Ward 8 resident Jackie Taylor lives just down the street from the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Congress Heights. The 65-year-old inherited her home in 2011 from her late mother, who had lived there since 1976, and is well aware of the negative reputation in her part of the District.She knows that people in the city intentionally avoid Southeast.
City officials are hoping to change that reality with the opening of the Entertainment and Sports Arena, located a short walk away from the Congress Heights Metro station.
On Saturday afternoon, Mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated the ribbon cutting of the nearly $70 million arena, and praised what she and other local politicians in attendance hope will revitalize an area in D.C. that has been besieged with violent crime.
The 4,200-seat arena will be the home to the Washington Mystics and the Wizards’ G-League team, the Capital City Go-Go, as well as a host to concerts and other athletic competition, including esports.
The arena is the second sports complex to open in the city this summer, with D.C. United’s $500 million Audi Field making its debut in July in Southwest D.C., located halfway between the Wharf and Navy Yard.
“Keep moving everybody,” Bowser said at the end of the her public remarks Saturday. “The best is yet to come.”
During the grand opening, Taylor walks around the inside of the arena, sampling food from local businesses and admiring the brand new space. She is wearing a Chamique Holdsclaw Mystics jersey and has a smile on her face that belies some of the trepidation she has for the project.
Taylor is excited about the arena and her proximity to the Mystics, but hopes the city continues to invest in her part of D.C. like officials have promised. She isn’t 100 percent convinced that will be the case.
“I mean, it’s very exciting,” she says. “I hope it brings a lot of promises and business to our community. I also hope it doesn’t kick us out of our homes, with property taxes going up.
“I’m not sure right now,” Taylor continues. “I’m not picking a side. I’m just going to sit back and see. I hope they take care of the people in the community.”
Local sports owner Ted Leonsis likens the opening of the new arena to how Capital One Arena (then MCI Center) has changed the Chinatown neighborhood in Northwest, D.C. since being built in 1997.
Back when he was a college student at Georgetown University in the late 1970s, Leonsis says people he met in the city advised him to avoid both areas.
“It was, you know, ‘Enjoy Georgetown, enjoy the neighborhood, go into the city, see the monuments, but whatever you do, don’t go near 10th Street,’” Leonsis tells City Paper. “And now Capital One Arena has made that community the entertainment district and it was you never want to go on the other side of the Anacostia, around Martin Luther King Boulevard, it’s not safe. And now it will be another entertainment community and district… It’s very exciting.”
During the public remarks prior to the ribbon cutting, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White recounted to the captive audience of D.C. residents about how he grew up in Congress Heights.
He spoke about how his late grandmother used to take his family to the nearby Rehoboth Baptist Church and how she served in the cafeteria at Congress Heights Elementary School.
“For too long, people did not want to invest in our community,” White said. “If you walk along MLK [Avenue], and Malcolm X [Boulevard], you see an entirely different community, those who are not engaged, disconnected, that need an opportunity. As we build these big buildings in our communities, we must also remember to build on our people. I know Muriel always make fun of me for saying that, but we must always remember to build on the people that were here, the indigenous people of Washington, D.C.”
Jack Evans, Councilmember for Ward 2, used his time as a victory lap and denounced those on the D.C. Council who voted against building the arena.
“There are people on the city council who didn’t vote for this, and people on the city council who still give us a hard time for paying for this thing,” he said, as a few in the audience shouted for him to name the council members.
Evans laughed, and continued: “I’m just saying, it just takes political courage to make hard decisions.”
The longtime councilmember also made a sly comment to the city’s recent efforts to bring back its local NFL team to the city. “In 1996, the city hit a bottom. We became the only major city to not have one professional sports franchise in our border. There was not a one. I made a commitment we were going to get every one… Abe Pollin brought back what was the Bullets at the time, the Caps, the Mystics started, D.C. United, and we brought a baseball team from Montreal. We’re working on that last team, somewhere out there. [We’re] working on that team.”
Less than half-hour later inside the arena, Mystics players Natasha Cloud and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt answer questions from reporters and mingle with local residents.
Ruffin-Pratt, 27, grew up nearby and says she’s heard “a lot of negative stuff” about Ward 8. She hopes that her team’s new home will help change that.
“I think it’s big. I think it’ll bring a lot more exposure and a lot more positivity to this area,” she says. “I know all about Ward 8 and Southeast D.C. People say it’s a place you don’t want to go. So being able to bring this arena here and promote a lot of positivity and professionalism, with a professional basketball team, it’s going to be big for the city.”
Taylor, despite her reservations, is optimistic about what this new arena could do for her neighborhood. On Oct. 6, Grammy award winning singer and songwriter Mary J. Blige will be headlining a concert at the arena. Taylor’s birthday is the day before. “I’m going to celebrate with her,” she laughs. Taylor also plans to attend Capital City Go-Go games, and, of course, to see the Mystics in their new home.
“I’ll just walk here. I don’t even have to move my car,” she says. “I might even come here to look for a job.”