Review of Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture

Review of Lisle, Benjamin. Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 328, 76 illustrations, Notes and index. $34.95, cloth back.

Reviewed by Frank Andre Guridy

Modern Coliseums

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture is a timely and important contribution to sports studies that helps us understand why urban elites have rushed to build stadiums in their cities across the United States. Following the footsteps of Robert Trumpbour, Eric Avila, Neil Sullivan, and others, the book ambitiously attempts to chart the changes in stadium construction in the post-World War II city in the United States. He explores how the stadium transitioned from the asymmetrical “classic ballpark” in densely populated urban neighborhoods to the modern stadium of the post-World period, characterized by symmetrical design, spaciousness, and consumerism, often built in suburbanized areas with access to automobile transit. “The postwar modernization of professional sports space,” he argues, “regularized the form of the modern stadium in city after city” (p.6).

Lisle starts his exploration in post World War II-Brooklyn, where he claims the modern stadium was born out of Dodger owner Walter O’Malley’s efforts to escape Ebbets Field to build a new “modernist” stadium, which he eventually constructed, not in congested Brooklyn, but in suburbanizing Los Angeles with his building of Dodger Stadium. He further develops the theme of suburbanization in his second chapter, when he follows the movement of the New York Mets Major League Baseball franchise from the Polo Grounds, the then aging Harlem ballpark to the building of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows in 1964. The fourth chapter, which is perhaps the strongest of the book, is an insightful analysis of the building of the Houston Astrodome and the skillful boosterism of Roy Hofheinz, the former mayor and county judge who spearheaded the construction of what was the first fully enclosed, climate controlled stadium. By conquering the rugged Texas heat with varied synthetic technologies, the Dome “had one-upped Shea Stadium, making the stadium even more like the suburban home than its counterpart in Queens” (p. 147). A fifth chapter builds upon the work of George Lipsitz, Colin Gordon, and others, to detail the ways in which the building of Busch Stadium in the 1960s was embedded in the entanglements of urban renewal politics. The final chapter seeks to encapsulate trends in stadium construction since 1970, tracing the shift from the “cookie cutter modernism” of facilities like Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium to the retro ballpark phenomenon that has sucked up precious public dollars after the opening of the beloved Camden Yards in 1991.

Lisle’s narrative hits on themes familiar to historians of post-World War II United States, showing how stadium construction was part of broader trends of US history: urban renewal, the “urban crisis,” and “suburbanization.” And yet this is precisely the root of the flaws of the book. As a work of architectural history, Modern Coliseum successfully examines how stadium builders, critics, and sportswriters imagined stadiums and their functions. But as a work of cultural history, the work is less successful in revealing how fans, athletes, and workers—the primary constituents of these arenas—experienced these stadiums. Lisle’s visual evidence, particularly the many panoramic photos of stadiums in crowded neighborhoods or in “suburban” spaces convey key aspects of his argument, but it obscures the ways bodies, rendered as tiny specks in those images, created distinct ballpark cultures, even in the era of “cookie cutter modernism” in the 1960s and 70s. Moreover, in a period when people of color and women are entering and transforming sporting spaces in unprecedented ways, they primarily appear in the book as targets of exclusionary or commodifying practices. In these ways, Lisle’s book falls prey to his attempt to “square national trends in stadium design and culture with more particular accounts in specific urban settings” (p. 6). A birdseye national view can tell us about larger trends in stadium design, but it does not tell us as much about the particular publics constituted in and around the ballparks themselves.

For example, in the late 1970s, my father, a Dominican immigrant sports fan, periodically scrounged up money from his two jobs working as a security guard to take us to see Met games at Shea Stadium. Though Shea had no bleacher sections, it did have plenty of cheap general admission seats in the upper deck that were widely available during these years when the moribund Mets, under manager Joe Torre, routinely finished in last place in the National League Eastern Division. I recall us riding in whatever used car he was driving at the moment on the Van Wyck Expressway, past the stench from the toxic waste that was dumped in the Willets Point neighborhood near the stadium. My father, always looking to save a buck, hated paying to park his car in the official parking lot, so he often found spots in unofficial “parking spaces” amidst the junk yards and auto shops that existed near the stadium. His strategy proved risky on at least one occasion, when his car along with others in the unofficial spots, was burglarized—a rite of passage for New Yorkers at the time, whether they lived in Queens, Harlem, or the South Bronx. But that didn’t matter to me, as some of my fondest memories as a kid were sitting in sparsely attended ballgames at Shea in the 1970s and 80s. Neither did it matter to other loyal Met fans who made the virtually empty stadium their own.

On one occasion, a fan, clearly inspired by a controlled substance of some sort, decided to convert our section of the upper deck into his own personal playground. With a crazed look in his eye, he repurposed the hand railing in the steep upper deck stairway into a slide that he used to glide down the aisle and land wherever he desired, including on fellow patrons. I looked on with a mixture of fear and awe as he repeated this act several times even though he was clearly annoying his fellow Met rooters. Finally, after fans used an assortment of tactics to try to stop him, including fists, shoves, and kicks, a security guard was eventually located to escort the fan out of the stadium. These were some of my formative memories attending baseball games at Shea and Yankee Stadium in this period. Though, as Lisle’s book shows us, stadiums like Shea were designed for affluent, seemingly well-behaved suburban patrons, the crowds who congregated at “modernist” Shea, like most crowds in the 1970s and 80s, spectated in a manner that was just as unruly as their ancestors who attended games at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.

George Vecsey, the longtime New York Times sports columnist and one of the figures Lisle cites in his book, also remarked on the riotous behavior at Mets games. Following the Mets championship victory in game five of the 1969 World Series, he wrote: “The wild-eyed fans who poured on the field yesterday certainly seemed like the same inspired madmen who discovered the Mets at the Polo Grounds in 1962 and transferred out to Shea in 1964.”[1] As I saw again and again as a spectator, Shea, like Yankee Stadium, had developed a reputation for having one of the more rambunctious crowds during the 1970s and 80s. Shea was the site of some of the notorious episodes of crowd violence during the Mets’ pennant winning years of 1969 and 1973, when fans tossed whiskey bottles at opponents and charged the field after Met postseason victories. In fact, some of the same sportswriters who mourned the “domestification” of the crowd in the 1960s, lamented the misbehavior of sports crowds in ballparks and arenas all over the United States just a few years later. The rowdiness of the ballpark did not go away during the era of “cookie cutter modernism.” However, it did become largely contained after the advent of the hyper-securitized and segregated ballparks and arenas that have been built since Camden Yards, a transformation that Lisle underestimates in his sweeping narrative of the post-1970 era.[2] Here we see the limits, not only of Lisle’s analysis, but also of the suburbanization-urban crisis story that still dominates our understanding of US society in this period. This story silences the experiences of people of color and other minoritized subjects and worse, provides convenient rationales for the apologists of contemporary stadiums which have truly gentrified sports spectating in unprecedented ways.

Ultimately, Lisle’s book highlights essential questions for historians and scholars of sport: do sporting spaces simply replicate the visions of team owners, architects, and corporate elites? Or do they contain the potential to disrupt and upend elite projects, as they have in the past? While these questions fall outside the purview of Modern Coliseum, nevertheless the book enhances our understanding of the stadium construction craze that continues to transfix urban elites and sports fans in the present.

Frank Andre Guridy is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Columbia University. He recently published “What’s Good for Boyle Heights has been Good at the Los Angeles Coliseum,” Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies 4 (2017), 83-99 and is currently at work on two book projects: The Athletic Revolution in Texas: A History of Sport and Society in the Lone Star State and The People’s Playground: The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Rise of a Global City.

[1] George Vecsey, “After the game, delirious rooters tear up field,” New York Times, October 17, 1969.

[2] Richard Giulianotti’s useful analysis of the commodification and securitization of the stadium environment in the English Premier League since the 1990s can be usefully applied to stadium construction in the United States in recent decades. See Giuliannotti, “Sports Mega Events, Urban Football, Carnivals and Securitised Commodification: The Case of the English Premier League,” Urban Studies 48 (2011), 3293-3310.

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