It’s a bit of a walk from the Columbia Heights Metro, but once you find your way down 11th Street you come across a unique two-story building. It’s nothing too flashy; just a purple structure with some planters in front. When you first enter, for a moment, you’re surprised that a space like this houses not only capoeira classes and belly dancing, but also an African drum workshop and film screenings—and that’s only the first half of the week.
The space is not much larger than a studio apartment, with a few pews for seating and a small stage that holds a piano and a drum. In big green letters above the stage a sign reads “You Bloom, We Bloom.” This is the brief but powerful mission statement of BloomBars, which is nothing like your average D.C. hole-in-the-wall.
Now in its fifth year of operations, BloomBars—an alcohol-free, all-ages arts space—has grown to be essential to its community in a way that founder and “Chief Executive Gardner” John Chambers always hoped it would. “BloomBars was meant to grow organically at the pace of the people who are occupying it,” he says of the venue’s natural but robust development. But this is only the start, Chambers assures. “We are just emerging from the soil. It really truly is just the beginning.”
Even before coming to the District in the early ‘90s, Chambers was already focused on work that had a bigger purpose and impact. A child of parents who were heavily involved in social work and civil rights themselves, Chambers followed in their footsteps and put his own talents to use in advocacy roles for nonprofit organizations.
“I was really building communities around causes on a national and global scale,” he says of his early activism, which focused on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to seatbelt safety. He admits that the arts were more of an afterthought during his early grassroots efforts rather than a focal point. But a trip to Northern Uganda with a group of actors to teach theater to children at refugee camps showed him what art could do in creating a community.
That trip to Uganda spurred Chambers into leaving a senior level position with the advertising firm GMMB to concentrate his energy on establishing BloomBars, with the idea of creating a space for nurturing the artist’s role in the community. The founding of BloomBars coincided with the 2008 presidential election and Chambers wanted to turn the pre-election energy into post-election action, leading him to mobilize musicians to perform at cause-related events.
Chambers observes that there is an interesting mix to D.C. that brings out people’s activistic and artistic sides. “D.C. is a place that pushes people to the edge, where they [discover that] need to do something else”—that need to do something more. After piloting the initial idea in D.C., and then in Kansas City and San Francisco, Chambers returned to Columbia Heights to take BloomBars to the next level.
The first event held at the location was a three-day music festival sponsored by a local nonprofit. Chambers recognized how difficult it was for organizations like that to put on events in the area and jumped at the opportunity to provide a workable option. This first festival gave way to monthly events, which then evolved into a packed schedule of weekly classes and events, finally blossoming into what the space has become today.
An integral element of Chambers’ vision for BloomBars was to create a space that would allow for true diversity. And what’s so striking is how this idea of diversity plays into everything done there. “If you know your mission is to create a passionate and purposeful community, you have to have a lot of different things,” he says. This philosophy has attracted wide-ranging and exceptional artists, and BloomBars is not only focused on nourishing them creatively but also helping them grow as individuals.
“As artists’ stages gets larger and their audiences get larger, they carry that [expanding] consciousness with them.” Chambers strongly believes that the relationship between the artists and the community is about more than playing gigs and recording, it’s about teaching others, connecting with causes, and creating something much bigger than the art itself. This has lead BloomBars to partner with other nonprofits and similarly minded organizations, all while growing steadily through the help of volunteers.
The impact of BloomBars thus far has been pretty impressive. It counts among its alumni top-tier artists like Grammy-nominated musician Carolyn Malachi who was a resident-artist there early in her career. But BloomBars is just as much a home for the budding novice as it is for the seasoned professional. “At its roots, it really is about figuring out your full potential by exploring your creativity,” Chambers says, and it’s never too early to start, which is why he is now launching BloomU, an early-childhood development program that offers music and art classes to children.
On a more personal note, Chambers attests that his own metamorphosis during this entire process—with its successes and difficulties—has been profound. Even while mainly working behind the scenes, he says “It’s changed my priorities and I think it’s really made me realize my talent.” And perhaps even more importantly, he says, getting to see his own daughter grow up in this type of creative environment has brought him the greatest joy.