Nationals Park construction displaces local civic activist and gay nightclub entrepreneur's dream
Gay Disneyland. That was the dream. Heck, that was the plan. Let the city till downtown Washington's cracked sidewalks, gentrifying urban blight, beating crackhouses into convention centers. Robert Siegel would build his future here, in the industrial badlands of Southeast, just another forgotten neighborhood near the dank and dirty Anacostia River.
He began with an apartment, the one he still lives in, overlooking the corner of O and South Capitol streets. Next came an adult video arcade, followed by a bar. Business was good. Very good. Desolate by day, the block bounced after dark - six gay nightspots, all within walking distance of one another.
Over time, Siegel acquired property and became a landlord. As his fiefdom grew, so did his involvement. He served on an advisory neighborhood commission. Turned an empty lot into a garden. A former Navy nurse, he hoped to construct a gay community center, tucked among the auto shops and asphalt plants, the bathhouses and dance clubs.
The Mayor of O Street. That's how Siegel saw himself.
Even now, Siegel still has a vision. But so does the city. And when one man's private rainbow ends in an entire region's longing for major league baseball - well, something has to give.
"I worked hard to get this block going," says Siegel, 54. "I wanted to be like Roy Disney, and have it keep on going, even after I was dead. Honest to goodness, I never thought [baseball] would wipe everything out."
Guess again. With baseball returning to Washington, the former Montreal Expos need a permanent home. District officials intend to build a $435.2million stadium on 20 acres near M and South Capitol streets, where Siegel owns or co-owns 13 properties, including his adult shop, Glorious Health and Amusements.
"A ballpark will act as an engine," says Chris Bender, a spokesman for the city's deputy mayor of economic planning and development. "Look at the new ballpark in San Diego. That has revitalized the community. You're putting an engine in a place that needs one."
Siegel sits in his office, shoulders slumped, a kibble dish near his feet. Men enter and exit the building, glancing sideways at a wall of graphic videos. A loudspeaker crackles to ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
His voice rises, agitated and shaken. Siegel pays his taxes. Looks out for his area. Does he peddle porn? Sure, but so does Hugh Hefner. And nobody ever suggested tearing down the Playboy Mansion to put up a hockey rink.
"I'm hoping to work things out with the city," he says. "I hope they have time to talk with me and my tenants."
Siegel pauses. Soon he expects a notice: vacate or else. He stands to lose his home, his livelihood. Two decades of work. Poof! He feels alone, like he's going to prison. Siegel says he can relate to ... Martha Stewart.
"I'm being forced into limbo until I can figure out how to get my life back together," Siegel says. "Where do I go? Where do I start again? I'd be a new person in a new community. I don't want to start someplace else."
He rises to the rumble. Every morning, the traffic rolls past Siegel's bedroom window up and down South Capitol street. Not much to see, really. Sunbaked road. A nearby hotel. Cars lining up at a DMV inspection site.
Still, the view is his. All his. Siegel has lived here since 1979, when he purchased a gutted apartment atop a mom'n' pop lunch counter. Recently, he's taken to remodeling. He stands in a wood-paneled garden room, natural light bathing potted plants. The same space once housed a hot tub.
"I even had plastic tubes under the floor, so it was hot, too," Siegel says, laughing. "But I'm telling you - get more than the necessary number of people in the tub, and water overflows. That did not help the bar below."
A corner shelf holds paint cans and rags. Each room takes about a month to redo. But Home Depot can wait. Siegel won't put his eggs into a soon-to-be-condemned basket. He's been through this before.
Born in Buffalo, Siegel came to Bethesda's National Naval Medical Center in 1971, a gay officer in the pre-don't ask, don't tell military. He took his duties seriously, says he never "played around." Homophobia wore on him, though, and he left the service to work as a shock trauma coordinator at D.C. General Hospital.
Long nights, eclectic patients. Chaos was the norm. Siegel loved it. He bought a building on Ninth Street NW, moved in and opened a restaurant. At best, he would net overflow business from the Eagle, a busy gay bar next door; at worse, he'd have a place to unwind following 16-hour shifts.
Disaster ensued. Patrons never materialized. The place bled money, $100,000 in start-up costs alone. Salvation came in the form of a drunk customer who slurringly promised to make Siegel millions.
"He talked me into having nude dancers," Siegel recalls. "So I had dancers on the bar, and bartenders hitting their bottoms. Quite a thing. My bar immediately became a success."
Not for long. The city wanted a convention center. Siegel's building stood near the front door of the new facility, which opened in 1983. He received $89,000 for his property, zilch for his sweat investment. Siegel loaded his possessions in two storage trailers. One disappeared.
Liquor license in hand, he settled in Southeast. A sky-high garbage mound topped a nearby lot, rotting in the shadows of the Capitol dome. For Siegel, this was Disney's Pasadena: the block was home to Ziegfeld's, a gay nightclub, and Club Washington, a bathhouse.
He opened his video arcade. Started two pizza delivery joints. Turned the lunch counter below his apartment into a club, La Cage Aux Follies. Most nights Siegel slept four hours or less; tired of dealing with pushy patients and drugged-out dancers, he quit D.C. General in 1984, then sold his share in La Cage.
His dream still intact, Siegel began purchasing land - one lot in 1994, almost a dozen the next year. Today he owns or co-owns nearly 48,000 square feet in the area.
Among his tenants is Atlas Manufacturing, a commercial building company.
"Commercial, industrial space is getting more limited in D.C.," says Atlas owner Calvin Reid, 44. "This is one of the few areas left. Baseball is a shock. My type of business, I don't know where I'll go."
City officials claim a new stadium will create 3,500 jobs and up to $16million in yearly tax revenue. Siegel sympathizes. He's pro-growth, pro-progress. He recently put up a $3.5million building on South Capitol. Development is his life. And that only adds to his confusion.
"My God, this community does need jobs," Siegel says. "You can't take money out of people's mouths. But have our businesses caused problems for the city? No. We're good tenants. We pay our taxes."
That trash-strewn lot? It now houses Senate Asphalt, the company that resurfaced Pennsylvania Avenue for the 2001 Inauguration.
"I'm sorry that this block is not moving along as fast as the mayor would want it to," Siegel says. "But it's getting better. I've seen it."
A delivery truck idles outside Club Washington, the bathhouse next to Glorious Amusements. Siegel stands in the midday sun, chatting with George Phillips.
"I don't know where gay people are going to go," Siegel says.
Phillips nods. The manager of the bathhouse, he's leery of baseball, unsure of the future. He gives Siegel a quizzical look.
"You yourself are going to tie them up in court?"
"I have to tie them up."
Siegel hopes to avoid a lawsuit. He knows Mayor Anthony Williams doesn't want to give the District a national black eye. That said, five of the area's six gay establishments are Siegel's tenants. By his own estimate, baseball may cost him $800,000 in annual income.
Siegel is keeping tabs on a current Supreme Court case pitting a Connecticut homeowner against a city attempting to seize her land for upscale condo development. He wonders: Why can't the city add luxury boxes to RFK Stadium? Why are public funds going to a new ballpark whose primary function will be lining the pockets of private team owners?
"I don't think land should be taken from businesses and given to other for-profit businesses," Siegel says. "That's un-American."
Should he stand in baseball's path, he expects to hear an earful. Seedy. Sketchy. Cracker Jack held hostage by Jack and Jack. Siegel understands, yet makes no apologies for the nature of his business. And he takes pride in his oft-ignored neighborhood.
Working through the advisory neighborhood commission, Siegel has lobbied the city to repair dozens of broken streetlights, improve trash and litter pickup and install health and AIDS information kiosks on his properties. He wants to build a gay community center on one of his vacant lots, the first of its kind in Washington. He's willing to spend $2million of his own money.
Reid says Siegel helped his four-man welding shop land three recent contracts, including a downtown job at Gallery Place.
"Bob always comes by and lets me know about work opportunities," Reid says. "He's a real community activist. He has genuine interest in the neighborhood."
Though the proposed ballpark has drawn diverse opposition - including former Mayor Marion Barry, the League of Women Voters and the New Black Panther Party - time is short. The District's agreement with Major League Baseball requires stadium financing to be in place by Dec.31, with the needed land purchased and rezoned by the end of 2005.
As such, city planners have earmarked $65million to buy property at the proposed site, well above its total assessed value. Bender says the District wants to work with landowners like Siegel, not antagonize them.
"Eminent domain is a last resort," Bender says. "We hope to sit down with individual owners, talk to them. What are their needs? We never want to lose a business. If there's a way for us to help them move into another part of the city, that's the ultimate goal."
Easier said than done. If forced to vacate, Siegel would like his tenants to be able to move as a group. Problem is, nightclub-sized tracts of land are hard to come by. And other areas may consider gay Disneyland as something other than the happiest place on Earth.
"These businesses are entitled to all the accommodations of every business in the area," says D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. "But where can they afford to go, and like any strip club, where can they go where they're going to be welcome? It could be one of the Achilles' heels of the stadium proposal. It's going to put us in a very difficult situation."
The sign sticks out like a foul pole, a neon yellow car against the South Capitol Street skyline. Siegel paces on his second-floor terrace, pointing up: An auto company pays him $2,500 a month to slap the story-high billboard against the side of his building, looming large over southbound traffic.
"When I first rented my restaurant in 1984, I leased it out for $2,500 a month," he says, wistful. "I just love getting that money. Now it's going to be gone."
No matter what happens with baseball, Siegel won't go broke. He recently bought a $1.9million weekend home in Fort Washington; truth be told, he could have retired years ago. He works because he wants to, because he still has a dream. And a plan.
"At our age, you still have a lot of good years in you," says Steven Hessler, 54, a real estate lawyer who has worked with Siegel for a decade. "Bob was at the point where he figured the block was turning the corner. Some people are looking at the ballpark as an answer to their prayers, a drinking fountain in the desert. But this is the flip side."
Hessler stops, searching for the right words.
"Bob stands to lose his life's work," he says. "The poor guy will be devastated."
Siegel calls to his dogs, a trio of Shar-Peis. The pets scamper forth. He bends down to leash them, baby-talking all the while. For now, he remains the Mayor of O Street, a self-made man in a self-made world. Time to walk the block, chat with constituents, pursue happiness.
Siegel moves to an elevator. Two dogs follow. The other hesitates, confused, running in small circles. He looks lost.
"This dog is so dumb," Siegel says, shaking his head. "He doesn't know where he lives."
Originally published in The Washington Times