It’s surprisingly difficult to see along the nearby Anacostia Freeway (District Highway 295); the trees block it, and even in the winter, there’s just not a good angle. But if you’re a pedestrian jogging along either side the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington DC, it’s impossible to miss. The monstrosity really presents itself well on the western bank of the Anacostia headed southward, where, when crossing a bridge over railway tracks, runners can gaze at it through the trees.
There it is: the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, opened in 1961 as DC Stadium then renamed in ’68 following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Configured so that it could function as both a football field and baseball diamond, RFK Stadium enjoyed copious use during most of its 58-year life, most prominently hosting the Washington Redskins from 1971 until 1996, when the team migrated to the eastern suburbs for a most spacious home at the brand-new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, now FedEx Field. RFK Stadium’s role as a MLB venue was not as lengthy: it only hosted the Washington Senators from 1962 to 1971, and then the Washington Nationals for three years starting in 2005, before the Nats’ present home at their eponymous Stadium was complete. It continued to feature numerous other events over the years: big name music performers (the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and, many times, the Grateful Dead), Police and Fire Games, and a mass wedding ceremony in 1997 for members of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, better known as the Unification Church, and its followers the “Moonies” (after founder Sun Myung Moon). RFK Stadium’s central function in the 21st century was to host DC United, the city’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team, which it did from 1996 until 2017, at which point DC United migrated to the newly constructed Audi Field, just a few miles away. The aging stadium attracted few events after the soccer team’s departure, having achieved a reputation for “bouncy seats”—a literal sensation that it was shaking when fans stomped their feet hard enough. Given that maintenance and utilities at RFK Stadium cost the city over $3 million a year, it was a shock to no one when the city announced plans for its demolition in 2019.
And so it goes. I covered a more detailed description of RFK Stadium’s unusual management structure in relation to the surrounding grounds—converted from a huge parking lot to an activity-rich urban park—about six months ago. This time I’m less interested in the grounds (commemoratively yet awkwardly named the Fields at RFK Campus) than what’s strapped to the side of this beached whale:
This is still a long-distance view, and it’s competing for landmark status with the prominent DC Armory on the left, another mammoth structure facing a significant repurposing in the years ahead. But the object in question is mounted there on the right side. I’ll pan and zoom in.
It’s a massive billboard for the Apple iPhone 14.
I’m not going to pontificate too heavily on the ethics of billboards on public property: that’s what the individual states do, as Brandeisian “laboratories of democracy”. The District of Columbia, as a sovereign political entity, can decide for itself how to use its public buildings. For a white elephant like the RFK Stadium, this billboard might actually be doing taxpayers a favor, because at least it’s offsetting those exorbitant maintenance costs that the city stopped recouping after DC United moved to greener pastures. However, this same contract with a billboard company would be akin to civic blasphemy on the side of a Smithsonian museum, or—even worse—on one of DC’s magnificent monuments under stewardship by the National Park Service. The US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) exists as an independent review board precisely to supervise aesthetic decisions of this magnitude; no doubt many years ago the CFA and other oversight agencies determined that RFK Stadium lacked the architectural or civic importance to preserve viewsheds. So it became a giant easel for a billboard, seen by thousands of motorists daily as they exit District Highway 295 onto East Capitol Street NE. Since the City of Washington can’t make money by hosting events at the clunky old monstrosity, why not turn it into ad space?
The irony is, the City (or Events DC specifically) made this decision many years ago, while DC United still kicked a ball around on the inside of RFK Stadium. But what really baffles me is how it the billboard consistently features one single company. Look at older images of this billboard using Google Street View, and it’s all the same: various new releases of the iPhone. It goes all the way back to the iPhone 5, in summer of 2014. Reviewing other archived images from Street View, it looks like the billboard took a hiatus in the early 2010s, but prior to that—during the earliest photo iterations of Google Street View—the billboard once again hung on the side of RFK Stadium, except back then it actually did feature other businesses: Cricket Wireless, Nissan, among others.
RFK Stadium isn’t the only structure in Washington DC to offer a seemingly permanent billboard site for Apple. Three miles away, a windowless Verizon substation just north of I-695 greets even more motorists each day, adorned with an enormous billboard that has featured Apple products for as long as I’ve seen it. Using Street View once more, I have to dig back to summer of 2009 to find Holiday Inn. But everything since then is a clear arrangement between the billboard company and Apple. Is it legal to monopolize ad space this way? Well, if has as deep pockets as Apple, why wouldn’t Tim Cook cut a check to lease space on two of the most lucrative billboards in the country? This one at least hangs on the façade of an otherwise unadorned structure belonging to a private utility.
The bigger consideration, I suppose, is the aesthetic impact amidst a widely variable landscape of signage regulations—or billboard regulations more specifically. DC doesn’t seem like a place loaded with roadside billboards, at least to the degree one might expect given the density of population and traffic. The nonprofit Scenic America, which strives to beautify roadside vistas, cityscapes, and other viewsheds by promoting regulation of signs, billboards, tree cutting, telecommunications towers, overhead utilizes, and the dedication of scenic byways, keeps a careful watch on billboard prevalence by state. In a rank of total billboards per highway mile, DC ranks 47 out of 51, and the only states to rank lower are those that outlaw billboards: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont. With comparative few miles of highway in the District—it can’t help but have few since the whole place is only 61 square miles!—billboards are astonishingly rare, even more when they’re at the scale on RFK Stadium. DC does not make it easy for billboard companies.
Apple’s opportunities to advertise in the nation’s capital are few and far between, thanks to regulatory hurdles. But it has clearly paid dearly for the ones available. And, sometime this year, after RFK Stadium turns into a pile of rubble, the Cupertino company will have one less billboard. What will take the stadium’s place? Plans have morphed a bit here and there, but the centerpiece around all those recreation fields is likely to be a market hall with groceries and dining. And if it doesn’t catch on—I have my doubts about the long-term viability of trendy food halls—at least Events DC can make up for lost revenue by selling the façade to another billboard company.