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Neighborhood Watch
MTV Is in the House, and Everyone Else Just Wants to Be

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

'Serenity' Now!

In July, a week since the block got "real," a young couple stoop-sits on the northeast corner of 20th and S streets. The turret windows of Adam Rosenberg and Tracy Sherman's two-story apartment face the turret windows of the "Real World" mansion.

Here's the thing, says Rosenberg, 28, a new-media manager at a nonprofit. The cast and crew haven't been a problem, per se. It's the people who gawk. There's been five times as much activity at the intersection, he says, and his dog is very sensitive to noise.

"I've not talked to a single neighbor who likes it," says Sherman, sitting on the same step, eating dinner and watching the intersection as though it were a television.

A cast member wearing sunglasses and a bandana exits the mansion. This is Josh, who is of Puerto Rican and Italian descent, according to phantom Internet sources (the Anti-"Real World" contingent refers to him as either "Rico Suave" or "Gerardo"). Josh walks across S Street toward the Safeway, sans cameras. He is soon followed by Andrew, his shaggy-haired cast mate, who's wearing what can only be described as a panda hat. In 30 seconds, six girls materialize and wait outside the Safeway, then watch the guys return home.

"They're interns," Rosenberg grumbles, snapping the tableau on his iPhone, which he posts to the Anti-Real World DC blog. "You guys are being pretty obvious," he calls to the gawkers.

Rosenberg launched the blog with friends in June, after word got out about 2000 S St. NW. At a ward meeting that month, it was "there goes the neighborhood." People worried about a loss of "serenity." They complained about being notified only weeks before shooting began, about MTV's lack of outreach.

In one of the first posts in June, Rosenberg wrote: "This is the most powerful city in the Western World and we don't need MTV's exposure. Our city is better than that."

The blog, at its July peak, attracted a remarkable 8,000-10,000 visitors per day, ribbed MTV (the production was referred to as a "plague" and the "apocalypse"), kept an eye on the intersection and the cast's whereabouts, and started a photo contest to solicit images that depict the real D.C. (submissions included shots of cherry blossoms, a homeless man sitting on a milk crate and a family of tourists wearing "I {heart} D.C." shirts staring up the Washington Monument).

Rosenberg made the local news, recycling a sound bite about not wanting to clean up the puke of drunk "Real World" stalkers. His explanation for the blog's notoriety: A partisan town has a polar nature. It likes conflict or, at least, the appearance of conflict.

"A lot of people say we're trying to stir the pot," Rosenberg says. "We don't encourage anybody to do surveillance. We do encourage people to be informed and engaged citizens."

Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Feldstein, who lives on the southeast corner of the intersection and whose windows overlook the mansion, says he has fielded no complaints from residents since MTV moved in.

A Foot in the Door?

"Waaaiiit! There it is!"

A Hyundai SUV, apparently full of gawkers, screeches to a halt at the intersection. Cameras flash. The vehicle zooms off. The month of August is 45 minutes old.

A trio of beefy security guards take their positions at the street corners. A camera crew comes into view, walking backward in front of cast mates Josh and Erika, neither of whom is drunk or trailing Fellini-esque mayhem. It's eerily silent as they vanish into the house.

At 1 a.m., a green dinged-up Toyota Camry idles into a space on 20th Street. Daniel Foster, 23, emerges and faces the house. Two women in the car turn to follow his gaze, as if they're at a drive-in theater waiting for a movie.

"We came down hoping to see a fight," says Foster, who lives in Silver Spring and runs a pizzeria in Lanham. They'd also like to get in the house. Because . . .

"I guess you'd feel like a celebrity," he says. "I just like reality shows about young people, seeing what they go through."

After 15 minutes of waiting and watching, some luck: two cast members exit the house and sit on the stoop. It's Josh and Andrew again. Foster and his friends Taylor Long and Noelle Owens, both 20, scurry across S Street to the front gate.

They say hey. Josh and Andrew say hey.

The cast mates say they like D.C., despite blowback from "a lot of haters." Then, an awkward pause. There are no cameras around. Just five people momentarily out of pleasantries. Foster asks if they ever make it up to Lanham. Josh says no, they can't really go anywhere. Foster offers to deliver some pizzas.

"Yeah, sure," Josh says. "Same time tomorrow."

The friends say goodbye and head to the car. Foster thinks maybe the pizzas are the ticket into the house.

Watchington, D.C.

They work out at Washington Sports Club on Connecticut Avenue. They eat at Lauriol Plaza. They drink at Third Edition in Georgetown and Nellie's on U Street. They swim at the Capitol Skyline. One cast member works at the Human Rights Campaign, another at the Washington Blade. They go for jogs. They go for cigarettes. They volunteer. (All this seems consistent, oddly enough, with the real life of a 20-something in D.C.)

The city has pieced together these details from Twitter, which is ablaze with sightings. When someone tweeted about the cast mates being at National Night Out last week, people went to Dupont Circle to watch them charm police officers and coo at the cute dogs of smiling residents, who happily signed release forms as a camera circled. Their world is already on record, half a year before the show airs.

Freelance writer Chris Wiggins, who lives in Northern Virginia, has 4,600 followers on his Twitter feed RealWorldDCNewz, which relies on tips provided by those inside the production and within the local community. In the absence of actual drama and cast access, Wiggins became the story. As did the Anti-Real World DC bloggers. As did Beth Ploger, a 22-year-old Woodbridge resident who makes online videos of herself stalking the cast.

The watchers became a cast of their own, sharing tips, arguing over proper sourcing, defending their actions to critics (and each other). They dealt with the strain of a hobby that turned into something more: a weird duty to inform people about an entity that hasn't done anything remotely interesting. Some might call this quintessential Washington -- to try to influence something out of one's control, to grandstand in the name of public good, to assign meaning to something that's essentially meaningless.

"People seem to be more in need of having information here, and the fact this has picked up so greatly in the District says a lot about people wanting to be in the know about things," says Wiggins, 29. "They don't have to be interested, but people see the value in knowing what's going on."

It's more than busybodiness, though. Voyeurism and exhibitionism have merged.

During the first 10 years of "The Real World," "a nation of voyeurs found a hard-core group of exhibitionists to satisfy them, but now they're two sides of the same coin," says Mark Andrejevic, a professor of communication at the University of Iowa and author of several books on reality TV. "The target generation for reality TV is also the generation that's engaged in ongoing forms of public self-disclosure at an unprecedented level." It's "self-disclosure as a form of empowerment. It's self-disclosure as self-expression."

Summer Assignments

Shortly after 10 p.m. on a Thursday, RealWorldDCNewz issues the tweet that Beth Ploger has been waiting for.

RWDC once again at Nellies at 9th and U NW.

Ploger, a waitress who recently graduated from West Virginia University with a broadcast journalism degree, drives into the city from Virginia with three friends and a tiny video camera that looks like a cellphone. She's shooting another webisode for her tart, bubble-gummy, pop-culture blog, loveelizabethany.blogspot.com. She gets 1,500 hits a day, has a guest spot on "The Kane Show" on Hot 99.5 FM, also blogs for Metromix D.C. (a nightlife site that pays $25 for photos of the cast "doing something interesting") and has both fans and haters (online comments range from "beth you're amazing!!" to "Get a life/job").

She aspires to host her own radio or TV show, and this summer's goal is personal but couched in a public-service mission: To get to know the cast, to get into the house and to give people access to the show before it's ruthlessly edited into fiction.

"I think that if she wants to get into entertainment news, this is a good way to go about that," says one of Ploger's friends, who asks to remain nameless because she is embarrassed to be along for the stalking.

They find a cast member named Mike on Nellie's rooftop, camera hovering nearby. Ploger, in a royal blue dress cinched with a polka-dot belt, approaches. He says he's not supposed to talk to her. Ploger retreats. "My heart is broken," she says plainly.

Plan B arrives via Twitter. Real world dc is at third edition right now . . .

The group hops back in the car and heads to Georgetown, as Ploger holds the camera on herself, monologuing her woe while driving through a haze of brake lights.

"I'm determined now," says Ploger's friend Tonya Peter, 23, from the back seat. "We have to talk to them. We have to get into that house. We have to show them what real life is about in D.C."

At 12:30 a.m., they're inside Third Edition, where cast member Andrew is rubbing up against a young woman to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" in the orange glow of an MTV camera light. Ploger and friends get turned around in the sweaty crowd and lose track of him.

Plan C: Rhino Bar on M Street, where cast member Josh is mixing drinks around 1 a.m., just doing his job, with no cameras. The friends sidle up to the bar and chat. He gives Ploger a high-five. He bro-hugs her friend Lance Jackson, 24. Tonya Peter gets his e-mail address. The fourth friend (the embarrassed one) films the encounter by tucking the digital camcorder under her armpit. Four more castmates show up, say hello, see Ploger and cut their visit short. Jackson follows them out and returns with this news:

"The producers say they can't talk to her because she's a blogger," he confides, coming to a sobering conclusion. "So right now, my best shot to getting into the house is not to be associated with her at all."

The quartet finish their drinks and depart. On the way to pick up jumbo-slice pizza, Ploger worries.

"This is more about my adventure than spying, but I still have to get something," she says. "It's turned into something bigger, and I had to find a point, but people want me to be like TMZ, and I don't want to be like that." (Her family, she says, is "very worried" about the attention.)

At 2:30 a.m. they end up outside the mansion at 20th and S. Jackson and Peter venture to the streetside patio, where there are cameras. A cast member is sitting out there, crying. They watch for a bit, then retreat back across the street.

"I feel bad," Peter says. Jackson looks like he wants to leave. Ploger talks to her camera about what a crazy night it's been.

Reality Bites

Sometime in July, a sign is posted on the base of the lamppost on the northeast corner of the intersection. In simple black lettering on a plain white background, it reads, one word per line:

IN

THE

REAL

WORLD

ALL

AMERICANS

DESERVE

FULL

REPRESENTATION

IN

CONGRESS.

Slice of Life

A lone bagpiper walks north on Connecticut Avenue, the pipes droning, a small procession following him, just after midnight on a weekend -- stick around one place long enough and eventually you see everything -- as three young women chat up one of the security guards for half an hour, keeping an eye on the house. They are all 18 or 19 and from Maryland. The significance of "The Real World" is not lost on them. It spills out, breathlessly:

"It's been 23 years. . . . D.C. is a treasure. . . . They've been to New York, like, five times. . . . It's the capital. . . . It'll be a really good representation of the city. . . . I talked to the cast before and they're really down to earth."

It starts to rain, and the trio scampers off to the Metro.

The green dinged-up Toyota shows up around 1 a.m. Daniel Foster and his friend Noelle Owens have arrived with three large pizzas, as promised 24 hours earlier. A production staffer emerges from the alley beside the house. She says Josh is not expecting guests, but she accepts the garlic spinacini, pepperoni and cheese pies.

"We'll make sure he gets it," she says, walking back down the alley. Foster and Owens watch them go, their craving for access and interaction unsated. They stand under the awning on the northwest corner of the intersection, where Harry and J.R. usually sit, across the street from Anti-Real World DC headquarters. They watch the house. It's lit up and quiet and almost solemn.

"Right now it's not that big, but next year it will be," Foster says. "And to be able to say I was sitting on the couch inside, while so-and-so was making out with Julie, or whatever, and then she punched someone else and there was a fight, and whatever, I can say, 'I was there. I was right there. That was so last year.' "

The rain stops.

"The pizzas only cost $12 to make," Foster says. "Twelve dollars for the possibility of being on national television a year from now? Worth it."

"I'm thinking," says Owens, after a reflective moment, "maybe they stole our pizza."

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