A Sense of Place
By William Gildea
When the lights went out on those old urban places, with seats hard as rock and fire escapes clinging to outside walls like latticework, we lost the uplifting feeling they set off in us, that surge of well-being that a mere building can rarely generate. We knew we were in a special place, where the dramatic, the tearful, the funny and the unexpected had happened before and was sure to happen again. Those places meant something to us, which made us love them.
Is it possible to love the MCI Center? Consider the impediments. New arenas, because of sports' irreversible new economics, must cater aggressively to the corporation; if individual fans weren't treated as afterthoughts, their seats in the top rows of top decks at least would come equipped with spyglasses. Further: Does anything architectural risk producing malaise any more than the words big new Washington building? This is a city with more than its share of cold and unfeeling structures. Now consider what the center has going for it. When you step inside, you might feel your breath escaping. Not because amenities abound, from plush seats to scoreboards designed to leave few facts untold, but because of this: You immediately know, and you're grateful the planners knew, that the most important thing in the building is the principal entertainment. The game's the thing.
In olden days, owners found a big building and slapped down, say, a basketball court. The MCI Center starts with the court. It's built from its heart. Vantage points abound. Unlike US Airways Arena, the MCI Center's seats wrap around the center of the action. Rows rise gently upward instead of sweeping back and away toward nowhere. The truest test is the top row of the top level. It's high in the MCI Center; this is an almost 20,000-seat arena for basketball. But up there you still will be much closer to the games than you were before. Before, you felt almost back on the Beltway. On a home-size scale, we now have a light-filled luxury town house compared with a gloomy, cookie-cutter sprawling suburban rambler.
But is cool efficiency and convenient location all we can expect from the MCI Center? Sports fans have come to want more from new stadiums and arenas. They want a sense that even if things are shiny, the place looks like and feels like history could be made there, that it's a place to which the game's ghosts could be summoned. They prefer a building with individuality, an identity. Some question whether the spotty history of sports franchises in Washington augurs well for the new arena. But it can be argued that the evidence should make us optimistic. Two Senators baseball teams were stolen from the city by owners seeking fast money, owners who were unwilling to invest to build solid franchises here. Senators fans stayed away from Griffith Stadium and what is now RFK not because of the stadiums' locations or inadequacies. The green, high-walled Griffith almost could have fit John Updike's description of Boston's Fenway as "a lyric little bandbox of a ball park," and RFK was the trendsetter of its time, the first of the multipurpose stadiums. Instead, fans shunned the Senators because of the penny-pinching owners' lousy product.
The Redskins thrived at both stadiums because, even when the teams weren't winning, they had numerous stars: Sammy Baugh, Bobby Mitchell, Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor. Redskins fans did not clamor to abandon what became a homey RFK, where they literally could make the stands shake; they were driven reluctantly to the suburbs because Jack Kent Cooke needed luxury seating that would generate revenue to offset players' otherworldly incomes. Still, Cooke's move to the very area the Wizards and Capitals are abandoning reinforces the question: Which direction points to the future?
The record elsewhere suggests the answer is in, to the city. Baltimore is about to have a new football stadium next to downtown Oriole Park. Boston built its new arena downtown. So did Chicago, Montreal and Cleveland. When New York talks of a new Yankee Stadium, the preferred sites are the Bronx and Manhattan, not the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Both the Wizards and the Capitals should energize downtown because they're competitive teams. Both belong to leagues that market smartly -- the Wizards promise to be a hot ticket if they're winners. True, neither franchise boasts an extraordinary history. The Wizards, when they were the Bullets, won the NBA title in 1978. The Capitals' past can be summed up in two words: Rod Langway. But Abe Pollin, owner of the teams and the arena, recently has spent big money to retain top players on both teams, a sign of commitment as he heads downtown.
And, of course, he has spent more than a few idle dollars on his new downtown building as well. Will his building gain meaning, though? Will it become distinct? Tuesday's first game, and that game's first crowd, will tell more. But in advance of that, to step inside the place is to at least imagine the possibilities that this can be so.
For one thing: You can see out of it. It has windows; glass has been used liberally throughout the arena. Sunlight beams in on the concourses. From there you can look out on Washington. On the south side is a glorious view of the Capitol dome. Glance down G Street and see in the distance the flag atop the White House. Huge windows and a balcony face the National Museum of American Art across Seventh Street. You know exactly where you are. The new arena is distinctly Washington. It would be a shame if sports memories in abundance weren't made there by two franchises that, to this point, have generated so few. Whether or not that happens, the MCI Center at least starts out with a sense of identity.
William Gildea is a Post Sports reporter.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company