A Sporting Chance

For a period, I personally despised Bruce Ratner.

It was the summer of 2004, and coming off two consecutive Finals appearances, the New Jersey Nets were enjoying the most sustained period of success in the team’s NBA history. Ratner, CEO of the New York developer Forest City Ratner and the Nets’ new owner, was a basketball neophyte who bought the team to move it; by August, he’d become the most notorious cost-cutter in the league, having traded away fan favorites Kerry Kittles and Kenyon Martin for nary a single live body in return. This was sports cleansed of any pretense to enchantment; my beloved, long-suffering franchise had become the loss leader for a real-estate deal orchestrated by a man who looked incapable of dribbling a ball. Caring about pro sports is mostly a matter of faith; Ratner, I was certain, had permanently snuffed out mine.

In New York City, Ratner’s rapaciousness quickly became about much more than bad trades and penny-pinching. His massive housing development at Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Railyards, dubbed the “Atlantic Yards” project, was soon read as a challenge to the soul of the borough. Which was, in itself, a sign of the times. A hundred years ago, when New York was a city of working docks and meatpackers, urban authenticity would have seemed a laughable concern. Today, it is in some ways the only one. The question at hand: will Brooklyn still be Brooklyn if and when Atlantic Yards is built? If Ratner’s hubris is in forcing this question on us, his shrewdness was in anticipating it.

For certain civic cheerleaders, the sell was easy: an arena for the Nets would restore to Brooklyn, they argued, a measure of that Golden Age optimism which (those of us too young to remember are told) left town when the Dodgers decamped for southern California. And the most visible member of Ratner’s Nets ownership group has been Jay-Z, whose stirring life story—from Bed-Stuy crack dealer to acclaimed rapper to record company executive—shades naturally into a tale of Brooklyn’s urban redemption. No one gets as rich as Bruce Ratner without recognizing a good deal when he sees one; somewhere along the way, he mastered the art of narrative as well.

Among those arrayed against Ratner are more traditional masters of narrative: the umbrella organization Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn counts as advisors such Brooklyn-based writers as Rick Moody, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jhumpa Lahiri. But even the aesthetic high ground was, in some ways, preemptively claimed by Forest City. To design his mega-project, Ratner turned to Frank Gehry, likely the one architect alive whose creative integrity is beyond reproach. In an “open letter” published by Slate.com, novelist Jonathan Lethem felt compelled to appeal to Gehry as one principled artist to another, arguing that though today’s Brooklyn might deserve a “single rippling arena, a kind of Guggenheim of basketball,” it should certainly not come tethered to a “phalanx” of out-of-scale skyscrapers. For Lethem, Brooklyn’s current architecture should determine the scale and tone of future endeavor: the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower marks the point past which you cannot go. Gehry—whether interloper, visionary, or both—has no such concerns.

A strange thing happened to us Nets fans while politicians and activists fought in Brooklyn: the owner exceeded our lowered, even subterranean expectations. Ratner publicly apologized for the Martin debacle, and he signed off on the trade that added Vince Carter’s contract to the payroll. The team remained competitive, and Ratner signed the checks. Soon enough, the Nets faithful—mostly Jersey folks clustered around websites like joenetsfan.com and netsdaily.com—began warming to the idea of Gehry’s Brooklyn arena.

Travel sixteen miles northwest of the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, and you can imagine why. Surrounded by the endless parking lots of East Rutherford, Continental Airlines Arena could charitably be called utilitarian, if only it still worked; a 2004 USA Today poll ranked it the least fan-friendly of the 30 NBA buildings. The best views are from the outside, where the mammoth windowless white box has a certain restrained austerity, vaguely redolent of a post-apocalyptic mass mausoleum. The interior smells like a high-school cafeteria, and looks it too—the single concourse seems a shrine to linoleum and mismatched carpeting, as if an overwhelming feeling of sterility would convince patrons that the hot dogs are safe to eat.

When it opened in 1981, Brendan Byrne Arena, as Continental was then known, was considered one of the most modern buildings in sports. It was clean, capacious, and car-friendly, and, in a way, among the last venues designed with those considerations foremost in mind. Located across a highway from Giants Stadium, the arena was part of a development that consolidated four professional teams (and rumor has it, the body of Jimmy Hoffa) in an industrial swamp unconvincingly dubbed “the Meadowlands.” The football Giants and Jets, like so many of their fans, planted roots in the suburbs but retained their “New York” affiliations; the Nets and NHL Devils (née Colorado Rockies) more honestly admitted to being from New Jersey.

Few measures of social history are more revealing than the migrations of professional sports franchises. The mid-century movement of teams from city centers to outskirts, where the land was cheap and the fans increasingly numerous and prosperous, was accompanied by a new aesthetic of monumental uniformity. The old American ballparks—Boston’s Fenway and Chicago’s Wrigley are the last examples—were cramped, dirty places that bore the trace of urban history; even the dimensions of their playing fields had to conform to the surrounding street plan. Their postwar replacements, in contrast, were stadiums in the Roman sense: publicly funded, multiuse facilities that looked rather the same no matter where they were located.

Call it athletic modernism: at the same time Park Avenue was being populated with Mies—inspired glass-and-steel boxes, perfectly round, Coliseum-resembling venues sprouted up along interstates and in urban renewal zones across the country. Though optimal for neither sport, these buildings had seating that split the difference between baseball and football, and many were paired with basketball and hockey arenas that shared the same parking lots and spare, functional designs. In fact, the “cookie-cutter” stadium might be read as the quintessential structure of urban neglect and white flight; specimens like Washington’s RFK Stadium (opened in 1961), Houston’s Astrodome (1965), and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium (1971) resembled nothing so much as concrete tract houses for very large, very loud families.

After the Dodgers and Giants left town in 1957, citing deteriorating ballparks and general urban decline, New York was quickly awarded a new National League franchise; by 1964, the Mets were playing at Shea Stadium, a “cookie-cutter” doughnut built by Robert Moses in Queens. Last year, the team announced that Shea would be replaced by a new park in time for the 2009 season. Leaving symmetry and the possibility of football use behind, its brick façade will be modeled after Ebbets Field, the Flatbush stadium long ago abandoned by the Dodgers and replaced by a housing project.

Madison Square Garden, the fourth building so named, calls itself “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and a generation or three of sports fans have largely agreed. Located above Pennsylvania Station, the Garden enables suburbanites to attend Knicks or Rangers games without having to step on a city sidewalk; maintained with a pride that Continental Airlines Arena can only dream of, the building remains beloved even as the bumbling Cablevision Dolans angle to replace it with a newer model.

In the heat of a playoff game, it almost becomes possible to overlook the fact that the current Garden is, aesthetically speaking, a concrete bunker, an impetuous oval in a city of grids, a structure less Brutalist than simply brutal. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to forget that the arena’s also a tombstone, a guilty reminder literally sitting atop the remnants of a prelapsarian New York.

Urban theorists now assure us that the old Penn Station—the stunning Beaux-Arts, pink-granite McKim, Mead, & White Penn Station, built in 1910 and destroyed in favor of MSG IV some fifty years later—died for a reason. It died so Grand Central could live, so a proposed expressway across Lower Manhattan could be defeated, so the massive regional development schemes of Robert Moses could give way to the enlightened humanism of neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs. And it was in fact Jacobs’s language that won out—questions of scale, context, and preservation now seem to make so much sense because the mid-century urban renewal plans were finally shown to make so little. No major-league sports facility has been built in the city since the Garden was completed in 1968.

The specter of Madison Square Garden—in many respects, the modern(ist) sports facility perfected—haunts more than New York. Its very perfection creates a nostalgia for a time when spectator sports were more than comfortable middlebrow entertainments, when sports could still claim to ritually perform the admixture of sacred and profane endemic to city life. And so, in the last fifteen years, the most visible signs of postwar civic development—those ubiquitous round stadiums and square arenas—have, one after the other, been erased from the nation’s landscape. Teams have headed back to the neighborhoods; across the country, baseball “parks” and football “fields” have replaced multiuse stadiums whose unlamented destructions might be seen as Penn Station’s lasting revenge.

Baltimore’s Camden Yards (1992) started the trend in baseball and still defines the archetype: that is, sturdy red-bricked structures with charming quirks and irregular outfields. Stadiums, in short, that look like they’ve been around forever. The idea seems to be to reinvigorate downtowns by willfully forgetting that modernism or suburbanization ever happened; sports may be the one realm in which the cheeky postmodern architecture of the 1980s persists as anything more than a curiosity. And with housing projects and downtown highways roundly discredited, sports venues are the only large-scale civic works most urban publics find worth paying for. The Brooklyn Dodgers are never coming back, but countless American cities—even New York—are content to create gargantuan simulacra of Ebbets Field.

The names are wonderfully incongruous: Busch Stadium (St. Louis), Coors Field (Denver), Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia), Minute Maid Park (née Enron Field, Houston). Compared to the concrete salad bowls that replaced the original brick-and-steel ballparks, such “retro” venues are certainly more humane. They espouse the same contextualism and “adaptive reuse” that saved SoHo and Greenwich Village; San Diego’s new PETCO Park even incorporates a 100-year-old office building into its structure, with the old sign “WESTERN METAL SUPPLY CO.” prominently visible from the stands. Still, one wonders what Jane Jacobs herself would think about cities spending hundreds of millions of dollars to recreate scrubbed versions of the worlds supposedly lost to urban renewal.

Indeed, stuffed with gleaming concourses and gourmet restaurants, the new facilities—outwardly reminiscent of the vernacular forms that dominated dirty, industrial downtowns—seem to have simply replaced the anonymity of urban renewal with the banality of urban regret. Call it baseball’s New Urbanism, inherited from a movement that proposes decorative style as the necessary and sufficient condition for urban livability. Which is to say, whose vernacular? The retro ballpark practitioners—mostly Midwestern mega-firms like HOK Sports—appear to hold a vision of “the city” that at once fetishizes the past and is resolutely ahistorical.

It may be tempting to view this as a return to normalcy from urban anachronisms; after all, Charles McKim designed the original Penn Station to evoke imperial Rome in industrial New York. And yet, for all their classical aspirations, the proponents of the Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movements finally seem better read as precursors to Le Corbusian modernism; they endeavored to transform the city, to reorder its chaos for utopian ends. The recent American ballparks have been at the forefront of a very different project; accompanied by gentrification and de-industrialization, their goal seems to be to assure us that nothing’s really changed.

Which returns us to Jonathan Lethem and Frank Gehry.

Architecturally at least, baseball is still the national pastime, the nation’s bellwether sport. But basketball may not be far behind. See, for instance, Indianapolis’s new Conseco Fieldhouse, a ridiculously oversized rendition of the heartland high-school gymnasium, and generally considered among the best—that is, the most comfortable—buildings in the NBA. Gehry’s proposed arena looks nothing like a fieldhouse and nothing like the convention-center annexes that less overtly “retro” NBA buildings increasingly resemble. As a sports venue, the Atlantic Yards arena instead claims a certain international allegiance; like the Herzog & de Meuron Olympic Stadium being built in Beijing, it presumes athletics to be an aesthetic force, sports as the favored field for modern urban expression and ambition. In this view, the phalanx of towers are the open affirmations of the building’s transformative power.

And so Gehry spurns context. There are three other sports facilities currently under consideration in New York City: the Mets’ Shea replacement, the New Yankees Stadium, and the proposed fifth Madison Square Garden, part of a reclaimed Penn Station in the Farley Post Office building. Each makes direct, literal appeals to the grand history of New York and its sports teams, and each could just as easily be built in Baltimore or San Diego or Kansas City. Gehry’s designs look nothing like New York and certainly nothing like central Brooklyn. Ignore the ameliorative propaganda put out by Ratner: the arena and towers are plainly, triumphantly insouciant to their surroundings.

Which may be their greatest strength. I wonder if the rush to defend the Brooklyn of the past ignores the basic architectural and moral question of how to represent the city now. The borough’s low-rise brick and stone neighborhoods mean something because they remind us of the history that left them behind. The current era—marked in part by gentrification, new (non-European) immigration, and the advent of a creative class of writers, artists, and actors—can’t possibly be housed by replications of the same forms. We treasure the city of a century ago because we see its ambition in the structures that have survived; modernism, at its Lever House best, accomplished quite the same, even as it performed a radical break.

So, as reasoned as Lethem’s letter to Gehry was, I could not shake the sense that the architect stood on the side of an expansively ambitious urban project, while the writer yearned for a comfortable, impossible stasis—the city as novelist’s milieu instead of living, breathing organism. Lethem was right: Brooklyn will not be the same once Atlantic Yards is built, but it won’t stay the same regardless. Gehry’s proposal can’t casually be dismissed as an affront to urban history; in fact, it has a potential to be a part of that history in way that no architecture of nostalgia can claim. The authenticity of a place as volatile and heterodox as Brooklyn, and New York in general, lies in incongruity, the disorienting juxtaposition of century-old brownstones and Gehry’s warped, twisting towers. This is what built Penn Station, and this is what destroyed it—an impulse often catalyzed by objectionable individuals, and not one we should always follow. But to reject it outright, to reject any such impulse as a disruption of some putatively authentic civic reality, to reject Gehry on the basis of “context,” seems a disavowal of the progress of urban life itself.


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