Q&A: Jacqueline Dupree

Five years ago, Capitol Hill resident Jacqueline Dupree began chronicling the changes in Near Southeast on her Web site, jdland.com. In September 2004, the future of Near SE was dramatically changed when it was announced that the District of Columbia would fund a new ballpark for what would become the Washington Nationals. Since that time, “Near Southeast DC Redevelopment” has been the best source for ballpark construction news.

WFY: Opening Night is less than a week away. Will the ballpark be ready?

JD: There’s no doubt that baseball will be played and Cracker Jack, hot dogs, and beer will be consumed on Opening Night. Every scintilla of the park won’t be finished, but the showiest parts of the stadium–the field, the seating, and the exterior–appear to be ready to go. I’m sure Stan Kasten would want me to add, “there will be hiccups, but the team says it will be working hard to address them.”

WFY: What about Metro?

JD: If you’re asking whether the west entrance of the Navy Yard Metro station will be ready, the Magic 8 ball answer is that “signs point to yes.” Whether the Metro system and the Green line are prepared to handle the coming onslaught, I’ll be happy to answer that question on Monday morning.

WFY: Are you surprised that Nationals Park will open on time?

JD: Back when the lease agreement was approved in 2006, I thought there was no way it would open on time. But for the past year or so, what I’ve seen and heard gave me a fair amount of confidence that it would be ready.

WFY: In your view, has the media overreacted to the parking situation?

JD: Traffic stories = ratings. On the one hand, you’ve got people talking about the coming traffic catastrophe because so many people will be driving, and on the other other people talking about the coming Metro catastrophe because so many people will be taking the subway.

I have no doubt that the first month will see some horror stories on the parking, traffic, and transit fronts, and there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Just like at FedEx field when it opened, and at RFK when baseball came back in 2005. And then people will start figuring out their special ways of getting to the ballpark, like parking at a Metro station, or parking downtown and catching a cab, or walking, or biking. (And, coming in 2009, water taxis!) I think it might actually end up being kind of cool that there are so many different ways to get there, rather than everyone piling in their cars and driving to huge parking lots.

WFY: What features of Nationals Park do you think will be most popular with fans?

JD: I can’t speak to the baseball-related aspects of it (whether it’s a hitters park, etc. etc.). But I’ll tell you what bowled me over the most the first time I experienced them–the views from the tops of the ramp at South Capitol on the northwest side of the ballpark and the one at Potomac Avenue on the southeast. If you want your views of the Capitol, or the Washington Monument, or the Cathedral, or National Airport, or Poplar Point, or the Navy Yard, or the Anacostia River, or Southwest, you’ve got ’em. There’s been so much yakking about how every seat in the ballpark doesn’t have a pristine view of the Capitol Dome that people I think don’t realize how many fabulous views there are from the ballpark’s upper decks. And even the views directly to the north of the ballpark, as the buildings get finished, will have a “city lights” view that might even get a few people to stop bitching about the garages.

In a more mundane vein, I think the wide variety of food options will be a big hit. As will be the Strike Zone for kids. And the cupholders!

WFY: On the other hand, what will disappoint fans the most?

JD: That’s hard for me to say, I think different people will have different expectations. The garages will be a sore point, I’m sure, though the team is trying hard to gussy them up. And yet, as people are complaining about them, I hope they’ll stop to think what it might have been like to have two 12-story condo buildings right on the edge of the outfield like almost got approved, obscuring *all* views from the seats. Sure, you’d probably get to see people sitting on their sofas watching TV, but…..

WFY: Is Near SE essentially a construction zone with a new ballpark in the middle of it?

JD: Indeed. But I think there’s something to be said for people coming to the neighborhood for the first time and seeing that there’s a ton of work underway versus having a gleaming new ballpark with nothing else happening. It doesn’t take as much of a leap of faith to imagine that within the next year or two, things will be different. But yes, you might get dusty! A sidewalk might be closed! Prepare accordingly!

WFY: Will any of the upcoming neighborhood amenities (bars and restaurants, etc.) open during the 2008 season?

JD: Unless some bar or restaurant is going to go in the first floor of 20 M Street (the office building at Half and M completed last year), I doubt it. I suppose it could be possible that something could go in the ground floor of 100 M, the office building at First and M that’s supposed to be completed in late summer, but it probably wouldn’t be open before the season ends. But there’s been no announcements that I’ve heard.

WFY: How cooperative have the Nationals been during the construction? What about developers? The District government?

JD: I’ve received pretty much all the cooperation I’ve asked for from all three of those groups, as well as from residents and other groups–though I try not to ask for very much so as not to be thought of as a pain in the ass. Certainly they see JDLand as a (cheap!) way to get their messages out. I think the only time I really stomped my feet and asked for something above-and-beyond was last fall, when the ballpark security perimeter took away access to First Street and Potomac Avenue and I asked to be allowed to continue to update my exterior photos every so often. But I pouted for about six weeks first.

I’m not a big fan of the “Look at all the big-shot contacts I have and all the names I can drop!” brand of blogging, so maybe my sticking to information aggregation along with a small amount of this-is-what-I’ve-seen-with-my-own-eyes has kept me in good stead. Plus, I think some of the folks in charge actually like looking at the before-and-after pictures and getting updates on other projects, too.

WFY: What has been most enjoyable and frustrating about chronicling the ballpark progress?

JD: I have to admit that the praise the site gets, and the reactions I get when I meet people who are familiar with the site, have been experiences I never would have expected. The story of this neighborhood seems to have captured a lot of interest, and I get to enjoy being the conduit. To be standing on a street corner and have people you’ve never met roll down their windows to say hi and complement what you do is the sort of experience everyone should be lucky enough to have in their life. Even when I get tired and cranky (which is often), I have a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction with what this has all grown to.

On the flip side, there’s little things that bug me–it’s frustrating for me to watch a lot of the media reports in these last few weeks, with lots of errors or lots of skimming the surface of stuff that I’ve been covering so deeply for these past few years. And things like when columnists write “OMG! The Metro station isn’t open!!!!” three weeks before Opening Day, as if that guarantees it won’t be open in time. A lot of hyperbole and not a strong command of the facts. And the lack of patience amazes me–some people have grown to adulthood thinking that if something brand new has something wrong with it, that’s just the way it’s always going to be.

Then there’s the people wanting to know happened to the baseball on top of the outfield restaurant. I can stop getting asked that question any time now.

WFY: Will the ballpark’s completion be sort of like a tragedy of dreams come true for you?

JD: It’s like how you discover some really cool underground band, and you spend years telling people about them, and then suddenly they’re playing stadium shows and you get all whiny about how you knew about them first.

But, to be serious, without planning on it I stumbled into a pretty amazing project, and it’s been a blast. To know there’s a lot of people looking at my work and appreciating it, especially since it just kind of grew without any sort of grand plan, has been immensely satisfying. JDLand isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, of course, but there will never be the interest in the rest of the neighborhood that there’s been in the ballpark, so the wackiest part of the ride is about over.

WFY: What question do you get asked about the most?

JD: Beyond “are you the one who does that web site?” that I get when people see me taking pictures? Probably just asking me how I manage to keep the site running. These days, the answer is “barely.” But it’ll be back to normal soon.

WFY: What question do you wish people would ask?

JD: “How do you want me to cite JDLand.com in this news story I’m putting together for my major media corporation, since I used your site extensively to research the piece and I of course want to give you full credit for that?”

This is the one thing that makes me cranky above all else. In the blogosphere (for the most part), etiquette demands that if you get something from someone else, you hat tip. But I know for a fact that reporters in this town (and elsewhere) make heavy use of my site (and sometimes even tell me so in person), but you never know it from their work. If I started plagiarizing from news stories, you can be damn sure that I’d be hearing about it. But since I’m “just a blogger”, they seem to feel that my site is free for the taking without any sort of acknowledgment. Recently one of my photos was published without credit or permission on the front page of an unnamed neighborhood newspaper, because the editor thought “it was in the public domain.” I consider myself a journalist as much as any other journalist in this town, and I work as hard (probably harder) for my content as they work for theirs, but they don’t always treat my work with the same level of respect they expect for their own. Because I’m “just a blogger.”

WFY: Last year (correct me if I am wrong) you started writing a weekly Ballpark & Beyond column about the ballpark for The Post. Was that your idea or their idea? Will it continue after the ballpark is opened?

JD: The Post approached me in May 2007 with the idea of adapting my blog in the District Extra–since I work in the Newsroom Information Technology department, they probably felt more comfortable with “going bloggy” via my site than if I had been an outsider. I’m expecting the column to continue for a bit longer, though I think it will probably run less often. Which I’m fine with, because in some ways the column is a far more stressful part of my life than I expected it to be.

WFY: For the “techies” out there, what do you use for content management of the Near SE Redevelopment? What kind of camera and imaging software do you use?

JD: The easy answer first–the official JDLand camera since January 2006 has been a Canon Digital Rebel XT. I use Paint Shop Pro to handle the photos, though I don’t do much with them other than resizing and some cropping and straightening when the camera gets too heavy and I end up holding it crooked.

As for the CMS, it’s a complete home brew, all in Cold Fusion, and in some ways I’m as proud of the site’s technology as I am of the content. The blog entries are in a database that I wrote both the front end and the RSS generator for. There’s another table with information on each photo, which allows for the random photo display at the top of the home page and the Photo Archive application. The project pages are hybrid static and dynamic pages, with most of the “afters” generated by calls to the database. That way, I can upload photos to the site and auto-add records to the database, and the project pages immediately will show the new shots. The pages need some hands-on TLC every so often, but I don’t have to open them and edit them everytime I upload a photo.

The complete batch of photos on my hard drive (of which there are *thousands* beyond what you see on the site) are also handled in a home-brew app. When I come home from taking photos, I pull up a page and start categorizing every shot, which I’ve sped up a lot lately thanks a big pile of javascript. I mark which intersection the photo shows, where I was standing, and what direction the photo was taken, and the code parses it into the database along with the timestamp from each photo’s EXIF info. Then I can browse the photos by filling out a search form–i.e., show me all 2006 photos of the southwest corner First and N Street taken from the northeast corner. I then have some other scripts and shortcuts I’ve come up with to choose which photos I want to upload to the site, and then I run a batch process in Paint Shop Pro to resize them and save copies that I then FTP up to the site. Then I update the site database with the new images.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that there’s no way a site like this could be done by hand. It still pretty much takes me 4-6 hours to go take a big batch of photos, categorize and add them to the main database, choose which ones I want to post, and then upload them and update the site database. Though some of that, of course, is because there’s so many dang projects to be taking pictures of right now. In time this will return to something less taxing.

WFY: What has been the most popular subject on Near SE Redevelopment based on site traffic?

JD: The easy answer, of course, is all the ballpark stuff. My traffic has doubled in the past month as the buildup to Opening Night has intensified. And yet, really, any time I post new photos of the neighborhood that people can compare to the “befores” on my site, I see a small spike in traffic. I have no doubt, though, that my statistics will return to more realistic levels after April.

WFY: Have you been able to recoup the cost the site via advertising?

JD: Yes, but please note that I’m not blogging from a beachside cabana on the Riviera. It’s not very much at all, especially in comparison to what my hourly rate as a web application developer would be.

WFY: Do you have a ticket to Opening Night? Do you have an extra for me?

JD: Only if you want to split what I paid on StubHub, and then tell my husband he can’t go.

WFY: I’m thinking about it. 🙂

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