Like a lot of people I know, I’ve been struggling these last few days with the news coming out of Baltimore. It is simultaneously sad, infuriating, and not at all surprising. I don’t feel like I have much to contribute to the wealth of blog posts, commentaries, and columns that have been published in the last few days on the murder of Freddie Gray and the reality on the ground in Baltimore. If you want to read some good ones, check out Heather Thompson, Alex Elkins, Will Bunch, and Ta-Nehisi Coates among others. As I was reading Dave Zirin’s piece on Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the protests on Saturday I realized I might have something to contribute to the discussion, albeit something smaller than what the above-linked authors have written.
As a historian who writes about the fan experience at baseball games, the decision to play Wednesday’s Orioles-White Sox game in front of an empty stadium is certainly an interesting one. Camden Yards was the first of a wave of urban baseball stadiums built in the 1990s and 2000s that were baseball-specific, relied on nostalgia about older stadiums and urban life, and were part of urban renewal programs. These urban renewal programs of the 1990s were part of what John Hannigan described as a Fantasy City in his 1998 book by that same title. Essentially, Hannigan argued that these fantasy cities were like Disneyland for people who wanted to garner the cultural capital the came with urban experiences, but without the risks involved with being in a city, notably interacting with poorer people. Hannigan argued these urban spaces were inauthentic, did not present a true urban experience, and existed mainly for people who do not live in the city. The key drawing point for these fantasy cities was that they presented a nostalgic view of urban America as safe, secure, and prosperous without interacting with actual city life.
Camden Yards and the baseball stadiums that were inspired by it, are meant to feel as though they exist within the city without actually carrying the full experience of the city. They are meant to be spaces where fans are protected from “risks” and discomfort. In Baltimore, on Wednesday, the only way to preserve that fantasy is by keeping all the fans away from the stadium. That, I think, says a lot about why calling positive attention to the grave problems in American cities has been so difficult. It just doesn’t fit with Americans’ fantasies about our nation.