Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Corner

The mere mention of the intersections "35th and Shields" or "Clark and Addison" to any true Chicagoan, will induce at the very least a smile of recognition. In the same fashion, to the people of Michigan, who in my experience identify themselves much more with their home state than do the people of Illinois, the words "the corner of Michigan and Trumbull" have the same kind of magic. So intrinsically tied are the intersection and what stood there in the minds of the people of Michigan, that the building that occupied the site for nearly 100 years bore the nickname: "The Corner"

The building and that corner in the neighborhood of Corktown, not far from downtown Detroit, in the words of one person: "brought more people together... in the State of Michigan" than any other.

The building was Tiger Stadium, for 87 years the home of the Detroit Tigers.

There's something about an old ballpark that evokes the kind of reverence that few other buildings could. Even the site of a long lost baseball field as I pointed out a few posts ago, has the kind of emotional pull that could be matched only by sites of a famous battlefields, or perhaps one's first kiss.

Here's a beautiful aerial view of Tiger Stadium I pulled off the web as it looked in happier days, perhaps in the eighties:

No one could accuse Tiger Stadium as having been particularly beautiful, let alone architecturally significant. Yet the significance of buildings is based upon so much more than that. I was never inside the ballpark but from every report I ever heard or read, it was one of the best ballparks ever in the major leagues to watch or play the game. Consistently it was rated among the top five ballparks in which big leaguers preferred to play. Its most distinctive feature was the upper deck that hung over the playing field providing a uniquely intimate experience for fans. Not to mention the history of the game of baseball, and occasionally football, written inside the walls of the joint. Consider this:
  • Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run there on July 13th, 1934.
  • Thirteen years earlier the Babe hit a home run to dead center field, the ball clearing the bleachers (single deck at the time) and landing on the fly across the street from the ballpark. The spot where it landed would be just beyond the right edge of the above photograph. It is considered one of if not the longest home run ever hit during a major league game.
  • Due to the debilitating disease named after him, Lou Gehrig benched himself there in May 2, 1939 which would end his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. That would be the last game of his storied career.
  • Hall of famers who called Tiger Stadium their primary place of business included Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and George Kell, among many others.
  • Tiger Stadium, originally Navin, later Briggs Field, was the second ballpark built on the site at Michigan and Trumbull. It opened on exactly the same day as Fenway Park in Boston, April 12, 1912. 
  • That site hosted nine World Series, the Tigers won four of them, all in the second stadium.
  • In the 1971 All Star game, in a blast that rivaled Babe Ruth's 1921 homer, Reggie Jackson hit a home run that hit the light transformer above the right field roof.
  • On September 27,1999, Tiger journeyman catcher Robert Fick hit a rooftop grand slam off of Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeff Montgomery, marking the 11,111th home run at Tiger Stadium, and the ballpark's final home run, final run, and final hit.
In the year 2000 the Tigers moved out of their old home for a beautiful new stadium downtown. For almost ten years the venerable old park remained, crumbling as a result of benign neglect, while its fate rested in the hands of the City of Detroit, and a number of groups who hoped to save it in some form. Despite being virtually bankrupt, the city pumped four million dollars into keeping the abandoned Tiger Stadium standing. They reached the breaking point in 2008 and finally made an ultimatum with the preservation groups, telling them to either come up with the money, or the landmark would come down. From the photograph below you can see the results.

Here's how the site looks today, from an image grabbed off GoogleMaps:

Despite being declared a State of Michigan Historic Site in 1975 and residing on the list of the National Resister of Historic Places, since 1989, Tiger Stadium was demolished partially in 2008 when there was still hope that a diminished plan to save the original part of the stadium surrounding the infield could still be worked out. When that fell through, the coup de grace was delivered the following year. Here is a link to a sequence of heartbreaking photographs of the demolition. As you can see, the demolition crew was careful not to destroy the actual playing field. Also remaining is the flag pole that stood in center field, in play no less, one of the endearing idiosyncrasies of the ballpark.

Now that the stadium is gone, believe it or not there is yet another bone of contention between the city and some folks who want to preserve what's left of the field. The city government wants to develop the site for commercial purposes, most likely a Walmart, and have fenced off the nine and one half acre site. Meanwhile a group of wildcat preservationists is defying the city, trespassing on city property and passionately taking care of the field with the intent of using it for of all things, playing baseball. Here is a link to a lovely little film posted on the Detroit Free Press site about these folks.

Here is an NPR story about the group known unofficially as the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" and the reaction from City Hall who is giving the folks a tough time, no doubt relating to liability issues. In a quote of classic bureaucratese,  a city official made this incredible remark about the site: cannot be a space for playing baseball. That space is not meant for that.
As a preservation issue, an abandoned stadium is a tough sell. There are few adaptive reuse opportunities for such buildings. With seating capacities well into the tens of thousands, their use as a venue for events that would draw a tiny percentage of that would be ridiculous. They take up a lot of space that could in most cases, be put to more productive use, and it simply costs a fortune to maintain them. The most important thing in my mind as a proponent of preservation, is that once you remove every practical function from a building, what's the point? True there is the historical and sentimental value of keeping an old building as an old friend. But in reality, buildings like people, have life spans. If a building no longer has any purposeful use, it's like having your old friend lying in the hospital on life support, technically alive but clinically dead. Unfortunately Detroit is filled with many such buildings, one of whom, the Michigan Central Station, can be seen in the background of a few shots of the video linked above. That building has stood abandoned since 1988 and continues to await its fate. Until something is done in either direction, it will remain Detroit's most spectacular ruin.

As far as Tiger Stadium is concerned, sorry as I am to say this, I don't have a quarrel with the decision to knock it down. In its ten year period of disintegration, it served as a constant reminder to all who saw it of the decrepitude of the neighborhood. In my opinion, without any hope of funds to restore it properly, it's better that it was allowed to die a natural death.

With the building gone, a new opportunity has arisen for the community. The field is still there, pretty much as it was when Robert Fick hit his grand slam in September, 1999. The site should by all means be made accessible to the public. The folks featured in the film and NPR piece are a dedicated group, who should be given the opportunity to bring the site back to life. I have no doubt that with a little help from the city, (mostly by leaving them alone), the state and yes the Tigers organization and other private groups, that empty lot at Michigan and Trumbull might be turned into a public park where visitors could walk the ground trodden by so many baseball legends of the past. By itself, such a park may not generate much revenue for the city. But considering all the people around the country who are passionate about baseball, done right, that park could draw folks from all over who would chomp at the bit to swing a bat in the batter's boxes where every American League batter between 1901 and 1999 did the same, or pitch a ball from the very mound, or catch a fly ball from the very spot where...

As they are divisional rivals of my team the White Sox, I was never a Tiger fan. Still I have many fond memories of my cross country trips to New York, passing through Detroit radio air space where I would always look forward to hearing the late, great Ernie Harwell calling games from his beloved Tiger Stadium.

Here are his final words from the last Tiger game ever played at "The Corner":
The tradition built here shall endure along with the permanence of the Olde English D. But tonight we must say good-bye. Farewell, old friend Tiger Stadium. We will remember.
If they built a park at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street that preserved the old field, I would certainly consider taking a trip to Detroit with my son. We'd go to The Corner and maybe join in on a pickup game there on that hallowed spot. Then perhaps we'd take in a Tigers game at Comerica Park, or a Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena depending on the time of year. We'd buy some souvenirs, have dinner and maybe spend the night. Then the next day we'd check out Belle Isle, the DIA and some of the other sights of that long neglected city. Heck maybe we'd even stop in the new Walmart built somewhere in old Corktown and buy some stuff. I'm sure lots of others would do exactly the same.

As for the idea of building a Walmart on the site of old Tiger Stadium, all I can say to city officials is this: go to Google Maps, type in "Michigan and Trumbull, Detroit", click on "Satellite View" and try to find another empty spot in the vicinity where you could build it.

It won't be hard.

The point is that contrary to Daniel Burnham's famous quote, not all the great ideas are big ones; some great ideas start out small and grow bigger and bigger.

This may very well be one of them.

1 comment:

Pete said...

How utterly ridiculous that the city of Detroit, home to thousands of acres of vacant lots, would designate this particular hallowed property for commercial development. The field should be preserved. Build a Wal-Mart somewhere else.