Outside one Logan Circle rowhouse on Q Street NW, a cast of fully accessorized Barbies greets sidewalk passersby all year. The Barbies are arranged around a small fountain, and there’s always a theme—they rode unicorns for Pride Month in June and donned bedazzled bodysuits and feathered headdresses in a Moulin Rouge-themed Valentine’s Day display.
The people behind the Barbie Pond on Avenue Q exhibits share the dolls’ endeavors with more than 19,000 Instagram followers every few weeks, usually offering humorous political commentary and quirky holiday displays. In the case of the novel coronavirus pandemic, “Barbie” has even encouraged others to support the community, sharing a link to donate to local charity Martha’s Table.
But the orchestrators are silent elsewhere. Spectators rarely encounter the pond’s creator; his name and face are kept offline and out of media outlets. Passersby are relegated to leaving Barbie dolls and notes outside the home.
“They’re just sort of these silent artists,” says Jonathan Latino, one of the Barbie Pond’s former neighbors. “They’re kind of like the Logan Circle version of Banksy in a way.” Sometimes, the pond’s admirers actually meet the creator himself: One day last fall, Brent, who asked to be identified by his first name because he works as a lawyer for a federal government agency, stepped out of the Logan Circle rowhouse to head to the gym, but after meeting a little girl and her parents peering at the pond, hurried back inside to grab a Barbie wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and ears. He gave it to the girl—the doll is one of a couple hundred he owns.
“Those kids that like it will grow up to remember this and the neighborhood, and how it maybe was somewhat magical to them, I hope,” Brent says.
He doesn’t talk much to media outlets—Washingtonian, WUSA9, and the Washington Post have all written about the pond without including his name or quotes from him. The lawyer, who is in his mid-50s, has “always been media shy,” mostly because his line of work tends to make him cautious about speaking to the press, he says. He also still finds the pond a “little silly,” he admits.
“There’s no way that [I] can not look like an idiot if ABC TV is talking to me about dolls,” he says.
The pond’s Instagram page quips that it has been “lowering Logan Circle property values since 2014,” but Brent says he first put dolls out a few years earlier than that, after a friend taped them to his birthday gift as a joke. People started taking photos, and so the dolls stayed outside.
These days, the pond’s decorations are sourced from craft stores. Brent turns to Etsy for more elaborate elements, like the iron throne from Game of Thrones. Admirers often leave dolls on his doorstep, but he also searches eBay when displays require a particular Barbie, like the Apollo 11 anniversary display’s astronaut Barbie.
In the years since Brent first put together a display, the pond has become a well-known, charming oddity. It’s gained admiration on Instagram, and even has its own TripAdvisor and Yelp profiles.
“The Barbies are always having a party, either half-naked or elaborately clothed … Life in plastic: It’s fantastic for the Barbie Pond, as the campy neighborhood attraction is called,” the Washington Post wrote in 2018 when it included the pond on a list of 15 unusual D.C. attractions. WUSA9 dubbed the pond “quirky, irreverent, and maybe profound,” adding that the displays can be enjoyed either for amusement or, more recently, for their political messages.
Before the 2016 election, for example, the Barbie Pond displayed an all-female host of dolls holding “Vote” signs surrounding a podium that read “First All Female Ticket!” A Barbie wearing all white holding an American flag replaced that display days after Trump’s election.
“It is just one more way of being visible … I guess that’s how I would hope to create conversation,” Brent says. “And I don’t want to minimize it, but I also don’t put too much thought into this.” Despite the pond’s popularity, he is modest about the attraction: “I don’t think it’s the most amazing thing out there.”
The pond became a “cathartic” way of providing commentary on the post-2016 election political climate, says Craig, a speechwriter who helps Brent set up displays and also requested to be identified by his first name. “There’s such an avalanche of just depressing news coming to people every day,” he says, explaining that the pond’s popularity may stem from people seeking distractions from what’s happening on Capitol Hill. “I think it’s kind of a nice way to commiserate together about just the state of things.”
In the past few months, Brent has used the Barbie Pond to comment on major news events. One display paid tribute to health care and other essential workers with Barbie dolls in a boxing ring punching the COVID-19 virus. A display posted online on July 4 called for solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; a fan of the pond placed signs that read Black Lives Matter into the dolls’ hands. Recently, the Barbie Pond featured Joe Biden and Kamala Harris dolls standing in front of a Biden-Harris election sign. The caption on Instagram read “As Barbie always says: ‘Vote! Vote early! But don’t vote twice.’”
Holly Garner, who founded @igdc, an Instagram community that has featured the pond, hasn’t met the people behind the displays, but says it’s clear the displays aim to make viewers smile, even when addressing heavy subject matter.
“I think it’s their way of reminding people that these things matter and we can have those conversations with a little bit [of fun], and that we shouldn’t be scared to have those conversations or to think about those ideas,” Garner says.
The Barbie Pond’s presence alone fosters a sense of community, says Daryl Judy, who lives across the street from it. He says there’s almost never a time when he’s out in his yard or taking a walk that he doesn’t see someone stopping to look at the pond.
“It’s one thing that makes the city more special,” Judy says. “I think people have this idea that Washington, D.C., is all about the White House or Congress. And what they forget is this is actually a community.”
And, as the COVID-19 crisis has shut down much of the District, Brent says the pond has seen more visitors than usual, particularly from families with younger children. He has insisted on multiple occasions that the Barbie Pond is silly, but concedes that maybe that silliness is exactly what makes the pond valuable to its followers.
“I enjoy it,” he says. “I think people smile at it, so I should be proud about it.”