The neighborhood in the Citi

NY Times photoBeyond the obvious reasons of the on-field product producing soul-crushing five-game losing streaks, three-strikeout performances by their franchise third baseman, and expensive tickets made more expensive by surcharges and fees, I wonder if the problem of declining attendance at Citi Field is ingrained in some sort of original sin that was masked by lovable Shea Stadium, but has been laid bare by the not-quite-yet-beloved new Mets park.

Shea was indeed lovable, in some ways in spite of itself. Author and professor Dana Brand wrote a book that fondly remembered The Last Days of Shea. But as most Mets fans would admit, and as even Dr. Brand put it: “The line you often hear from Mets fans is ‘It’s a dump, but it’s our dump.'” It’s one of the many things I genuinely love about Mets fans over Yankee fans. Mets fans lost their oft-derided stadium (even oft-derided among themselves), and they still mourn it. It was built on land that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s forsaken Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby. Yankee fans, meanwhile, lost a palace with an unmatched history of championships (albeit one with a ’70s disco make-over) and replaced it with a gray gaudy mall — and Yankee fans hardly shed a tear for the old place (except when bidding up pieces of it at Steiner’s Sports). There’s no similar poetry devoted to the final days of old Yankee Stadium, not in the same vein as in the book by Brand, who obviously speaks for a lot of Mets fans. It’s like the Yankees brass (with the help of The City) plowed over a community park to drop an exclusive baseball version of the Palisades Center into the South Bronx, and Yankee fans loved them for it, even if that mall hardly loves them back.

That said, could the Mets’ attendance problem lie in the real estate agent’s refrain of Location, Location, Location?

Michael Shapiro touched on Flushing in the epilogue of his 2003 book about the last days of the Dodgers era in Brooklyn, The Last Good Season. Shapiro’s book was cited recently in a New York Times-led discussion about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in response to a question about Moses and the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.

Shapiro writes:

“There is talk about tearing the place (Shea) down and building a replacement in the parking lot. The new park would be called Jackie Robinson Stadium. It would, if it is ever built, have a retractable roof but otherwise look like a replica of Ebbets Field.”

OK, so prescience isn’t perfect for authors — A roof? Um, no (thank God). And Jackie Robinson got the rotunda, but not the naming rights to the entire place. But Shapiro was close enough (the book was published three years before they broke ground on the new field). He continues:

“The stadium, however, would sit at the confluence of highways, not city streets, which runs contrary to the idea of what Ebbets Field represented. It is an idea that other planners have incorporated in the new parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and other cities that had built and then torn down parks like Shea. It is the reason Chicagoans fill Wrigley Field even when the Cubs are dreadful. Ebbets Field was a city ballpark, a ballpark to which people could walk. They could pass it on their way to work, and hear the noise from inside when they were heading someplace else. It sat in the middle of a place where many people lived.”

Shea and the Mets grew up together (after leaving the Polo Grounds, of course). It was easy to access from Long Island, even factoring in traffic. Yes, there was nothing to do before or after the game in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the park (unless you needed a muffler from one of the more than 200 auto parts stores). Still, not needing a neighborhood around a ballpark reflected the era of Shea Stadium’s first three decades, until Camden Yards brought back the neighborhood stadium concept.

Without the buffer of fond memories of everyone from Seaver to Piazza to Jane Jarvis, perhaps building a new stadium on the same location — even one whose architecture reflects an old neighborhood feel — highlighted the drawbacks of having a stadium at that location in Flushing, drawbacks that the benefits and fond memories of Shea can no longer mask, drawbacks that may be impacting attendance at the new place.

Bringing in another arena — in the form of the interest shown by the Mets brass in the New York Islanders — may not be the answer. You’d be erecting a big building (and presumably, an eyesore of a parking garage to replace the lost spaces in the current flat parking lot). If you can make it work, the way Baltimore does with its baseball and football stadium as companions in a walkable neighborhood, great. But if you do it incorrectly, you’d be creating more sprawl in a city, not boosting (or re-building) a neighborhood.

What, then, could have been done differently, once the Powers That Be decided to replace Shea? Move the Mets to Atlantic Yards, rather than stealing New Jersey’s mediocre basketball team? (Just deserts for Jersey taking the Giants and Jets, I suppose, but hardly a fair trade.) Ironically, according to Shapiro’s book, the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues was one of the sites that Walter O’Malley liked as a prospective new home for his Brooklyn Dodgers, before he made the fateful decision to vacate to Los Angeles.

Not for the Mets, though. Putting aside the rather significant eminent domain questions that are changing the neighborhood and may curse Bruce Ratner’s plan, and assuming Fred Wilpon could have somehow secured the real estate, such a move would have made the Mets Brooklyn’s team, rather than Queens’.

Flushing Meadows, Shapiro writes, was where Robert Moses wanted to build a stadium, and wanted a team to play there. It wasn’t to be the Dodgers, of course.

But as old Dodger fans would have balked at moving Dem Bums to Queens at the site that would become Shea (though they might have balked less had they comprehended that the L.A. Dodgers would soon be a reality), Mets fans rightly would be up in arms about moving the team out of Queens, particularly since no one was threatening to leave the city, let alone the East Coast.

Shapiro continues:

“But elsewhere across the country Robert Moses’ urban vision is being repudiated, for a few hours at least, by baseball games at the new city ballparks. The parks are small and were designed to feel reminiscent of the ballparks of a bygone America. They draw not only the city people, because passion about a team and about the baseball is not limited to people who live in town. The parks encapsulate the qualities about neighborhoods that urban romantics love to celebrate, qualities people often miss when they are lacking — the company and the conversation.”

So in the end, is this what is missing, something for which Shea was able to compensate, but Citi Field cannot? Is it because there is no walkable neighborhood outside of Citi Field’s boundaries? (And is the neighborhood unwalkable because of decades of neglect by the City, or because of its dominance by those aforementioned auto parts stores, by manufacturing and junkyards?) (See this recent NY Times graphic and map of the neighborhood.)

With concerns over eminent domain in the City’s plans to re-develop Willets Point, what do you do, and will that help revitalize the Mets and the surrounding nabe? Is it my naïveté, but why can’t some mix of a Boomberg-backed redevelopment of restaurants and shops co-exist with auto parts stores and light manufacturing? Isn’t that the definition of mixed use?

If you can’t bring the stadium to a neighborhood, do you — can you — bring the neighborhood to the Citi?

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