Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Camden Yards may have been a groundbreaking project, but plenty of locals still long for a less stylish sports past.
Quality baseball has returned to Baltimore this September. Just not where most Orioles fans remember watching games that mattered.
While Camden Yards has supplied its own playoff memories (two consecutive ALCS appearances in 1996 and '97), many of the Orioles’ defining moments occurred in Memorial Stadium, a place as architecturally forgettable as any other multi-sport facility of its time. But as banal as it appeared (and as annoying as game days could be to neighbors), Memorial Stadium hosted an impressive number of culturally defining moments delivered by local heroes; priceless stuff for a city whose civic identity is so closely tied to sports.
The project that has replaced Memorial Stadium is almost entirely free of historical context or eye-catching scale. That might sting for sports fans. But the neighborhood is mostly pleased with what is now 'Stadium Place,' a cluster of unexciting but community-focused developments on the site of the former stadium since its demolition.
The sights and sounds of Baltimore's Waverly Neighborhood on a Ravens game day in 1996.
The Orioles played their last game on 33rd Street in 1991, moving to Camden Yards the next spring. City officials and residents put off any serious redevelopment initiatives while Baltimore continued to pursue a football franchise after losing its NFL team in 1983.
A Canadian Football League franchise played at Memorial Stadium in 1994 and 1995, leaving for Montreal when the NFL’s Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore. The newly named Ravens set up in Memorial Stadium, but it was clear the team expected new digs as soon as possible. Memorial was similar to the Cleveland facility that led owner Art Modell to relocate his Browns in the first place. The state and city agreed to build the team a new home downtown while the Ravens made do for two years.
Once its fate as a professional sports facility was sealed, surrounding neighborhoods and local officials spent about a year putting together a plan for redevelopment. The Waverly neighborhood is in many ways quintessential Baltimore. It's quirky and diverse, displaying a post-industrial urban atmosphere where immigrants, college students, blacks and whites converge into a stimulating mix of quaint row homes, distressed storefronts, and mural art.
Despite the cultural significance of the stadium, saving and preserving it never took hold beyond particularly passionate local sports fans. "There was not a huge groundswell for its preservation” says Laurie Feinberg, division chief of Baltimore’s Department of Planning.
That’s not to say the sentiment didn’t exist. To some fans, Memorial Stadium was unpretentious and inviting, while Camden Yards felt like a kitschy, amenity-filled, tourist attraction in comparison. "It was like blue collar, it was more my kind. I felt like I was going to a neighborhood pub," a long time season ticket holder told Baltimore Magazine last spring. A 2002 documentary titled The Last Season shows the facility in its final days, highlighting the emotional attachments of fans, catching them as they came to admire the stadium one final time, in some instances, salvaging bits of its remains.
Even the stadium’s visually arresting main entrance, a memorial to America’s fallen soldiers written in a custom made Art Deco typeface, was demolished with the rest of the building. The final sentence of the memorial ("Time will not dim the glory of their deeds") was salvaged and re-assembled in front of Camden Yards.
What has come to replace the stadium is a mix of elderly care facilities, parks, and a YMCA gradually constructed over the past decade.
GEDCO, an affordable housing and supportive services organization, was awarded the title of Master Developer for Stadium Place. It has supplied hundreds of low income seniors with housing and services on site. On the southeast quadrant of the property, Maryland's first Green House Project, a LEED Silver complex that attempts to de-institutionalize living spaces for the elderly, opened this April.
A ring road circles around where Memorial Stadium's playing field once stood; a rare clue into its past. Inside it now sits Memorial Field at the Y, a $1.5 million multi-purpose field. It's a part of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation's "Swing for the Future program" which is dedicated to building baseball fields for at-risk youth in low income neighborhoods. Memorial Field not only serves as the organization's flagship but gives the YMCA a well-maintained sports facility and one of the best spots to play lacrosse, soccer, football or baseball in the area.
Parking and crowd noise might have bothered residents in the past but its quieter present doesn't mean it's better off. Almost every census tract that could have called Memorial Stadium a neighbor has continued to see population declines since its demolition. Stadium Lounge, a short walk from the old field and once a go-to spot for a drink on game day, has become more of a neighborhood nuisance since losing its event traffic. Last year, residents spoke out against the bar, including its policy of selling alcohol starting at six o'clock each morning. And Stadium Place itself has experienced setbacks. Its elaborate playground was burnt by vandals in 2008, later rebuilt and proclaimed by City Paper as Baltimore's best playground. Earlier this year, the YMCA was vandalized in the middle of the night.
Still, there's a sense that what Stadium Place has become is a more comfortable fit for the community, even if it doesn't stir any excitement. "Perhaps it seems as a bit of an underutilization. In the end, it's still a very popular and successful project," says Feinberg. "Maybe you can call it a ‘realistic’ project."
With the consistent success of the Ravens, locals don't long for the days of the Colts as much as they used to. As a new era of Orioles baseball takes off, older fans may finally be able to let go of Memorial Stadium, an emotional crutch for those who want a connection to better days. Stadium Place is clearly not intended for nostalgia. It's for a neighborhood that has long been ready to move on.
Top image: An Orioles game at Memorial Stadium in 1987. Image courtesy Flickr user rjcox.