thought about on my walks through Minneapolis neighborhoods. I think most people would agree that having only one option to dine with friends and family would not be nice. Referring to a section of a city as “just drug town” and the people who live there as “zombies” makes me uncomfortable.

In the Community of Hope
The Community of Hope
The Community of Hope
The Community of Hope, hope, hope, hope

Map of South Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

South Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

An upbeat chorus, this is the part of the song that I hum to myself when I’m not actually listening to the song.

Here’s the highway to death and destruction
South Capitol is its name
And the school just looks like shit-hole
Does that look like a nice place?
Here’s the old mental institution
Now the Homeland Security Base
And here’s God’s Deliverance Centre
A deli called M.L.K

“Highway to death and destruction” caught my attention in the same way “pathway of death” did earlier in the song. Preposition choice makes a difference in this lyric. So, she’s commenting on the place where the highway leads rather than the highway itself. With the reference to the old mental institution turned Homeland Security Base, PJ Harvey leads me down a rabbit hole of learning more about the history of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital and discover its on the list of National Historic Landmarks. Local angle (it’s a stretch): The University of Minnesota Press published The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States by Carla Yanni. See: rabbit hole.

Back to the song…

And The Community of Hope
The Community of Hope
The Community of Hope
The Community of Hope, hope, hope, hope

More of the joyous chorus.

They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here
They’re gonna put a Walmart here

I’m astounded it took me two months to realize Walmart is part of the lyrics. Clearly I’ve been mumble humming this entire time.

Reaction to the Song and Video

Knowing there’s more than one side to every story, I returned to Google in search of reviews of the song. I discovered “Community of Hope” was not well received by residents of Ward 7, a diverse neighborhood in our nation’s capital including the organization that inspired the title, Community of Hope. Leaders of the nonprofit wrote a letter to PJ Harvey which is documented by a WAMU 88.5 Bandwith blog post. Former Mayor Vincent Gray (who just won the Democratic primary for his old seat as District Council Member representing Ward 7 ) said “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.” And that joyous chorus I hum to myself while walking? The choir didn’t know the details of their involvement in “Community of Hope” until a reporter brought it to the choir director’s attention.

Finally, I read the origin story of the lyrics which involves Paul Schwartzman, a Washington Post writer giving PJ Harvey and cinematographer Seamus Murphy a driving tour. Based on Schwartzman’s account, though the rock star and filmmaker may have intended to give an accurate depiction of the neighborhood by experiencing it first-hand, the vocal response from the community suggests otherwise.

Editor’s note: Scenes at :27 seconds into the video, as well as :45-:48, and 1:23 seconds actually show the New York subway. The Washington DC Metro only appears at 1:22 and 1:25.

As for that Walmart? In case you didn’t read the articles linked within this post, the deal fell through. To some this may be music to their ears. Yet, within these articles you’ll find community members and leaders who express their disappointment that they’re not gonna put a Walmart there. A quote from the aforementioned choir director in the Washington Post:

“A lot of people are disappointed,” Scott says. “Somebody has to build a Walmart. Somebody has to work in a Walmart. A Walmart means jobs.”

Reaction to the Reaction

It’s unfair to think a tw0-minute song and three-minute video can capture all of the nuances of the past, present, and future of a neighborhood. But, a deeper analysis of this song may bring to light some lessons for us all.

What are the key takeaways for us in our various roles as writers, transportation and land-use professionals, policy makers, and people driving, riding, or walking through cities and neighborhoods we don’t call home. Are there benefits from “outsiders” visiting places and giving a snapshot as a tourist would in our most visited destinations? Though incomplete, does it shine a light on issues that need to be addressed or where more resources should be spent? Is it worse to avoid entire neighborhoods because they may not make “top places to visit” lists? Is ignorance bliss for all parties?

For me, this excerpt from the organization’s written response to the song reminds me that for every critique or criticism I have from afar, I need to remember there are people who care and who are invested in the success of their community.

By calling out this picture of poverty in terms of streets and buildings and not the humans who live here, have you not reduced their dignity? Have you not trashed the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better, who take pride in their accomplishments?

Janelle Nivens

About Janelle Nivens

Janelle is an urban explorer who likes to challenge herself to walk long distances (40 miles is her record). She lives in southwest Minneapolis with Scott and their adorable dog Stewie and works at the University of Minnesota. Janelle documents what catches her eye on long walks in hopes of inspiring others to discover hidden gems in their own communities. Walk with her on Instagram, Twitter (@Janellie23), and FitBit.

4 thoughts on “Community of Hope

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This was really interesting Janelle, especially since I don’t listen to the Current and hadn’t heard this song before. I did like Let England Shake, though. Harvey’s songs are a bit symbolic, I think, intended to serve a metaphorical function as part of a whole conversation on the album. That’s my take anyway…

    It’s the only way I can wrap my head around this song, which is pretty one-dimensional and lacks any nuance about urban poverty, race, or development. I’d bet lots of folks have opinions about HOPE VI and/or urban Walmarts.

    Sadly, I guess you chalk up another example of an outsider appropriating urban poverty for their own ends. Writing about neighborhoods of color is really difficult, and whenever I do so, I try hard to listen to people who live there and to refrain from making sweeping generalizations or romanticizing anyone’s lives.

    I guess I’ll hold out hope that the rest of the album makes this track seem more coherent. The album of hope,hope hope

  2. David MarkleDavid Markle

    We have a Hope Community Inc. non-profit developer and landlord in the Phillips neighborhood; any connection to what you saw in SW Minneapolis?

  3. Alex

    As a PJ Harvey fan, I may be giving her the benefit of the doubt, but the lyrics sound ironic to me. They sound like a thousand hot takes about neighborhoods with high rates of poverty or black neighborhoods I’ve heard IRL from people who haven’t spent much time in the inner city or are from middle-class backgrounds. I would guess PJ Harvey collected them and contrasted them with the hopeful chorus to call attention to the way that type of comment disrespects communities that struggle with poverty.

    But the risk of art is that people will judge it without considering the context or from a different perspective of the creator. I think probably the “album trailer” embedded at the end of the WAMU blog post linked to in this piece probably gives a more overt picture of the artist’s intent; it contrasts scenes of (probably) Anacostia with scenes of cities in Iraq and Afghanistan, indicating to me the PJ Harvey would like us to notice the similarities between the colonization of foreign countries and the colonization of poor neighborhoods in American cities.

    I have a copy of Hope Six waiting for me at the library and look forward to considering the meaning of The Community of Hope in the setting the artist intended for it.

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