Spaces Define Us

Technically, American sports stadiums are not public spaces. They are a mix of public and private property, and usually private companies are contracted to operate and oversee what goes on inside them. Laws, culture, and custom largely determine how people behave and interact within these spaces. Purpose, technology, ideas and mores dictate what the spaces are composed of, how they look, and how they are used.

These spaces have changed over time. Intentions of the builders have changed. How they are secured and controlled is different from the past. Importantly, the feelings they evoke once inside these edifices are worth reflecting upon. What do these spaces say about the developers, the tenants…about us? Can we make generalizations about society at large based on these spaces? Do these spaces define us?

Elites have always been responsible for stadium developments. In St. Louis in the 1960’s, the Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation, in concert with the Chamber of Commerce, planned a new baseball stadium downtown. These two groups were all male, and all white in those days.

Busch Stadium II, as it is known now, was publicly financed. The stadium was viewed and designed to be part of an intensive urban redevelopment of the downtown core. City leaders wanted to see more foot traffic and economic activity downtown, at night. Of course, Chinatown was demolished, along with flop houses and a strip club.

There was a pretense of public purpose. The stadium was capped by a crown of arches, recalling and reflecting the Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial nearby. St. Louisans were proud of the moniker “The Gateway to the West”, and its symbolic representation in the space that is the tallest public monument in the nation.

By its design, the stadium encouraged openness and mixing, as its concourses wrapped entirely around the outside of the bowl. One could traverse around the stadium entirely, on almost every level. For instance, if one had a ticket for level two, a person could make a circuit of the building from that level. Show your ticket, take a walk, have an adventure. Busch Memorial Stadium trumpeted itself as a civic gathering place. Residents considered the completion of the stadium to be progress, a sign of moving forward into the future.

Even as a child, one knew that spaces were cordoned off, passes might be needed, security was a priority. However, the control effected felt commensurate with “the threat”, whatever that might be, and in line with bureaucratic practices of the time where large gatherings of people took place.

As soon as the new ownership group took over from Anheuser-Busch, they threatened to move the baseball team across the river to Illinois. They asserted that the old stadium would leave them unable to compete in the new baseball economy. They derided the stadium as “cookie cutter”–a relic of false notions of progress, a multi-purpose disaster. It was outmoded, and they wanted a fixed-purpose building.

They almost secured public funding, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001, and in the middle of a recession, the state turned down the idea. Private interests, coupled with state and municipal sweeteners and inducements, kept the team in downtown St. Louis, and Busch Stadium III opened for business in 2006. Busch Stadium II lasted for 39 years.

The new stadium is cookie cutter in a different way. Baseball fans, critics, and builders had become enamored of the “retro” style of baseball parks that came into vogue at the beginning of the 1990’s. Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Progressive Field in Cleveland, were hailed as especially attractive combinations of classic looks and modern utility. Architects specifically worked to recall older places, by leaving the outfield mostly open, to create views of urban architecture, or open water. They used brick instead of concrete. They would be baseball-only, as they were in the past, before Astroturf and the incursion of the National Football League. They nodded to the past.

The new Busch Stadium is a spectacle to see. Ballpark Village, which is actually across the street to the north, looks, from inside the stadium, to be attached to the building. There is deck seating on top of a spread of commercial businesses on the property, with the names “Cardinal Nation” and “AT&T Rooftop”.

Oddly, needing to compete meant fewer seats for sale–Busch III holds about 10,000 fewer people than its late-20th century forerunner. It’s more exclusive.

What matters to the visitor in his physical interaction with a space are how can one literally move through it, and how those who operate the facility have you move. Here is where the two stadiums diverge both in physical space and philosophy. One cannot traverse around the new stadium by any concourse. Steps and ramps are silo-ed–dedicated to particular sections or suites. Even level one, the walkway that separates sections one from two, involves cul-de-sacs and dead-ends. You can’t get there from here. They will tell you that. No hard feelings, it’s true.

So a new imperative is in place. The building discourages openness and mixing of people. It is inconvenient for vendors or the public to have to roam, as they might have in the past, so sections are more tightly gridded and staffed. No one should have to go far for anything.

From an existential or political point of view, the sense in the new park is one of stratification of people, of control of the body. There are signs along the railing inside the section one walkway that say “Please, No Standing”. To get to one’s seat, one needs to be very close to his seat, and be prepared to show his ticket. There is only one entrance to what are called the “green seats”, the first class seats behind the screen. This entrance is secured and one may be frisked. One walks through doors, goes down two flights of steps, and arrives in a posh restaurant and bar area. Exit to the east and arrive in a private walkway with access only to the green seats. If there’s a fire, run for the batter’s eye. Get arrested for going on the field. (OK.)

The “feel” is not in line with one’s expectations about movement within a space where games are played. There is a slightly threatening air that emanates not from the ambling crowd, but from the emboldened staff, who have been given leeway to express their authority more directly within the confines of the law.

Shooting is big, in the form of fireworks and wadded-up t-shirts. One remembers a time where advertising wasn’t allowed in certain parts of a stadium. At Busch, one is overwhelmed by signage; fairly no corner is left unmonetized. One is exhorted to consume–spend money–but don’t get nosy besides.

Ideology was expressed in the building’s layout. How the people who use the facility interact with that layout determines its feel. The feeling is of a pall cast by fear and over-reaction. One can ignore it, and enjoy the game. Like most things retro, though, the facsimile evinces the memory of good things through form and not substance. Ironically, they obliterate the possibility of physical memory, the sense of freedom of movement afforded by spaces designed with an ethos of equality, however pretentious or unfounded.

Spaces, and how they’re patrolled, define us. What will today’s crowd think of us?

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