|U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox. Source: sportingnews.com|
As a displaced Detroit Tigers fan who adopted the Chicago White Sox as my team, I must offer a hearty congratulations to the Cubs for reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945 (against the Tigers, which they LOST! Yes!) But I recently published a piece at my Forbes site that detailed my thoughts on how the Cubs have been an integral institution in Chicago’s revitalization. The Cubs’ growth in prominence, particularly from 1969 until today, parallels the city’s transition from Rust Belt to Global City. Conversely, the White Sox have diminished in prominence over the same span. I realized the Sox missed out on the locational advantages the Cubs enjoyed, and circumstances and mistakes have hurt them.
Once again, readers may ask, “what does any of this have to do with cities?”, so let me explain. Baseball, I believe, holds a special place as a sport that is an institution and amenity for the places they call home. As the nation’s oldest professional team sport, it has an enduring history in many of our largest cities. In its early years, major league teams sought to establish close relationships with the neighborhoods that surrounded them; with 77 (and now 81) home games scheduled each year, that was just a good business practice. Teams in other sports have tried to replicate the institution/amenity feel, with varying degrees of success. Basketball and hockey are winter sports and played indoors. Football plays to much larger crowds and with far fewer games, and is far more likely to be viewed as a neighborhood intrusion than an amenity. But baseball is summer. It’s (mostly) outdoors. It can be easily integrated into a neighborhood fabric. So, yes, I see baseball teams, baseball stadiums, as having an outsized impact on city revitalization that other sports teams can’t compete with.
What I tried to capture in my Forbes piece is that before the Cubs enjoyed their current baseball success, they have for some decades enjoyed that locational success, and parlayed that into a successful partnership with the surrounding neighborhood. From that piece:
“Starting in 1969, the Cub mythology begins to grow, and television becomes a bigger part of it. Chicago kids would come home from school to watch day baseball games. Plays by David Mamet were being written about bleacher bums. At the same time, the economies of north and south were continuing to diverge. Institutions like DePaul and Loyola University, Children’s Hospital, and others, were attracting more of the Midwest’s best and brightest to study and work. And the Cubs became a very attractive amenity to people returning to cities exactly for that reason.
Meanwhile, as the Cubs became more popular in the late ’60s, the luster on the White Sox began to dim. The Bridgeport neighborhood that is home to the Sox is in many respects the polar opposite of the Cubs’ Lake View neighborhood. It’s working-class, with far fewer eds and meds institutions, and a Bronzeville neighborhood — also known as the Black Belt — that stood between it and the south lakefront. While Cubs fans sitting in the upper reaches could see sailboats on the lake, Sox fans could see a never-ending row of public housing towers.
Beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s the fortunes of the Cubs and White Sox diverged as dramatically as their respective parts of the city.
It was in the 1980s that the real and enduring changes occurred. WGN became a cable television superstation, and now Cub games were broadcast nationally. Throughout the ’80s, especially with Harry Caray at the helm in the broadcast booth, every game was a celebration of what Chicago, and specifically North Side Chicago, had to offer. A jewel of a ballpark, day baseball, views of sailboats on Lake Michigan and a dramatic skyline nearby — all of this became not just a Midwestern phenomenon, but a national one. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Midwestern kids who dreamed of moving to big city Chicago. It became national.”
In other words, the heart of Cubbie fandom lies in its place: the old ballpark, the surrounding neighborhood, the bars and restaurants, the nearby lakefront, even the nearby eds and meds institutions that employ many of the neighborhood’s residents — they all blend together to create a unique and enviable environment.
The Cubs are one of just a handful of major league baseball teams that have maintained a strong neighborhood identity and association. Out of 30 MLB teams, just nine are located in neighborhood locations today, with 18 located in downtown areas and three in the suburbs (I’m including the Atlanta Braves here, who move to suburban Cobb County starting in 2017). Here are the nine so-called neighborhood teams, located at least two miles outside of the center of a city’s CBD:
- New York Yankees
- Boston Red Sox
- Chicago White Sox
- New York Mets
- Philadelphia Phillies
- Washington Nationals
- Miami Marlins
- Oakland Athletics
- Chicago Cubs
- Comiskey’s hemmed-in geography. The home of the White Sox has long been hemmed in by two freight rail lines, about a third of a mile apart — the Norfolk Southern line on the west and the Rock Island on the east. For much of its stretch on the South Side, the narrow corridor has been treated as a no-man’s land with manufacturing uses, intermodal facilities, and poor quality housing strewn in. The intact Bridgeport neighborhood lies further west, and Bronzeville further east. A look at an aerial of U.S. Cellular Field highlights this:
- Lack of nearby institutions and amenities. Several key institutions are located near Wrigley Field — DePaul and Loyola universities, several hospitals — that make the area an attractive place to live. Near old Comiskey, the much smaller Illinois Institute of Technology and Mercy Hospital are still there, but their presence might not be felt in the same way in the community as those further north.
- Public housing construction. The year 1949 began a 20-year period where public housing was constructed just to the east of Comiskey Park. Dearborn Homes, Stateway Gardens, and Robert Taylor Homes were built within eyesight of Comiskey over that period, concentrating tens of thousands of low-income residents along the area’s eastern edge.
- Dan Ryan Expressway construction. Between 1957 and 1962, the Dan Ryan Expressway was constructed just feet from Comiskey’s eastern edge. Remember the narrow rail corridor? The 16-lane expressway, with a new public transit line in the median, made it even narrower.
- Stay — and partner with commercial and residential developers. In the late ’80s, when the White Sox threatened to leave Chicago and received the public gift of U.S. Cellular Field in return, a counter-proposal was floated by Chicago architect Philip Bess to create Armour Field. It was to be a stadium that wouldn’t just be firmly integrated into the fabric of the surrounding community — it would create community where none currently existed. Take a look:
- Find another neighborhood site on the South Side. There are likely other spots on the South Side that don’t have the constraints that prevent Cubs-style community cohesiveness. I don’t know where they are, but I’m sure there’s something out there. It would probably come with some neighborhood resistance, and have the same cost challenges inherent in the above scenario.
- Find a downtown or near-downtown location. It’s quite possible that in a two-team baseball market, only one team can be the “neighborhood” team. If so, the Cubs are it. The White Sox could find a site downtown or nearby (to be sure, very expensive) and begin to shed their South Side identity by becoming the team at the center of the metro area. Even though they’re not in a two-team market, the Detroit Tigers invigorated their fan base by moving from antiquated Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park in 2000, leaving the city’s Corktown neighborhood for a downtown locale. Of course, the last option would be to…
- Move to the suburbs. The White Sox flirted with suburban locations as well as the Tampa/St. Petersburg area in the late ’80s. However, suburban stadium locations are seen less often today, particularly for baseball stadiums (Atlanta Braves excepted). Perhaps it’s because suburbs or suburban counties are less able to put together the public financing packages that team owners often demand (or extort?). Honestly, I see this as highly unlikely, as the return-to-the-city movement is moving ahead in Chicago as much as anywhere.