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.