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Ping Pong Politics On Connecticut Avenue

The grainy video, shot at night from across Connecticut Avenue, reveals the menace -- caught on tape, posted on YouTube for all to see. The danger, the violation of public space, the unchecked liability, all now undeniable.

Yes, it is true: For more than a year, James Alefantis, owner of the Comet Ping Pong pizza place at Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW, kept a Ping-Pong table on the sidewalk in front of his eatery. And people played Ping-Pong on that table. In public. With their children. Laughing and smiling as if everything were just fine. And they did this without a permit.

But have no fear. We live in a nation of laws. When bad things happen, we correct the ills, and everything returns to its proper place.

And so today the Ping-Pong table is no more, and the sidewalks are once again empty, the street once more safe for speeding vehicles.

Washingtonians can rest easy because Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Frank Winstead is on patrol, protecting the people from evils such as random table tennis games in public space or UPS trucks left unattended or -- my personal favorite from the Winstead Collection on YouTube -- his video of a Budweiser delivery truck double-parked on Wisconsin Avenue, complete with conclusive proof that the delivery guy was, and I quote from the commissioner's own caption, "eating chips."

(I mean no disrespect toward those who might be partial to Winstead's "The Idler," a 94-second minimalist masterpiece that features a service truck idling on Yuma Street and climaxes with close-ups of the offending truck driver. You'll laugh, you'll cry.)

I digress. The Ping-Pong table, Alefantis tells me, was meant originally as both advertisement and entertainment. When Comet opened, business was slow. Since the place had three tables in its big back room, the owner decided to haul one out onto the sidewalk, where employees and customers alike could play.

"It was a beautiful, European-style gathering place, a charming little piece of street culture," Alefantis says. "People loved it."

For the first time in local memory, a block on which most pedestrian life takes place in the rear parking lot rather than the front sidewalk was full of people enjoying themselves of an evening. "That table is one of the few examples in D.C. where something unique brought character and life to the street," nearby resident Adam Rubinson says.

But then Winstead, whose devotion to public service includes the online posting of photos of illegally parked scooters and unsecured construction sites, made his video, suggesting that the Ping-Pong table might be a traffic hazard and distraction. Winstead, who did not respond to repeated phone calls, often raises alarms about small-scale neighborhood infractions, according to his colleagues on the commission.

"I don't know what drives Frank to do these things," says fellow commissioner Susan Banta. Sticklers for the rules "do have a function in our society. We're awfully glad to have them sometimes when things go awry. But I never heard anyone complain about the Ping-Pong table, and it does bring some life to a stretch of the avenue that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic."

Others in upper Northwest are less charitable. The local online bulletin boards are abuzz. "My boys have been playing on it for the last year or more," wrote Rick Dulaney, "with no hazards other than the smiles of passersby. . . . Good thing we have commissioner Winstead to save us from all these perils!"

But commissioner Karen Perry says that "when the first child got hurt chasing a Ping-Pong ball onto Connecticut Avenue, people would feel differently. Comet was flagrantly violating the public space law."

Alefantis says the city told him he didn't require a permit because the table was essentially an advertisement for his business.

Perry says Winstead was right to want all businesses to obtain permits to use public space: "If James can have a Ping-Pong table out front, then why shouldn't Gold's Gym have exercise equipment out on the sidewalk and call it an advertisement?"

Alefantis is now seeking permission to add outdoor seating. He needs the ANC's support, so after Winstead and another commissioner told him he should be punished for having the table outside, Alefantis reluctantly agreed to move the Ping-Pong indoors.

The good news in all this is that the volley over the table has united the neighborhood's usually warring factions, as smart-growth types and anti-development activists have rallied around the little table that added a smidge of fun to a tightly wound place.

In the end, however, Winstead and his videos have prevailed. "It is interesting to see how a couple of people can take something everyone loves and make it go away," Alefantis says. "I'm a small, family-oriented business who's really struggling in a difficult location, and it's just frustrating to have this kind of conversation when I'm trying to create a welcoming place."

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  May 8, 2008; 7:28 AM ET
Previous: Pants Update: Pants Man Sues City | Next: Video Unlikely To Go Viral: The Tim Kaine Channel

Comments

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"UPS trucks left unattended or ... his video of a Budweiser delivery truck double-parked on Wisconsin Avenue"

Marc, before you put that particular bit in the paper you might have wanted to have talked to Dr. Gridlock about it. I assure you that many, many people will be thankful that /somebody/ in some sort of position of authority is actually /doing something/ about the rather serious problem of double parked vehicles on major routes in the City.

Nice to know that someone (not you, but someone) cares about making the City navigable.

Posted by: wiredog | May 8, 2008 8:34 AM

Double parked delivery vehicles are a nuisance, but necessary part of city life. Deliveries need to be made, and since street parking is already limited, setting aside more of it for "loading zones" just takes away more spaces and drives people to the absurdly expensive parking garages.

Obviously, there needs to be limits - drivers who double park should only do it between 10ish and 3ish and stay double parked only while making deliveries (not eating chips afterwards). But I'd rather have to deal with an extra 30 seconds of traffic to navigate around a double parked truck so I can have more street parking than pay $15 to park for an hour.

And before you say it, no, Metro is not always an option. Sometimes it's just easier and faster to drive in the city, as long as you can be guaranteed a relatively close place to park on the street.

Posted by: Matt C | May 8, 2008 10:25 AM

Double parking gripes aside, I'm frustrated that Comet has to remove their table - it's the one sign of street life in the neighborhood and a great draw into the restaurant. Hopefully, their sidewalk permit will pass muster with the commissioners, who I'm sure will be by to ensure that the napkins are folded properly on the tables, and that crumbs are swept up immediately after small children drop them on the floor.

Posted by: JNinVanNess | May 8, 2008 10:46 AM

I bet Winstead was the kid in school who always reminded the teacher to give homework(and got pantsed a lot in the process).

Posted by: Rushfan1 | May 8, 2008 12:33 PM

Also, Karen Perry's quote reminds me of the hysterical* Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons:

"The children! The children! Won't somebody pleeeease think of the children?!"

Posted by: Matt C | May 8, 2008 12:46 PM

I hate to come to the defense of the rule whackos in our world, but I -do- wonder if that sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate the ping-pong table and still allow people to walk by. That is, after all, the sidewalk's #1 purpose, and as whimsical as it is to have people playing ping-pong on the side of the road I'd just as soon not have to step in the street to go by.

Posted by: Don | May 8, 2008 5:38 PM

What is the need for these silly neighborhood commissioners? Sounds like a job for busybodies. Thats what your council person is for. Thank god I live in Virginia.

Posted by: jerry | May 8, 2008 6:56 PM

Well, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do now wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a Ping Pong table in your community.

Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in D.C.
Why sure I'm a Ping Pong player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I'm always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a paddle in my hand are golden.

But all week long your D.C.
Youth'll be frittern away,
I say your young men'll be frittern!
Frittern away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Get the ball on the other side,
Never mind gittin' dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin' any water
'Til your parents are caught with the Cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that's trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a' trouble.
I'm thinkin' of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin' in the Pizza
Place window after school, look, folks!
Right here in D.C.
Trouble with a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Ping Pong!

Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I'm gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they're loafin' around that Pizza Place?
They're tryin' out Bevo, tryin' out cubebs,
Tryin' out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Feends!
And braggin' all about
How they're gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
One fine night, they leave the Pizza Place,
Headin' for the dance at the Arm'ry!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Rap, shameless music
That'll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instink!
Mass-staria!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil's playground!

Mothers of D.C.
Heed the warning before it's too late!
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption!
The moment your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt.
Billy's Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like 'swell?"
And 'so's your old man?"
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in D.C.
With a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Ping Pong.

We've surely got trouble!
Right here in D.C.
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
Oh, we've got trouble.
We're in terrible, terrible trouble.
That game is a devil's tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a "T"! Gotta rhyme it with "P"!
And that stands for Ping Pong!!!

Posted by: Prof. Harold Hill | May 8, 2008 8:24 PM

Marc:

Vehicles idling at the curb for more than a few minutes are breaking DC law. See

http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2008/05/08/idlers/

That's not ping pong.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 8, 2008 8:39 PM

Thanks, Professor Hill, for the lovely adaptation of your original lyrics.

Posted by: Fisher | May 8, 2008 10:40 PM

Marc Fisher's tirade against neighborhood activists has for some time now reached hate speech proportions. He has enshrined the word NIMBY. Who really uses that word anymore or believes it has any currency any longer?

Unfortunately the Post cannot see the fine lines, shades of gray in the middle. There is a huge huge space where lots of people exist between the zealots who have nothing better to do than to meddle into, comment upon or judge each and every micro decision made on the local level and the far greater preponderance of short-termers in the city who could not care less.

There are people who, yes, everyday, get up and work to preserve or beautify a park or a publicly viewed place. There are people who get up everyday and work for the public school systems to make sure decisions made are fair and transparent. They are fine decent people with good social skills and agreeable personalities. Not everyone is a difficult to get along with zealot. But these are the people the Post hardly ever reports on, unless it is Mr Fisher hissing at them, "activitst!" He just lumps everyone in together. There must be some kind of bias he has against anyone doing anything to get involved in their community. It must be HIM who sets the tone for the city or a neighborhood. Everyone else is just plain wrong, or worse an "activist."

Posted by: sow seeds not hate | May 9, 2008 7:54 AM

Thank you Marc Fisher for pointing out the absurd nature of the meddling, nosey, busybodies that infest our city. That ping-pong table provided entertainment for kids in the restaurant, and was an interesting addition to the WIDE sidewalk. The chances of a ping-pong ball rolling into the street are almost nil, contrary to what another meddling, bored, finger-wagger named Karen Perry stated.

The entire ANC system should be abolished. These people do not represent the interests of the majority in any way. Have they no lives?

Posted by: Kevin | May 9, 2008 9:53 AM

The problem is the number of ANC representatives with God delusions. They think they know better than their constituents and the politicians they elected like the mayor and city council rep, and if everybody else just listened to them the city would work great.

Posted by: Analyst | May 9, 2008 12:47 PM

Just watched that video for the first time. This guy has a career in political videos. Fear mongering and bad footage. Taken from an angle that looks like there is 3 ft or less to walk by that table. There is at least 12-16 feet of free space. Meddling and nosey busybodies we do have here in DC.

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Posted by: cc4me7yztf | May 9, 2008 9:32 PM

Kevin is wrong. Mr. Winstead does indeed represent the majority's will of those who voted in the last ANC election for his neighborhood. Until the residents of Forest Hills elect someone else to represent them on ANC 3F, we must assume they're happy to be served by a man who spends his days scrutinizing the activities of ordinary citizens and businesspeople, photographing them, then using his position to come down hard on anyone who deviates from the letter of the law. Mr. Winstead's behavior and style of governance apparently reflect the spirit and wishes of voters in Forest Hills.

Posted by: Coe | May 10, 2008 7:41 PM

While I have nothing against the ping pong table, delivery trucks double-parked, or even curb-parked in inappropriate spots, are a nuisance for traffic and *danger* to pedestrians. This is because they often block drivers' and pedestrians' mutual line of sight in crosswalks. This forces pedestrians to venture well out into the street in order to see past the trucks simply to observe whether any traffic is approaching; meanwhile the restricted flow of traffic causes nervous drivers to make unpredictable and sudden maneuvers to bypass the same trucks. Some drivers are considerate enough to park well back from crosswalks, but many of them blithely park quite close to crosswalks, completely oblivious to the danger they are creating. I am entirely in favor of using parking enforcement to protect pedestrians from these idiots. Marc, I suggest you spend a little time carefully observing the foolishness that arises in these situations before belittling others' well-intentioned efforts.

Posted by: antibozo | May 11, 2008 10:23 AM

ANC 3F is probably the most dysfunctional ANC out there, and Winstead helps keep it that way.

Posted by: ANC_Junkie | May 14, 2008 1:27 AM

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