Activists and business owners are protesting the construction of a baseball stadium in the heart of the city’s gay entertainment district, arguing it would damage an important part of their community.
The project would affect existing gay strip bars, dance clubs, adult theaters and bookstores along O and Half streets in Southeast D.C.
“I think we obviously have a challenge here,” said Jim Graham, one of two openly gay members on the D.C. City Council. “We’re going to have to work hard to see how we go about relocating this businesses. They’re contributing to the city, and of course these owners are very much surprised that they’re going to be uprooted.”
The O Street entertainment strip rests where the first base line of the proposed ballpark would be. If the park is built, demolition of current businesses will begin early next year. The park would host the former Montreal Expos, which will play in RFK Stadium on a temporary basis beginning in the spring, and is scheduled to be open for the 2008 baseball season.
Geoffrey Brownell, vice chair of GW Pride, said the area is a popular destination for gay students. Frank Kameny, who founded the D.C. gay rights movement more than 40 years ago, agreed.
“This has become very much established – that you go down on any evening, and that block will be packed with people,” Kameny said. “It is very much a center of gay activity.”
The project would require the demolition of 60 businesses.
“The patrons are responding pretty well; they’re worried about whether (liquor and stripper) licenses are going to be issued for another spot,” said Lenny Davis, owner of Glorious Health and Amusement.
“I’m just concerned because there are only a couple of places in the District where gays go, and this is one of them,” Davis added.
But the business owners and patrons also said the choice to build the stadium in Southeast – near the intersections of several highways – was logical.
“I don’t think that it was a homophobic thing,” Davis said. “I think this is an area that is ready for redevelopment.”
Kameny said the area has historical significance because the businesses were the first of their kind. “In the ’60s and ’70s, public gay dancing was a novel thing,” Kameny said.
The gay entertainment district was allowed to exist in an isolated setting, he said, adding, “It was a sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing.”
“The question becomes, if the city exiled us down there, and if now, they’re going to ‘de-exile us,’ where are we going to go?” Kameny continued. City zoning laws restrict nude dancing and liquor in other parts of D.C.
The proposed redevelopment will not happen, however, unless the city passes a stadium financing plan, which has come under fire from advocates who say the city should be spending more money on schools and other programs. Mayor Anthony Williams needs a majority vote in the City Council to pass the plan and has already secured the support of five or six members of the 13-person legislative body.
If the stadium is built in the current planned location, community leaders said they will seek financial compensation and aid for the relocation process.
“We’re all worried and we’ll probably have pickets and petitions,” Davis said. “What is going to be done, in a constructive way, to relocate these gay businesses in some sort of a practical fashion?”
Davis said he would prefer to stay in Southeast but would not oppose plans to relocate elsewhere.
“We’re pushing to not have it, but of course, if it happens, it happens,” Davis said. “We’re going on as if this is not going to happen.”
Chris Bender, a spokesman for Mayor Williams, said the city is trying to work with owners of the affected businesses.
“We respect the fact that they’re there now,” Bender said. “The last thing we want to do is have to acquire it or take it over.” He said he hoped to find a “middle ground.”
But that “middle ground” could involve demolishing businesses.
“We will talk with them about their needs and the needs of their clientele,” Bender said. “We will help to see if there is another place for them to set up office in the community.”