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No Joy in Stadiumville

An Unbuilt Ballpark Casts Its Shadow on Southeast

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page D01

Robert Siegel, entrepreneur, works out of a windowless office in a gay porn shop and "adult theater." In this electronics-jammed bunker he has half a dozen closed-circuit TV screens that monitor the cashier's booth, the hallway, the back rooms and the shop's exterior. One of his cameras is mounted on a nearby building and serves as his eye on O Street SE, pivoting by remote control from inside the bunker.

Siegel is something like the mayor of this part of town. When he answers the phone, he says, "Commissioner Siegel," in honor of his status on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. He has been called a land baron in the media, but so far has resisted the urge to call himself Baron Siegel. He owns 11 properties, several of which house gay nightclubs.

Robert Siegel will be one of the entrepreneurs affected by the creation of a new baseball stadium in D.C. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

This is his realm, his kingdom -- for now. A baseball stadium may soon come crashing down upon everything. His office, he says, is going to become first base.

"I'm in a great state of depression," he says, sinking onto a couch as two Shar-Peis, imperturbable, nap at his feet. "I feel like a flyswatter is coming down on me -- and I can't run anywhere."

A prim, elderly lady, Tommie Jordan, his accountant, excuses herself from the office with the remark, "I'd rather watch paint dry than baseball."

Siegel's shop, Glorious Health and Amusements, is not a business that the city would put on a visitor's guide or a postcard. Nor is the Old Town Trolley likely to make many cruises down Half Street or Potomac Avenue SE. The neighborhood is, with all due respect, crusty, grimy, dusty, muddy and just a little bit peculiar.

It has the classic urban texture that goes with being on the wrong side of the tracks: a mish-mash of parking lots, old warehouses, body shops, liquor stores, fences topped with barbed wire, alleys choked with litter, people loitering in odd spots and government workers bee-lining for the Metro.

But one thing this neighborhood is not is empty. When city planners recently referred to the area in a report as "littered with abandoned businesses and vacant lots," they were looking through a particular kind of lens, one in which an area is depressed if it doesn't look like Rosslyn. For some people, a neighborhood is blighted if it doesn't have a Starbucks.

This neighborhood is full of working people. It's noisy and energetic. There are huge trucks coming and going, cabbies and limo drivers conferring between runs, laborers handling recycled trash, all sorts of folks doing things that cities need done. It's like an organ of the city, a functioning part. Blighted, maybe, but also needed.

It's also an eccentric area in a city that's not sure it wants any such thing. This town has been, from the very start, meticulously plotted, built on a grandiose scheme, every street and public square serving to call attention to the greatness of a nation. Plans rule this city.

And if you're not part of the plan, you're out of luck.

Gentrification rolls eastward across Washington, inciting cries of racism, uprooting businesses and residents, changing the texture of the town block by block. Georgetown was once an African American community. Chinatown was once Chinese. The construction of MCI Center helped transformed the Old Downtown into a fashionable zone of clubs and gourmet restaurants. The new convention center sprawls between Seventh and Ninth streets in Shaw, the scene of some of the worst rioting of 1968.

The planners, relentlessly beavering away, see the Anacostia waterfront as enticing territory. They envision South Capitol Street as a fitting entrance to the seat of government, something that abides the 203-year-old vision of the original city planner, Pierre L'Enfant.

"The entire right of way should be improved to become a grand civic space, a grand urban boulevard," said Patricia Gallagher, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission.

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