It will surprise no one that I read a couple of baseball books and watched several games while on vacation. But it may surprise you to know that the best piece of writing I read which included baseball as its subject came from the opening pages of psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s 2004 book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It. She begins chapter one with several powerful paragraphs. I’m going to quote extensively from those two pages.
“Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic. One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hard-working people enjoyed baseball. That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field. It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and there that ‘Shorty’s Sym-Phony Band’ tortured the opposition. Words like ‘raucous’ and ‘zany’ are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity, and the uniqueness of what went on.
In 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles. The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of the fans. ‘I felt like a jilted lover,’ recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life. Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Fields and in particular, to try to take us into its magic. This is the real essence of ‘nostalgia,’ an emotion that is in one second bitter and in another sweet, as the remembrance vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss. Enduring sorrow and untampered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘I never rooted for them again,’ says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.
Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site. People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there. And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished. Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray. The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.
But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth largest city in the United States (were Brooklyn independent of New York City)?
The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places—buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations—are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter. Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them. When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams. Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food. The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad. Try to find the shortcut you use to take to your best friend’s house and it is your feet that will carry you there. The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.
Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people. We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care. When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”
People and places are intertwined. It is why, when discussing preservation’s future, so many people we spoke with over the past two years focused on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings. In these six paragraphs, Dr. Fullilove captures that connection in an eloquent and personal way. I began my preservation career in August of 1977, and coming out of a vacation four decades later I’m still excited to have the opportunity to help people see, understand, and honor the places that awaken our “sinews and bones, where the days of our lives have been recorded.”
Have a great week.
More to come…
Image: Ebbets Field (photo credit: A Slice of Brooklyn)