'The Real World' in D.C.: When MTV Moves In, So Does Drama
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The mansion on the corner is Washington's newest monument. It's even lit like one. Accent lamps splash gold light up and down the facade, four stories of red brick and brownstone at 20th and S streets NW. People stop by, look up, cock their heads, think to themselves: There, I've seen it, and maybe, What's it mean?
Inside is MTV's "The Real World," which -- after 17 years, 22 locations and lots of cultural baggage -- finally moved in last month. The District throbs with a newfound youthful exuberance and in comes MTV, with its past-its-prime, ratings-challenged reality series.
The Washington reaction was, of course, overreaction. Dupont residents scrambled to calculate the cost to their livelihood (the noise! the lights! the street parking!). The media played whack-a-rumor (the cast is here; no, it's not; yes, it is). City officials licked their chops at the exposure (Mayor Fenty was pleased that MTV would "utilize the immense opportunities that the District's backdrop will undoubtedly provide"). The cast mates arrived the first week of July and Twitterers began to track every move ("ladies walking south on 14th" then, from another feed, "shopping at 14 and q now").
It's been a summer of hostility, curiosity and zealous indifference. What else do you expect from Washington when a mysterious neighbor moves in, when a strange monument goes up, when a moldy, superficial TV concept imposes itself where Purpose and Importance are paramount, where people specialize in gate-crashing, espionage and meddling?
Even though "Real World D.C." doesn't air until 2010, it's already revealing something real about D.C. Whether drawn to the house or stuck living next to it, people see the opportunity to define reality before MTV does.
This summer, locals have become the tourists they loathe. They amble by "The Real World" at a slower place than the regular cast at 20th and S: the UPS guy, the FedEx gal, the beat cops, the dog-walkers, the errand-runners, the Secret Safeway employees on smoke breaks.
Harry Tolson and J.R. have been sitting across the street for decades, they say, watching the intersection from its northwest corner on a low concrete wall by the Secret Safeway.
"It's exciting, watching the people go by," says Tolson, who used to live a couple of blocks away but now lives in Congress Heights in Southeast. He wears white pants smudged with soot. His fellow loiterer, J.R., who won't give his last name, is in denim cutoffs and navy socks (sneakers act as a pillow on his cardboard bed).
Stick around one place long enough, they say, and eventually you see everything. Eventually you see people jump -- like the time years ago when some guy vaulted off the 11-story Universal North Building at Florida Avenue and 20th -- and eventually you see "The Real World."
The cast mates "creep in and out of the alley, try to get away from the cameras," J.R. says, as a pair of frappuccino-clutching 20-somethings do a look/don't-look stroll-by. But there's no hiding here. Even the watchers are being watched, he notes, pointing to a security camera above him.
"Everything comes to them," says J.R., about the cast. "They live free. They eat free. Free. That is not the real world. C'mon out and see some homeless people out here. It's called survival."
The men crack open cans of Busch. Across the way, their new neighbor, a shaggy-haired "Real World" cast member reportedly named Andrew, sits on the mansion's streetside patio, in full view, almost close enough to touch. He tosses bread crumbs to pigeons from behind the wrought iron fence.