Saving Sidewalks From the Evils of Ping-Pong

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 8, 2008

The grainy video, shot at night from across Connecticut Avenue, reveals the menace -- caught on tape, posted on YouTube for all to see. The danger, the violation of public space, the unchecked liability, all now undeniable.

Yes, it is true: For more than a year, James Alefantis, owner of the Comet Ping Pong pizza place at Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW, kept a Ping-Pong table on the sidewalk in front of his eatery. And people played Ping-Pong on that table. In public. With their children. Laughing and smiling as if everything were just fine. And they did this w ithout a permit.

But have no fear. We live in a nation of laws. When bad things happen, we correct the ills, and everything returns to its proper place.

And so today the Ping-Pong table is no more, and the sidewalks are once again empty, the street once more safe for speeding vehicles.

Washingtonians can rest easy because Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Frank Winstead is on patrol, protecting the people from evils such as random table tennis games in public space or UPS trucks left unattended or -- my personal favorite from the Winstead Collection on YouTube -- his video of a Budweiser delivery truck double-parked on Wisconsin Avenue, complete with conclusive proof that the delivery guy was, and I quote from the commissioner's own caption, "eating chips."

(I mean no disrespect toward those who might be partial to Winstead's "The Idler," a 94-second minimalist masterpiece that features a service truck idling on Yuma Street and climaxes with close-ups of the offending truck driver. You'll laugh, you'll cry.)

I digress. The Ping-Pong table, Alefantis tells me, was meant originally as both advertisement and entertainment. When Comet opened, business was slow. Since the place had three tables in its big back room, the owner decided to haul one out onto the sidewalk, where employees and customers alike could play.

"It was a beautiful, European-style gathering place, a charming little piece of street culture," Alefantis says. "People loved it."

For the first time in local memory, a block on which most pedestrian life takes place in the rear parking lot rather than the front sidewalk was full of people enjoying themselves of an evening. "That table is one of the few examples in D.C. where something unique brought character and life to the street," nearby resident Adam Rubinson says.

But then Winstead, whose devotion to public service includes the online posting of photos of illegally parked scooters and unsecured construction sites, made his video, suggesting that the Ping-Pong table might be a traffic hazard and distraction. Winstead, who did not respond to repeated phone calls, often raises alarms about small-scale neighborhood infractions, according to his colleagues on the commission.

"I don't know what drives Frank to do these things," says fellow commissioner Susan Banta. Sticklers for the rules "do have a function in our society. We're awfully glad to have them sometimes when things go awry. But I never heard anyone complain about the Ping-Pong table, and it does bring some life to a stretch of the avenue that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic."

Others in upper Northwest are less charitable. The local online bulletin boards are abuzz. "My boys have been playing on it for the last year or more," wrote Rick Dulaney, "with no hazards other than the smiles of passersby. . . . Good thing we have commissioner Winstead to save us from all these perils!"

But commissioner Karen Perry says that "when the first child got hurt chasing a Ping-Pong ball onto Connecticut Avenue, people would feel differently. Comet was flagrantly violating the public space law."

Alefantis says the city told him he didn't require a permit because the table was essentially an advertisement for his business.

Perry says Winstead was right to want all businesses to obtain permits to use public space: "If James can have a Ping-Pong table out front, then why shouldn't Gold's Gym have exercise equipment out on the sidewalk and call it an advertisement?"

Alefantis is now seeking permission to add outdoor seating. He needs the ANC's support, so after Winstead and another commissioner told him he should be punished for having the table outside, Alefantis reluctantly agreed to move the Ping-Pong indoors.

The good news in all this is that the volley over the table has united the neighborhood's usually warring factions, as smart-growth types and anti-development activists have rallied around the little table that added a smidge of fun to a tightly wound place.

In the end, however, Winstead and his videos have prevailed. "It is interesting to see how a couple of people can take something everyone loves and make it go away," Alefantis says. "I'm a small, family-oriented business who's really struggling in a difficult location, and it's just frustrating to have this kind of conversation when I'm trying to create a welcoming place."

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