Showing Power, but Weakening a Neighborhood
By HARVEY ARATON
Published: March 31, 2008
Baseball season is an 85-year-old fact of neighborhood life. Happens every spring. Still, opening day is no less jarring, a fresh reminder to a longtime resident of how the Yankees rule.
Joyce Hogi lives on the Grand Concourse, a five-minute walk from her job as assistant to the principal at All Hallows High School on 164th Street in the South Bronx. “Once again, it’s so much in your face, cars and police barricades everywhere, everything geared to the comfort of the Yankees and their fans,” she said.
The Yankees win. When John Sterling makes the “the” sound hysterically polysyllabic on the radio this season, take a moment to consider at whose expense.
By the tens of thousands, fans will come Monday for opening day, Toronto at the Yankees, and every game day thereafter to gape at the retrofit future Yankee Stadium that stands, however unfinished, alongside the weathered timepiece that pays tribute to baseball’s past. The House That George Herman Ruth Built and the one that George M. Steinbrenner privately financed, with the exception of taxpayer-financed infrastructure upgrades and a land grab with costs best measured in cruelty.
Two classic edifices, one season only; has there ever been a more shock-and-awe demonstration of Bronx Bombers power?
“There was no one in this neighborhood that was against development, against a new stadium,” Hogi said in a telephone interview. “But responsible development, not what we got.”
With the stadiums side by side, the end of one era blurs with the beginning of another. Baseball’s sights and sounds are always familiarly welcome. But I wonder how many visitors inching their cars through the narrow streets from the northern suburbs or New Jersey this season will notice what has been lost, or taken, from that crowded urban landscape.
How many will mourn the fallen trees, the oasis of green that was Macombs Dam Park, the way Joyce Hogi will?
“A lot of people in the neighborhood really never thought it was going to happen until the trees came down,” she said.
In stages, the park was shuttered, the people of what is often called the poorest Congressional district in America, thrown out at home. Finally, last November, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation issued a news release announcing the closing of the last remaining section, including the ball fields, the handball and basketball courts, to make way for another sure sign of artistic urban development, Garage A.
“The students in our school used those fields, all of the neighborhood kids did,” Hogi said. “Now they are gypsies, going here, going there.”
The community activists, Hogi among them, lost the court battles and the war to save the park as the community centerpiece. The Yankees got what they had long lobbied for. The city said it would replace every park acre, roughly 24, and would actually add space. This all sounded perfectly reasonable to the outsider, but the fine print diluted the promise. On a miniature scale, this was Central Park being broken up, spread among the boroughs.
“The story was always about the fragmentation of the park,” said Geoffrey Croft, the president and founder of the NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit group. “And when I started looking at the replacement scheme, it never added up.”
The politicians say otherwise, gushing about public ball fields that will replace the original stadium. Croft, who happens to have grown up on 167th Street, complains about an existing schoolyard called part of the replacement acreage, a pedestrian walkway he says the city is also trying to count. Turf fields planned for the roof of Garage A will not exactly invigorate on a sweltering August day when visiting sport utility vehicles are belching fumes.
This all could have been avoided, argued Hogi, a member of the Community Board 4’s parks committee. The Yankees could have gone to Shea Stadium for two seasons, as they did in 1974 and 1975, had their new stadium been built on the existing site.
She blames the politicians who cut the deal, not the Yankees, a capitalist enterprise, after all. But it is interesting how Steinbrenner, 77, is now portrayed as a civic hero, a respected city elder, in New York and Tampa, a far cry from when many considered him something between a would-be robber baron and the raving village idiot.
In the time since he has slowed down, as his sons like to put it, we have all been conditioned to consider Steinbrenner’s softer side, his charitable deeds. But it wasn’t too long ago, when he was his old blustery self, that he and members of his organization were ruthlessly disparaging in their characterizations of the South Bronx while scheming to abandon it for Manhattan, or Jersey.
Luckily for them, they failed. Now, for one season, there are two Yankee Stadiums, no more Macombs Dam Park. Until the city makes the very best possible restitution of what right now is a deplorable situation, we may be impressed, even awed, by what is said to be progress. We cannot be proud.