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RFK Stadium: D.C.'s Unofficial Monument

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
RFK Stadium is now home to D.C. United, the city’s Major League Soccer team. In its 52-year history, the stadium has played host to football, baseball and soccer games, as well as some notable musical acts such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium isn’t a national monument, but it plays one in the hearts of many D.C. sports and history fans.

It’s not an accident. The multipurpose facility, initially dubbed D.C. Stadium before being renamed for the slain New York Democratic senator, lies at a strategic nexus of the Washington street grid, in line with the Capitol building, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, an extension of the National Mall stretching from the banks of the Potomac River at Lincoln’s end to the Anacostia River at Kennedy’s.

It has hosted Washington’s professional football, baseball and soccer franchises, presidents eager to throw out first pitches from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, as well as pop music’s most indelible acts: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Michael Jackson.

As Washington memorials go, it would be a youngster. It will be 52 years old in October. But unlike the official monuments in its sight line along East Capitol Street, it faces an uncertain future, and it’s unlikely to be the recipient of vast sums of public or private money to be repaired, refurbished or reinforced for the benefit of generations to come.

Days of Future Past

From a planning and design perspective, RFK is a token from another time with its concrete construction base and its placement in the middle of 10,000 grade-level parking spaces. When it was being built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this is what the future was supposed to look like.

The ground level bleacher section, which is metal and allows fans to make the section bounce up and down, gives the place a rowdy, rocking feel. The “bouncy seats” as Washingtonians lovingly call them, also work in concert with the concentrated loudness of the venue. Because of the way the roof hangs over the field, noise gets trapped inside and can make things very, very loud.

The official seating capacity is 45,423, but it goes higher. On June 2, 47,359 watched the U.S. men’s soccer team beat Germany 4-3. That match led to a Washington City Paper story by Garrett Quinn that praised RFK as a “national treasure” that “boasts one of the best atmospheres in American sports.” D.C. United has played here since 1996, and RFK frequently hosts international matches of the sort that led to Quinn’s gushing.

Not everyone, even at the City Paper, is so enamored. Mike Madden, in the publication’s 2013 Best of D.C. edition, wrote the entry for “Best Place for Stadium Envy,” proclaiming, “RFK has plenty of charm, but every now and then, a fan can dream of something nicer. In the case of United fans, ‘every now and then’ works out to ‘just about every match.’”

D.C. United is negotiating for a new soccer-specific stadium elsewhere in the city. That would certainly entail a smaller venue, probably around the area of RFK’s official 19,647 cap for Major League Soccer games, when the upper deck is sealed off. RFK could conceivably still host bigger soccer matches after United eventually departs.

The U.S.-Germany match this month, brimming as it was, didn’t come close to the largest RFK crowd. On Dec. 22, 1996, 65,454 watched the Washington Redskins beat their archrival Dallas Cowboys, 37-10, in the ’Skins last game at RFK.

Football hasn’t left entirely. On Dec. 20, 2008, the stadium hosted the inaugural EagleBank Bowl, the first college bowl game that Washington ever hosted, when Wake Forest University beat the Naval Academy, 29-19. That bowl, since rechristened the Military Bowl, was held at RFK through last year and has since relocated to Navy’s Annapolis, Md., stadium.

Football still has a toe-hold, though. In 2011, the inaugural AT&T Nation’s Football Classic debuted at RFK, with Howard University and Morehouse College restarting their rivalry in a game Howard won, 30-27. The game is held now every September.

The stadium can be a busy place, particularly in the spring and summer, with D.C. United playing, a series of foot races, such as last week’s Run or Dye 5K, a farmer’s market every Thursday and Saturday and May’s DC101 Chili Cook-Off.

“The campus is still active, and we’re working to keep it active,” said Teri Washington, the communications director for Events DC, the quasi-public organization that coordinates activities at RFK and other public venues in the city.

Planning and Zoning

There is little consensus on what the RFK grounds will look like in the years ahead, particularly the vast tracts around it owned by the federal government. While D.C. United is its prime tenant, others, such as the Metropolitan Police Department’s Special Operations Division (which relocated to the stadium in November), give the place a hodgepodge feel.

In the D.C. Office of Planning’s most recent Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2005 and 2006 and amended in 2011, the city said more needed to be done to make the area fit into the growing city.

“The community needs to be better connected to the Anacostia River, with its vast open spaces and waterfront amenities. As Reservation 13 is redeveloped and as the future of the RFK Stadium complex is debated, opportunities for new large parks serving Capitol Hill should be recognized,” the plan states.

It adds that all interested parties, “the National Capitol Planning Commission, the National Park Service, the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, residents, and neighborhood groups” should “actively participate” in developing long-range plans.

However, whether it is because of the sensitivity of the future United stadium plans, the stalling of Reservation 13 development or just that it’s on the back burner, there is very little vision for a path forward.

In the meantime, the memories pile up for what Washington Post sports writer Barry Svrluga once called “the beat-up concrete yard known as RFK Stadium.”

Negative experiences get exorcised, like the Washington Senators’ last RFK game on Sept. 30, 1971. The Senators, on their way to Texas to become the Rangers after the 1971 season, forfeited the game to the New York Yankees because the crowd rushed the field and tore up the grass. When the Montreal Expos needed a new home in 2005, though, RFK was ready. The new Washington Nationals made it their home until the opening of Nationals Park in 2008.

“Without RFK, who knows where we would be? We might still be in Montreal. We could be somewhere else,” relief pitcher Chad Cordero told Svrluga in 2007.

So while RFK is not an official monument, for Washingtonians, their teams and their memories, it’s as close as it gets.

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