Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brooklyn and its Lost Dodgers

When I was searching for apartments in Brooklyn three years ago, I looked at a nice one in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that I knew of only as the site of three days of rioting between blacks and Jews in 1991. As I was walking around the neighborhood, I stumbled upon a plaque in front of a set of highrise housing projects. This was where Ebbets Field once stood.

The photo illustration above (by Christopher Nesbet) from a 2007 article in New York Magazine shows the rough size and shape of Ebbets Field, the stadium the Brooklyn Dodgers played in until their move to Los Angeles in 1958.

Why do people still talk about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn fifty years ago as if it were recent? Why does it gall Brooklynites who weren't even alive when it happened?

Brooklyn, as I proudly tell anyone who will listen, is the largest of New York's five boroughs. Like Queens, it was once its own city—it merged with New York in 1898. Its 2.5 million people (about a million more than live in Manhattan) would make up the fourth largest city in the country, just behind Chicago (and New York, even without Brooklyn, would still be the biggest).

Since the Dodgers left, Brooklyn doesn't have a professional sports team. The Knicks and the Rangers play in Manhattan, the Yankees play in the Bronx, and the Mets play in Queens. (Both the New York Giants and the New York Jets play in in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.)

"The tragedy of the Dodgers," wrote Sam Anderson in the New York Magazine article that the above photo went with, "was only incidentally about baseball. This was not just the death of a team, or the extinction of a fan base, or the sudden bankruptcy of Crown Heights hot-dog vendors—but the death of mythic Old Brooklyn itself. The team’s departure corresponded with a massive social shift that totally remade the borough."

Most people blame Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, for the tragedy. There's a story about how two New York reporters, Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield (both from Brooklyn) sat at a bar one day in 1983, making lists of the greatest villains of the 20th century. They both had the same three people at the top of the list, the story goes: Hitler, Stalin and Walter O'Malley. Continuing on the theme, there's apparently an old joke that says "if you were to find yourself in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and O’Malley, armed with only two bullets, you’d have to shoot O’Malley twice."

In the 50s, Ebbets Field held 33,000 fans, considerably less than Yankee Stadium's 75,000 or the New York Giants' (baseball) Polo Grounds' 56,000 seats. Even so, the Dodgers attracted a million fans a year—second best attendance in the league during most of the 50s. O'Malley wanted a bigger stadium.

In 1956 there was discussion about building a new 55,000 seat stadium over the Atlantic Yards, a Long Island Rail Road hub near downtown Brooklyn, but legendary urban planner (and villain to many) Robert Moses didn't like the plan.

This is especially interesting because, 50 years later, this same site is where developer Bruce Ratner wants to put a $4 billion project that would include a $950 million basketball stadium. The stadium would be the new home of the New Jersey Nets, making them the first pro sports team to call Brooklyn home since the Dodgers. The Ratner plan, which is delayed because of the economy, has the stadium opening in 2011. It has not been well received by many Brooklynites.

I ask myself why I care about pro sports in Brooklyn. I'm not much of a sports fan and even less of a baseball fan. But baseball is a fitting lens for American 20th century culture. (Jonathan Mahler's book about New York in 1977, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning" uses the Yankees to talk about one of the city's direst years. It's superb.) There's a sense in Brooklyn that the loss of the Dodgers was the loss of the Borough's sense of self. It's a huge, sprawling part of the City, and somehow, without the Dodgers, it wasn't united anymore.

The Dodgers leaving was one of four events from the 50s to the 70s, says Pete Hamill, that devastated Brooklyn—the others being the closing of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1955, the introduction of heroin to the white neighborhoods in the mid-50s, and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1966. Hamill, quoted in an oral history called "In The Country of Brooklyn," explained that the Brooklyn Eagle's function as a borough paper was never taken up by any other. Heroin addicts were more than a nuisance, they were dangerous. And the Navy Yard employed more than 70,000 people at one time.

After all that, Brooklyn wasn't the same. Rabbi Paul Kushner told New York Magazine,
“The Brooklyn that I know and loved isn’t there anymore. Right now, Brooklyn is an aggregation of individuals, an aggregation of racial groups, of ethnic groups. There’s nothing uniting us. There’s no borough. Marty Markowitz is not president of anything. He’s president of garbagemen and sewer cleaners, whatever keeps the infrastructure going. There’s no feeling of cohesion.”
Kushner moved to Long Island more than 20 years ago.

Last December, Walter O'Malley was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. "I told them if they insisted on doing this, it would break the hearts of Brooklynites all over again," Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz told the New York Observer.

Ebbets Field was demolished the year after the Dodgers moved, apparently by a wrecking ball painted to look like a baseball. Pete Hamill noticed something poignant at the housing projects that replaced the stadium:
Years later, I went out there for a look, and there was a sign on the wall beside the front door.

Others have noticed it too.

So what is Brooklyn today? Now every other creative writer seems to be from Brooklyn. The Borough has its own expensive SoHo in the lofts of DUMBO and its own version of Greenwich Village in Williamsburg. It's got musicians. People want to live here now. The white flight of the mid-century started turning around in the late 80s (see Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, 1989: there's a scene with confrontation between a white yuppie and the black residents of Bed-Stuy).

If real estate is the subject of nearly every New York conversation, gentrification is the subtext of most of them that take place in Brooklyn. Who wants to be that yuppie in "Do The Right Thing"? That's why I didn't move into that nice apartment in Crown Heights, near Ebbets Field. It's a touchy subject, wrapped up in race, class, and even popular culture. Are gentrifiers getting great deals and cleaning up neighborhoods, or are they pushing regular people out of the neighborhoods they grew up in?

So many of the people who still mourn the loss of the Dodgers say that it was the thing that everyone could talk about. As Sam Anderson wrote in the New York article, "The only force strong enough to unite all of the fractured cultures was baseball." This, as Anderson acknowledges, is partly mythology. But what could unite Brooklyn now? Certainly not the New Jersey Nets. Brooklyn is still waiting for its savior.



Blogger Steve said...

"In 1956 there was discussion about building a new 55,000 seat stadium over the Atlantic Yards, a Long Island Rail Road hub near downtown Brooklyn, but legendary urban planner (and villain to many) Robert Moses didn't like the plan."

Some factual errors here:

Atlantic Yards does not exist, it is the name of a proposed development that would be built partially over the Vanderbilt Yards in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The site for the Dodgers statdium that never was is situated across the street from the Vanderbilt Yards. The site is now occupied by the ugly Atlantic Center Mall built by billionaire developer and public leech, Bruce Ratner.

10:17 PM  
Blogger soubriquet said...

This clip shows one of Ebberts' rivals, the Polo Grounds in 1922, it combines film and cartoon, to give a glimpse into a past world.
Felix Saves the Day, -Felix the cat, in scrapes with police, taxi cabs, ans a baseball derby.

9:48 AM  

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