Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Friday, October 17, 2008

From Nation to the Nationals

It's not month-long indigestion from too many half-smokes that has rendered me silent on the blogafront. Just a recent move to Philly -- more coming shortly -- from which I haven't shaken the disorder yet. But I'd still like to provide a coda to my stay on the homefront in and around D.C. The last couple months have been a bonanza of momentous baseball, from the curtain call at Yankees Stadium to the Fightin' Phils fall classic hopes to Thursday night's Fenway epic and tonight's do-or-die conclusion.

Lost in October magic, however, is the relative ignominy of the Washington Nationals catastrophic 100+ loss season, coupled with the worst attendance in a new ballpark ever. There are ugly internal disputes with owners the Lerner family, which have spilled over into the worst crime off the field: deadbeat tenants. The Nationals have refused to pay $3.5 million in rent to the D.C. city government, claiming that the taxpayer-funded ballpark was substantially incomplete by opening day and continues to need a lot of work. The Lerners are thumbing their nose and neglecting their role as the anchors of the massive plan to redevelop the Anacostia waterfront, long the neglected waterway of Washington and an afterthought to Potomac symbolism. The ultimate goal is to integrate the Anacostia waterfront, and by extension the largely poor and black neighborhoods that lie along and especially east of it, with the rest of the wealth and vibrancy of D.C. The stadium, meanwhile, was supposed to be a crucial litmus test of whether such development could be done without displacement and disregard for surrounding neighborhoods. Withholding an already cash-strapped city -- whose previous mayor expended the last of his political capital to get the stadium through the city council -- of millions of dollars in rent does not make for a good neighbor. And more to the point, their claims are simply untrue.

I was at opening day on a chilly night at the end of March, attended games throughout the summer, and even had tickets to the rained out final home game of the season. From a fan's perspective -- and the perspective that should matter, because it's ticket revenue with which the organization should be paying that rent -- the stadium is more than complete.

Without getting lost in those minutiae, however, I want to return to opening night and the very fact of that stadium. The mechanisms of urban redevelopment, high-powered private developers, and an economic engine as powerfull as Major League Baseball were a perfect storm. Granted, there was much wrangling for several years over whether the city would approve a stadium with public monies when many of the fans would be coming from neighboring Maryland or Virginia -- states whose jurisdictions were not contributing. But MLB made it clear that no stadium meant no team, which pro-business mayor Anthony Williams could never have let happen, especially when Northern Virginia way vying to host the team out in the suburbs.

Contentious city politics aside, the stadium was assured, the team came to Washington (as the Nationals, not the Senators, their previous incarnation, because D.C. has no senators), the Nats played three seasons at RFK Stadium, and then Nationals Park arrived this year. As a baseball fan whose father can remember attending Senators games at RFK, I was actually rather fond of the old retro spaceship down East Capitol Street. But as a comparison between old and new points out, Nationals Park was likely to follow the generic lead of casino ballparks that suck away your dollars and sprawl over far more land than charming 8-acre postage stamps like Fenway or Wrigley.

For opening night heroics, I admit you can't beat the president throwing out the ceremonial first pitch -- politics aside, a Washington tradition that dates back decades -- and the star of the team winning it in the 9th with a walk-off home run.

But when the dazzle fades and I extract my sentiments from the matter, there is still a hard critique to be made, both architecturally and from an urban planning perspective. The Post's architecture critic definitely took the stadium to task, sounding a dissenting note on the front page of the Style section the next morning while the rest of the paper trumpeted the new ballpark. Philip Kennicott's conclusion is worth quoting at length:

From the top of the stadium, look out at the skyline, toward the Capitol Dome. At first, it seems like a happy accident that it is most visible from the cheapest seats. But now look down into the neighborhoods where public schools have become dilapidated brick bunkers, their windows covered in forbidding metal mesh. It's enough to make you weep. Not about the stadium, which is as generic as it goes. But rather the cynical pragmatism that governs our priorities, socially and architecturally. Washington is a city where people can stare straight at the most powerful symbol of their democratic enfranchisement, and still feel absolutely powerless to change the course of our winner-takes-all society.

And it didn't have to be this way. It's not just a matter of misplaced priorities, which we can all argue about. It's also a matter of inept bargaining and bad planning.

"The city had Major League Baseball over a barrel if they wanted, because baseball had nowhere else to put the team," says Neil DeMause, co-author of "Field of Schemes," a look at the economics and politics of baseball. DeMause argues that Washington got one of the worst deals in recent history when it lured the Nationals here.

If the stadium sparks economic development in the newly revitalized South Capitol neighborhood, perhaps the fact that the city got hosed will be forgotten. But the architecture will remain, and it will remain mediocre. That failure isn't just a matter of bad negotiating on the city's part, or bland aesthetics on the part of HOK Sport, the architecture giant that designed the rush-job Nationals Park.

It is also a colossal symbolic failure with national and international import. At a time when the United States is losing a global argument about freedom and democracy, when China and countries along the Persian Gulf are proving to an attentive developing world that top-down leadership is the best and most efficient route to prosperity, the capital of the so-called free world built a monument to its national pastime that gets a C-plus.

It passes, barely. But as sports lovers know, sports is never just sports. And architecture, especially in a world capital, is never just architecture. Nationals Park might be a better experience than RFK, but it fails to say anything larger to the city, or the world.

I find a similarly uninspiring lack of vision in what surrounds the ballpark, what came before it, and what semiotic messages are on display inside of it. While I applaud the city and the team's massive and successful PR campaign to get fans to ride Metro, the carefully managed block from the Navy Yard metro station to the ballpark entrance exudes a shopping mall feel.

Construction cranes loom over the horizon as the redevelopment initiative is in full swing, while street-level banner ads promise a new Half Street, turning a city block into a product to be delivered on a timeline. Half Street SE is not "coming 2009"; it has been there for as long as the grid has been there. But "half street. the whole experience." isn't so much a city block as it is a combined retail/luxury housing/office space theme park. After being shuttled along Half Street from the Metro into the ballpark, you are greeted by some even more perplexing advertisements:

As the rise of this new neighborhood is on display all around you, advertisers are encouraging you to leave the city entirely and go to shopping malls in Maryland and Virginia like White Flint or Dulles Town Center. It begs the question if the neighborhood -- what developers want to call the "Ballpark District" while the city insists on "Capitol Riverfront District" -- has more in common with its suburban counterparts than the nearby neighborhoods in the city itself.

Ultimately, I'm not expressing disdain at the prospect of luxury retail and condos, but at the fabrication of a neighborhood that may never even become a neighborhood. The "district" appelation is already an indicator and the distinction between the two names is telling. The developers are focusing on the cash cow, the structure on which they've economically hedged their bets but also the marketing tool that makes it attractive to their target audience. The city hasn't given up on the idea of a larger Anacostia redevelopment initiative, but that name remains a dirty word. I distinctly recall eavesdropping on a conversation at Nationals Park, where two attendees shuddered at the prospect of going one stop too far on the Green Line past the Navy Yard and ending up in the neighborhood of Anacostia, on the other side of the river, as though they wouldn't even be safe on the subway platform. Growing up, the green line was the "dangerous line." Anacostia's image problem is so bad that even the Metro line that serves it is considered suspect by white suburbanites. Consequently, developers are reluctant to associate their new district, which has far more in common with shopping malls 20-30 miles away, with neighborhoods less than a mile away.

West of the ballpark, across South Capitol Street, one wonders how the hulking behemoth next door has affected both the quality of life and property values/taxes of Southwest D.C., what the Washington City Paper is cheekily calling the Nats Flats while still leveling the straight dope on the history and prospects of the neighborhood, perhaps most notable for its mid-century modern urban renewal architecture. It may be the victim of urban renewal round two, as some housing projects have already been demolished, but I still think that stadium boosters are hoping South Capitol Street will remain a border between rather than a boulevard connecting two vastly different neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the sides of the ballpark closest to the river recall the area's industrial past. The era of residential urban renewal is, one can hope, largely a thing of the past. No neighborhoods were decimated to make way for Nationals Park. Government Center, it ain't. But what remains -- a sewer pumping station and a cement factory -- occupy prime real estate, much to the stadium boosters' embarrassment.

The WASA pumping station is, I admit, a purely functional part of the city's infrastructure that could probably be moved elsewhere, but after capturing this shot of the cement factory between Nationals Park and the Anacostia River, I became increasingly fond of it. The Potomac may be the river of political power, where the presidential yacht plies the waters, but the Anacostia is a blue-collar river, a river that works. In the meantime, Half Street will continue to funnel fans directly from the Metro and into the ballpark's main entrance facing away from the Anacostia -- although there are still prominent entrances on both the pumping station and riverfront sides of the ballpark.

Most journalists were dismissive of the area prior to the arrival of the stadium. The New York Times takes the consensus view in its opening day story: "But everyone agrees that the change in the neighborhood in the 22 months since work began on the 41,000-seat stadium has been astounding. In what was an urban wasteland of trash-strewn lots, sex clubs, and taxi and auto repair shops, developers have invested in new offices, condominiums, rental apartments, stores and restaurants."

With such a scathing description -- "urban wasteland" -- it would seem hard to argue with redevelopment of any kind. But at the same time, I began receiving e-mails in the summer of 2006 about the imminent closure of Nation Nightclub, a D.C. mainstay of the electronic music scene, and arguably the incubator of house in the nation's capital as host to the Buzz parties. I didn't put two and two together, until I realized that the "urban wasteland" everyone was so excited to raze included Nation.

At that point, the construction of a stadium claimed a real casualty. Baseball may have deeper pockets and a wider fan base than house, but it's worth staking out the loss of such an institution. D.C. has a hard enough time establishing a unique urban identity, and the Buzz parties, while following the same national rave arc of underground to mainstream to oversaturated drug haven, was still the fulcrum of a local scene.

Just as my night out at the Paradox conjured up Baltimore Fever memories, the other half was down the BW Parkway in D.C., with Scott Henry at the helm. Hopefully musical metadata can hold the memories where bulldozers have already claimed the physical space.

A mix is the monument: A dancefloor once stood in the outfield.

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At 10/22/2008 10:40 AM, Blogger DG-rad said...

i like your description of the area - especially the overheard fear of going one stop too far and ending up in Anacostia. :)

check out my blog on the neighborhood:

have a good one!


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