My argument: a championship does not bring lasting urban hope or change

As the World Series gets underway with two starved fan bases, I’m sure some will suggest that a win for the Cubs or Indians will be good for their cities. A victory will give their Rust Belt cities suffering from numerous problems a needed boost.

I don’t think it works this way. Sports are primarily (1) entertainment and (2) business. On the first point, a win will excite people. It may scratch something off their bucket list to see their team win. There will be joy. But, cities have plenty of entertainment options and people will move on. See the White Sox: they had their own World Series drought before winning in 2005. But, where are they now? They have been an average to mediocre team in recent years and the hope is gone (as evidenced by the lack of fans attending games as well as by the general lack of interest). As the win moves further and further into the past, it will linger in memories but people will find other entertainment options. More and more, fans require their team to win now or lately. Maybe the leash will be a bit longer in Chicago or Cleveland but eventually fans will become upset if they don’t win again.

As for the business side, a win brings in money with more games (tickets, concessions), more merchandise sold, and a higher value for the franchise. Generally, we’re told by team owners and other boosters that sports franchises boost the local economy. However, related to the entertainment side, studies suggest if teams moved elsewhere, residents and visitors would simply spend their money elsewhere (rather than that money disappearing from the city). Who benefits most financially when teams win? Owners.

A championship does not affect the fundamental issues facing cities. Is Cleveland really a better place to live because the Cavaliers finally won? Did the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win set Chicago on a better course? All those Bulls and Blackhawks titles? The fans may have felt better, the city could celebrate, the owners could see their valuations go up, and regular city life would eventually go on. Manufacturing jobs were lost, white residents continued to flee for the suburbs, public schools and other local institutions suffered, politicians and leaders looked out for their own, and so on.

A championship may be for the fans but it is not really for the city.

 

 

Troubled football player to be saved by move to the suburbs

It could be the content of an urban sociology Onion article: ESPN reports that Johnny Manziel is showing progress by leaving the city for the suburbs.

Johnny Manziel is taking a positive step since checking out of a rehab facility in early April.

The Browns quarterback has moved out of his downtown Cleveland apartment and into a golf course community in a suburb west of town, according to a source.

Golf has been a constructive outlet for Manziel since his return, the source said…

The QB’s old home, the Metropolitan at The 9, was the site of an alleged Nov. 22 assault of a fan by a member of Manziel’s “entourage” at 2:36 a.m. Manziel was not listed as a suspect, and the fan, Chris Gonos, later apologized publicly. Manziel said shortly after the incident that the fan aggressively approached him.

Like many white millennials or young professionals before him, Manziel had his bachelor days in the city but now has decided to take up golf and live a more conservative life amidst the big houses and greenery of the suburbs. No word yet on whether he will add the frustration of commuting into the city to his list of issues facing him on a daily basis.

Knowing when to fold ’em

The Washington Post had a fascinating article yesterday about how banks are responding to one city’s foreclosure crisis:

Cleveland — The sight of excavators tearing down vacant buildings has become common in this foreclosure-ravaged city, where the housing crisis hit early and hard. But the story behind the recent wave of demolitions is novel — and cities around the country are taking notice. A handful of the nation’s largest banks have begun giving away scores of properties that are abandoned or otherwise at risk of languishing indefinitely and further dragging down already depressed neighborhoods.

This closely mirrors the approach that Youngstown, another Ohio city, has taken to their dwindling population:

Even when the result is an empty lot, it can be one less pockmark. While some widespread demolitions could risk hollowing out the urban core of struggling cities such as Cleveland, advocates say that the homes being targeted are already unsalvageable and that the bulldozers are merely “burying the dead.”

However, unlike in Youngstown where that city is simply trying to shrink to a manageable size, the Cleveland demolitions are already leading to redevelopment:

The demolitions in some cases have paved the way for community gardens, church additions and parking lots.

For good or ill, this looks to be a growing trend for some time. The article notes that New York, Philadelphia, Georgia, and others have or soon will pass laws similar to the ones Cleveland used to authorize its land bank and teardowns. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of foreclosed property candidates:

At the end of August, the nation’s banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had an inventory of more than 816,000 foreclosed properties on their books waiting for a buyer, according to RealtyTrac. An additional 800,000 are working their way through the foreclosure process.

H/t to the ABA Journal for the original link pointing me to the Post article.

Cities that are losing population

The list of the top seven American cities in population loss (measured as a percentage of total population) is not surprising: New Orleans, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Rochester (NY). And outside of New Orleans, why these cities have lost population is also not difficult to figure out: a loss of manufacturing jobs.

But a list like this raises some questions about cities:

1. Is it that unusual for cities to lose population? If cities can boom, as these cities did during the industrial boom, why can’t they also go bust?

2. The headline on the article is misleading: “US cities running out of people.” There are still plenty of people in these communities – what is unusual is that the population is declining.

3. Is there a point where these population losses will stabilize? I always wonder this about cities – some people stay because there are still some jobs, particularly medical, municipal, and service jobs available.

4. Is there something the federal government could do to help these communities reverse these trends? Is there a public interest in not letting cities like these slowly die?

5. Measuring the city’s population is perhaps not the best way to go about it. How have the metropolitan populations changed? Are there still people in the region? This would make a difference.

Again trying to link the fate of Cleveland with LeBron James

With LeBron James returning to Cleveland, ESPN has another story about how Cleveland has suffered. But let me take a few pieces of this story and offer an alternative explanation of what has happened to Cleveland:

The issue is not really sports – LeBron James is just the symptom. The real issue is similar to that of many Rust Belt cities – manufacturing jobs left, the population shrunk, and the city’s glory disappeared. The city has tried some various tricks: funding new sports stadiums and building the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

So when LeBron James, a local kid become star, joined the Cavaliers, the city perked up. Having James meant recognition, new money, and a chance for lasting glory with championships. When James left without bringing the championships, it turned into a cruel joke – the city is still recognized but as the place with terrible luck.

Having James for as long as they did masked the true problems of Cleveland. In fact, if James hadn’t played for the Cavaliers, there may be no one writing anything about Cleveland at all. For almost a decade, Cleveland could dream of sports and glory rather than thinking about what should be done to turn the city around. It won’t be easy: some of the ideas associated with reviving Detroit, which has drawn its own share of attention, are pretty drastic. Some other ideas that could be tried: developing park land along the water, building upon academic institutions, or trying to attract or develop newer industries.

Ultimately, the losing sports teams aren’t the issue. Sure, most cities would like to win championships. But the bigger issue is coping with or reversing the Rust Belt decline. LeBron wasn’t the answer – and Cleveland is still searching.

Like Cubs fans wanted the reminder: seventh anniversay of Bartman incident

Seven years ago today, the lives of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs became inextricably linked. It was a sad night, one I remember vividly – in a span of mere minutes, the Cubs went from World Series hopefuls to unlovable losers.

But beyond the emotions (which apparently are still running high), it is interesting to see how this has entered the collective memory of Cubs fans and other sports fans. The media is playing a role:

But fair or not, Bartman’s legacy remains intact, perpetuated by the national media. Fox Sports aired a promo for the 2010 NLCS that featured a freeze-frame shot of Bartman going for the ball. ESPN had scheduled Academy Award winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary on Bartman for their “30-30” series to coincide with the start of the World Series.

But the film, entitled “Catching Hell,” was recently pushed back from Oct. 26 to some time in 2011 at the request of Gibney. No air date has been scheduled, an ESPN spokesman said.

In the narrative of Cubs fandom, Bartman has become an interesting figure, an innocent fan who became a scapegoat for the futility of a popular franchise. Why exactly do Cubs fans need or want a scapegoat? Why is Cubs management (the Ricketts) still even talking about the curse and wanting a manager who understand all of this backstory?

The narrative of sports is almost more important than the events or outcomes themselves.One important event can lead to a long-standing narrative of triumph or defeat. Particularly during the long baseball season, fans are consistently engaged with historical moments and what-ifs. To be a true fan means one truly has the ability to know the narrative and to fully buy into it as a story worth telling and retelling. And narratives between teams can be similar (though never exactly the same – the pain of Cleveland vs. the pain of Chicago Cubs fan is interesting to think about): Gibney is a Red Sox fan who became interested in the Bartman story because he saw similarities with what happened to Bill Buckner.

Even this Chicago Tribune article becomes part of the ritual: we must reconsider what Bartman means.