Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[D.C. Untied 2.0] Prelude to the 2017 Season and Audi Field Groundbreaking

Just a quick note before I get started. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to doing another season of blog posts on D.C. United. For one thing, it is a lot of work and my job is very stressful at the moment and I don’t know how much free time I’ll have in the near future. Additionally, I had had concerns about some of the language in the season ticket holder agreement which--as it initially read--would have prohibited season ticket holders from posting images or writing about the games. Prohibiting this blog, essentially.

But I’ve been really surprised and touched by the response I’ve gotten to my blog posts in the offseason. Enough so that I’m willing to take on the task of doing a season 2 of D.C. Untied, which is also made possible thanks to the efforts of supporter group leadership who worked with the front office to help re-write the season ticket holder agreement to something more fan friendly. Not prohibiting this blog.

And now… the prelude to 2017.

Good-bye, RFK.

Hello, new stadium.

Good-bye to what, exactly?

What are we leaving behind?

What does the new stadium bring?

These were the questions in the back of my mind as I attended the groundbreaking for the new D.C. United stadium--to be named “Audi Field”--on Monday. What does it all mean?

Like many other D.C. United fans I’d been following the development of the new stadium at Buzzard Point with a mixture of dread and excitement. Dread at trading the elegant lines of the mid-20th century, George Dahl designed RFK stadium--a relic of the days when public buildings were meant to be admired--for a generic looking, minimalist box. No more Lot 8 and carefree barbeques along the Anacostia River before a game. No more loud side with its rowdy abandon and bouncing stands. No more pupusas and giant plastic cups of Tecate. Years of memories, of good times and bad times, of friends and family no longer with us… all these things have seeped into the concrete and orange plastic seats and peeling paint. They are RFK.

I also understand why the team needs to leave: the rent is just too damn high. And there has been an appalling lack of upkeep on the old building.

No, a new, modern building is required. And we’re lucky that the team will remain in the city of Washington, D.C. instead of being shunted off to a distant suburb like the Philadelphia Union (in Chester, PA) or the Chicago Fire (in Bridgeview, IL) or the New York (New Jersey) Red Bulls. But as I walked through the neighborhood of Southwest D.C. on my way to the stadium groundbreaking, I was made very aware that this new building isn’t just going to disrupt 20+ years of D.C. United fan culture but it will also have a very real impact on the people who live around the soon-to-be Audi Field.

The team had provided shuttle buses from the Nationals baseball stadium parking garages to the construction site but I always prefer to go on foot where I can. There had been no walking instructions, no address provided. I thought that was strange but I knew the general location and Buzzard Point being equidistant between Navy Yard and Waterfront metro stops, I had decided to walk from Waterfront Metro, assuming--correctly--that I wouldn’t be able to miss a giant construction site.

Turn off M St, with cranes looming ominously and onto First St, and you walk directly through James Creek, one of Southwest D.C.’s public housing projects. A group of young African-American men were gathered by the community center. They weren’t wearing soccer gear. Nobody was, as far as I could see. A couple of elderly African-American women passed me on the sidewalk and said hello. I said hello back.

The row houses on First St were a mix of well-kept, unkept, and abandoned. A tidy lawn next to a house with garbage in the yard and next to one with the windows busted out. An empty school building had a for sale sign in front. I spotted a brightly colored food truck--Swaad Palace! Kebabs!--parked in front of a liquor store. Some people were gathered, listening to music and hanging out. I caught a big whiff of marijuana as I passed by.

The construction site at Buzzard Point was literally only a block away but the people hanging out in the parking lot may as well have been on a different planet. What would the stadium bring them? Their neighborhood? I’m ashamed to admit that it hadn’t even occurred to me until I walked through James Creek.

The residents of Southwest D.C. have long suffered as the city’s dumping ground. Cut off from the rest of the city by I-395, the area has a history of racial segregation, economic injustice, and horrible environmental pollution. And now come the gentrifiers, admirably infusing a blighted neighborhood with cash and development--just not for the benefit of the people already living there. (Washington City Paper had a heartbreaking story about what happened when residents were forcibly moved from another Southwest housing project in the name of “development”. Spoiler alert: it’s not good.)

Turning the last corner I spotted the fence decorated with giant D.C. United banners and a pavilion just beyond in the distance. A shuttle bus passed me heading in the opposite direction, on its way back to the Navy Yard Metro stop. Now I understood why they hadn’t wanted us walking. Dust hung heavy in the air and I began coughing.

The groundbreaking wasn’t scheduled to begin until three but I’d arrived a bit early to participate in the “Eskandarian Ritual” organized by the one and only David Rusk, a delightful older gentleman who has been ginning up excitement for the new stadium with his Tales from Buzzard Point. (I have a chapter in the works!) We were going to re-enact Alecko Eskandarian’s infamous goal celebration in 2006 where he took a swig of Red Bull and spit it out as a way to consecrate the grounds.



Red Bull tastes disgusting. Be careful not to swallow any!

After the Eskandarian ritual was completed, I moved up closer to the pavilion, which is where the speeches were going to be taking place. I milled around, chatting with friends and acquaintances. The sky was grey but the unseasonable warmth continued. I took off my sweatshirt.

Bill Hamid was moving through the crowd, shaking hands and taking photos. The man has the patience of a saint. Jared Jeffrey walked directly past me, silent and unnoticed in the crowd, his headphones a shield against us. Talon was also roaming around, photobombing fans taking pictures. Men carrying massive video cameras were everywhere, filming the crowd, interviewing fans. This was a real event with real VIPs. Don Garber. The Mayor. I couldn’t shake the feelings of dislocation and unease.

(Photo courtesy of Travis who hated this picture because it looks like he's getting goosed but, counterpoint, that is why it's so funny.)

It wasn’t until one of my District Ultra buddies, Travis, showed me the business card he’d gotten from a man who owned a parking lot nearby that my mood began to turn. If we could rent it out for tailgating before the game… maybe there was a chance of taking something of Lot 8 culture with us to Buzzard Point. Maybe we could claw enough non-#branded space to have an authentic fan experience at Audi Field.

I have an extremely low tolerance for formal ceremonies and speeches and I found another District Ultra friend, Dallas, in the crowd and we joked around toward the back of the crowd while the politicians and businessmen talked.

Ben Olsen spoke and brought out the players that had joined in, inexplicably shouting out the chicken tenders (?!) rather than the pupusas at RFK as a reason for us fans to go out there another year.

Finally, Bill Hamid got up to say a few words about what having a new stadium means to him, as somebody who grew up watching the team and now plays for them. It was a beautiful speech and my heart certainly softened considerably at the idea of moving to Audi Field after hearing Bill shout out the Ultras, along with the Barra and the Screaming Eagles. (He cares!) I also deeply appreciated the heckler who shouted, “FIREWORKS” really loudly at Bill, as that is one of the things he mentioned that he was looking forward to in a new stadium many years ago. Bill is one of us and D.C. United would be very smart to use him as the public face of the new stadium; he has the ability to win over cynics like me.

After all the ribbon-cutting and shovel-posing was over, I joined up with some Screaming Eagles buddies and walked past Nationals Park toward the Gordon Biersch, where we had been promised a free drink courtesy of the team. Unlike the neighborhood I’d walked through earlier, the waterfront was empty. The only people in sight were D.C. United fans also on their way to the bar.

Gordon Biersch has big windows that look out towards the baseball stadium. The Screaming Eagles crew and I posted up by them and sat watching more fans trickle in. With less than a week to go before the season opener, the air of excitement in the bar was palpable. Upcoming road trips were discussed; the offseason moves of our rivals; tifo making; the MLS Fantasy rule changes. It was a nice way to end the afternoon. At one point we spotted a handful of the players making their way towards the bar but they were heading to an invite-only celebration at the upscale Blue Jacket. None of us had invites. We waved as they walked past the window. They waved back.

(The bourbon barrel stout was yummy! Thanks, D.C. United!!)

(The JJ jersey back in its place of honor until the first away game.)

It’s been a year since I devoted myself to this crazy project and I hope that with my writing (and unparalleled gift for enthusiasm) I’ve been able to contribute something to the fan community I so blithely pushed my way into. Going to D.C. United games is more than watching talented athletes. It’s a shared experience. Being outside in the rain and the wind, the fans and players together, all under the same sky. Singing. Heckling. Celebrating. Commiserating. It’s an unbelievably heady experience for somebody like me who is prone to spending too much time alone and online.

There’s also been the thrill of learning something new, and I’ve enjoyed devouring soccer theory and history as only a librarian can.

And I plan on keeping all of that up for the coming season but here’s what I keep coming back to: I went looking up articles on the effects of stadium building on local communities and spoiler alert: it’s not great. I can only assume the development that is expected to pop up around the stadium is meant for much wealthier people than currently live in that neighborhood (and, quite frankly, many of us who currently attend D.C. United games) and I’d be surprised if Swaad Palace and the liquor store see opening day at Audi Field. I hope they do. And I hope there is an effort made to keep ticket prices affordable. I don’t want to be a downer or get labeled as a troublemaker and cynic but I do think it’s important to recognize what is happening.

Things don’t have to suck. I don’t think 80sPiff is going to be invited to perform at any official halftime shows but that doesn’t mean we fans can’t reach out to the community we’ll be disrupting…

As a last aside, in my Internet research, I stumbled across this wonderful video about the Anacostia River:

Anaquash from Becky Harlan on Vimeo.

I’d definitely be open to doing some volunteer clean up with the Anacostia Watershed group!

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